Activism and accounting scholars

Posted by WILLEM BUIJINK - Feb 25, 2022

A 22-strong group of accounting academics recently published a Manifesto that proposes ‘activism’ as the way forward for accounting academia. The Manifesto will form the basis for an online event organised by the EAA on March 17. The activism, the Manifesto argues, has as its goal to ‘… to make the world a more equitable, safe, and inclusive space.”.

The Manifesto tells us that the world is currently not such a space. It starts with this sentence: ‘We live in a world dominated by inequities. Most of humanity lives and works in horrendous circumstances, suffering numerous forms of exploitation and oppression.’. Moreover: ‘ Human induced climate change and biodiversity loss threaten ecological collapse.’.

Is ‘activism’ a legitimate activity for an accounting scholar ? Of course. Academic accountants are perfectly free to purposefully design new accounting techniques or (regulatory) approaches. Their purpose being: ‘… to make the world a more equitable, safe, and inclusive space.” Subsequently, accounting scholars can usefully test whether, when used, these new techniques do indeed make the world a better place.

So why, given that world improving ‘activism’ by accounting scholars is perfectly acceptable, is this Manifesto, and the EAA event, necessary ?

The authors argue that the reason is that such world improving activism is not accepted by ‘White, middle-class, able-bodied, Westernized-educated, heteronormative hegemony saturating academic publications.’. Is this true ?

In a Manifesto, as an exercise in accusatory rhetoric, such an assertion can of course be used, but, really, this is an over-the-top statement. The ‘landscape’ of leading accounting academic journals is very diverse. Many academic accounting journals are perfectly willing to consider activism (design) based research. And many journals are not dominated by the ‘hegemony’ mentioned above, if any (the Manifesto does not give concrete examples of such journals either.)

Apart from this over-the-top assertion: there are several more. I will highlight a few. They substantially weaken the Manifesto’s persuasiveness. I then list various research suggestions that the Manifesto makes. But there, it must be said that (1) there is already much research on these suggestions, and if not, (2) nothing stops the 22 authors from doing the research suggested and publishing it.

1) I return to the Manifesto’s very first sentence, cited above. That is an incredibly gloomy assessment of the state of the world. It disregards a large, and also recent, academic literature that documents substantial improvement in the human condition. This improvement is, this is sad of course, uneven. But then we understand why. Careful academic scholarship, including accounting scholarship, has uncovered, helpfully, the institutional designs most conducive to improvements in the human condition. The Manifesto does not discuss both streams of research and their potential to create a better world. It should have.

2) The Manifesto states the following about accounting scholars : ‘Most found it more important to write about stock market responses to financial information than to engage with our global threats and struggles.’. This is also an over-the-top statement. Again, the landscape of academic Accounting and Auditing is much more diverse than that. It is also disingenuous. Precisely the early research into ‘stock market responses to financial information’ led to the start of modern theory based and empirical accounting research, rapidly clearing the way for other, non-economics based, approaches as well.

3) There is also this statement: ‘We want the accounting discipline to serve the public interest and support the struggles for an emancipated society.’. Accounting academics (and note, accounting regulators also, but accounting practice to a lesser extent probably) are of course not averse to considering the public interest. This is clearer for philosophy (ethics) based and economics (public economics) based accounting academics, but also present in psychology, sociology, political science, and anthropology based accounting research.

4) The Manifesto says this: ‘The accounting textbooks craft accounting as a neutral [and a colonising] technology and so disseminate that knowledge to the students.’. About ‘neutral’: the landscape of accounting textbooks is also very diverse, so this statement is far too strong. About ‘colonising’: the textbooks: ‘[colonise] … because the real presence, issues, and the voices of the groups not in that powerful position of investing in a corporation are made absent and silent [in them]’. This is again over-the-top. Leading accounting textbooks discuss the role of stakeholders generally. Not just the shareholders. Witness the attention they give to non-financial (ESG) information in corporate financial statements, as well as to the auditing of such information.

In addition to these over-the-top remarks the Manifesto also suggests a series of research areas and topics: but in character, again often in an accusatory fashion. 

5) The Manifesto suggests: ‘Connecting the accounting discipline with the humanities [and the arts]. That is actually an innovative and welcome suggestion, and nothing is stopping the 22 authors from doing that, creating useful examples, because this would be new, in their own institutions and then show these to the world.

6) The Manifesto suggests this about accounting research in the context of the African continent:  ‘Accounting academics can contribute … [here] … by focusing attention (i) understanding accounting in Africa’s ancient past, e.g., in the Egyptian, Mali, Ethiopian, Benin empires. (ii) understanding the role accounting played in facilitating the slave trade and colonisation of Africa, including the role played by companies like the Royal Niger Company, Imperial British East Africa Company, etc. (iii) understanding traditional forms of accounting and finance which existed prior to colonisation and how these were displaced or adapted to fit in with the imported forms of accounting.’. The Manifesto gives further interresting suggestions for feminist, queer, Latin-American accounting research. There is a section on Asia, but this does not make suggestions for research. There are also suggestions for ‘class’ related areas such as: ‘[studying] the use of accounting information by trade unions …’, and more generally it suggests accounting researchers: ‘… to … [study] … capitalism (as a whole and contradictory system) and accountings’ various roles within it.’. However, such accounting research already can easily be found. Indeed, the Manifesto says the following: ‘While these efforts may have once been considered niche, the profit motive is under increased scrutiny, and sustainable business practices are in fashion.’. This is true. So well crafted additional papers on all these topics will be eminently publishable.

7) Given the above, this Manifesto statement is again over-the-top: ‘Much of accounting (and management) academia is culpable in perpetuating these inequities and oppression; …’. These are the inequities and oppression mentioned in the very first sentence of the Manifesto that I discussed under 1). As I demonstrated in 3) above, the word ‘much’ in the statement is the very much over-the-top bit.

Finally, related to 7): it is somewhat strange to see the EAA organise an event on the basis of the Manifesto. The EAA’s approach to accounting scholarship has from the start been one of (this is from the EAR’s mission statement, and the same statement is used for the EAA Conference): ‘…openness and flexibility, not only regarding the substantive issues of accounting research, but also with respect to paradigms, methodologies, and styles of conducting that research.’. Hence, the EAA already accepts ‘activist’ research as valid accounting scholarship, as well as accounting research based on all social sciences, and on philosophy. ‘Opening accounting’, the Manifesto’s title, is already in the EAA mission.

I now repeat my earlier question: is this Manifesto necessary ? Given the above: I do not think so, and certainly not in the ‘over-the-top’ form chosen.