In previous contributions to the Knowledge Gateway, we proposed a long overdue redefinition of accounting as “a technical, social and moral practice concerned with the sustainable utilisation of resources and proper accountability to stakeholders to enable the flourishing of organisations, people and nature”. This proposal unmistakably presents accounting in substance as a multidimensional technical, social and moral practice rather than a mere neutral, benign, technical practice.
In the first of these Knowledge Gateway contributions, entitled “Redefining Accounting for Tomorrow”, we argued “how we define accounting today and what defines accounting tomorrow are fundamental to the purpose, value and identity of the accountancy profession”. The proposed definition “engages with the full dimensions of accounting as an enabling, disenabling and pervasive practice as has emerged in recent decades and reflects the discipline’s growing interdisciplinary orientation”.
Subsequently, an SOS was issued for accounting educators, to contribute to developing accounting and accountants for shaping a better world in the second contribution, entitled “SOS Accounting Educators: Developing Accounting and Accountants for a Better World”. Herein, we argued “professional accountants and non-accountants alike need to appreciate and understand the effects of accounting upon organizations, people and nature to help shape a better world”. Having received overwhelming acceptance and support for our definition from academics, we turn to its implications for accounting research.
Accounting research helps in understanding our past and present, in terms of historical and contemporary studies respectively, so that we apply accounting knowledge and practice in creating a sustainable future. It informs teaching and learning and contributes to understanding the nature, roles, uses and impacts of accounting in the world. This understanding contributes to the capacity of the profession, through cross-disciplinary interaction and engagement combined with an enhanced appreciation of non-financial schemas of value and their potential use in shaping a better world. Accounting education and accounting research are inseparable. One should not be undertaken in any formal, higher education context without the other. This is not negotiable in our view.
As in the second contribution, we urge the international accountancy profession to make accounting research more central to accounting development, particularly to its redevelopment and proposed intention or aspiration “to enable the flourishing of organisations, people and nature.” In addition, accounting educators can be more impactful and enhance their value by teaching students to understand, portray and practice accounting as a multidimensional technical, social and moral practice for shaping a better world.
Accounting researchers are encouraged to become more interdisciplinary in their research to leverage off other disciplines playing paramount roles in dealing with big challenges and perplexing issues in local, national, regional and international contexts. Urgent among them are climate crisis, pandemics, sustainability, human rights, poverty and inequality, oppression and warfare, hunger and food insecurity, water provision and management, global refugee movements, health care provision, habitat and biodiversity, government corruption and accountability, education availability and accessibility.
Building on accounting research undertaken in the sociological, interpretive, and critical tradition from the early-to-mid 1980s, accounting education will benefit from being strategically oriented towards our proposed new definition of accounting. Such researchers focus attention on exploring and better understanding the enabling, disenabling and pervasive characteristics of accounting. Particularly, they reveal how it impacts human behaviour, shapes organisational and social culture, and address the implications for organisational and social functioning and development.
Paradoxically while the volume and diversity of accounting research conducted and published internationally has strongly grown across the past four decades, the accountancy profession appears to be overlooking accounting research findings and related opportunities for advancement of the public interest and the betterment of society and nature. Accounting educators and researchers, as well as professional accountants and professional accountancy organizations, can further apply themselves to do more to optimize their full potential and grow more connected to each other. Greater cohesive action and connectivity is desirable, for the best interests of accountancy and its stakeholders, including society and the natural environment.
Bridging this unhelpful, extending divide is crucial for the collective accountancy profession to make an optimal and impactful contribution to shaping a better future. In explicit terms, the accountancy profession, including professional accountants and professional accountancy organizations, as well as accounting educators and researchers, all need to be more closely engaged and strategically connected.
Learning from our past, we can shape our future from tomorrow for the greater good of people, nature, and the planet. For instance, a major international evaluation of the impacts of New Public Management (NPM), enabled in action by means of techniques and processes of accounting, is both overdue and necessary. Under NPM, there is growing and concerning evidence of the goal displacement effect towards business profit/commercial returns and a divergence away from community and society service.
Around the world, today’s accountancy students, as well as tomorrow’s, are the next generation of accountants. These students require an appreciation of the big issues society and nature face. They will, with appropriate, stimulating leadership and guidance, react positively and co-operatively to a future integration of accounting educators and researchers and the professional accountancy associations and practicing professional accountants.
A precedent for collaboration exists. During the early-to-late 1970s and the 1980s, academic accountants regularly published articles in professional accounting journals. This and other forms of connection and engagement offer the prospect of a future profession that engages far more proactively with the human issues and their moral, social, institutional, economic and environmental aspects. Addressing this broad landscape requires the mutual respect and collaboration of all the key players in the accounting discipline if accountancy is to realise its full potential for shaping a better world.
This multifaceted technical, social and moral agenda can be effectively and innovatively deployed in helping to adequately deal with big challenges and perplexing issues confronting society. The notion of “governance by numbers” has gained almost unquestioned currency today. According to Supiot, “governance by numbers gives immense power to those who construct the figures, because this is conceived as a technical exercise which needs not be exposed to open debate” (2017, p. 163). However, as a multifaceted technical, social and moral practice, accounting becomes misunderstood when engaged as merely technical, in operation.
Of importance to a future holistic accounting research strategy, our proposed new definition of accounting offers a framework of key conceptual questions:
- Technical practice: "How do we do accounting?"
- Social practice: "What does accounting do?"
- Moral practice: "What should accounting do" or "What should accounting not do?"
Importantly, accounting is more inﬂuential in the world and in our lives than many people may think. A broader, clearer, more realistic and ‘game-changing’ deﬁnition of accounting, which portrays the discipline as “an instrumental social and moral practice” (Carnegie , et al., 2022, p. 9) is a critical step to take.
In a complex and complicated world, these questions are intended for accounting to be understood and appreciated as being well beyond some supposedly objective set of rules to be applied. Instead, accounting needs to be “fit-for-purpose”, undertaken with full regard for the diversity of organizational and social contexts in which it operates.
We encourage professional and academic accountants alike to view accounting more holistically if it is to meet its full potential and responsibility. This lack of connectedness is now seen to be an inherent weakness of the profession. This can and indeed should be ameliorated by leaders on both sides of the international profession for the discipline to become more instrumental in shaping a better world from tomorrow.
 For in-depth coverage, see Carnegie, et al. (2021) and Carnegie, et al. (2022).
Carnegie, G., Parker, L. and Tsahuridu, E. (2020), It’s 2020: what is accounting today? Australian Accounting Review, Vol. 31 No. 1, pp. 65-73, available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/auar.12325
Carnegie, G.D., Ferri, P., Parker, L.D., Sidaway, S.I.L. and Tsahuridu, E. E. (2022), Accounting as technical, social and moral practice: the monetary valuation of public cultural, heritage and scientific collections in financial reports, Australian Accounting Review, 5 April, available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/auar.12371
Supiot, A. (2017), Governance by Numbers: The Making of a Legal Model of Allegiance, Oxford: Hart Publishing.