Thursday, 5 July 2012

Closer look at research: Dialogic Accounting

For the first in our 'closer look at research' series, Professors Judy Brown and Jesse Dillard, along with advisor Professor Trevor Hopper, introduce the project Dialogic Accounting: the Challenge of Taking Pluralism Seriously that

aims to 'democratise' accounting by challenging its more traditional business focus and provide alternatives that recognise the needs of various stakeholder communities. 
Mainstream accounting is a narrow discipline – with strong capitalist underpinnings and a focus on corporations, meeting the information needs of financial markets and maximising shareholder wealth. Since the mid-1970s, critical accountants have argued that such a limited focus is inadequate for a profession that purports to act in the “public interest”, particularly given the profound economic, social, and environmental impacts of corporate activity. They observe that even when corporations (and, indeed, public sector organisations) and accountants report on such matters, they typically do so using business frameworks and concepts.  Moreover, in keeping with positivist models of knowledge, accountants typically portray their methods as “politically neutral” further obscuring the value judgements built into their analytic methods.   The need for new approaches is increasingly evident as accounting has become implicated in politically contentious areas like sustainability, ethical investment, labour relations and participatory development.

While Social and Environmental Accounting (SEA) academics have recognised and sought to address the shortcomings of traditional accounting, initiatives have been disappointing as issues such as corporate social responsibility are still approached predominantly through a “business case” lens, focusing on “top-down” initiatives that produce “win-wins” for business and its stakeholders.  The SEA community along with other critical commentators has become increasingly aware that SEA’s aspirations for more “democratic” and “participatory” accountings have been under-theorised, and that this has significantly impeded the development of more inclusive accounting and accountability systems that can seriously engage with multiple perspectives.

In an effort to address these issues, the Marsden project argues for the value of pluralism and conflict in a healthy democracy and outlines a conceptual framework for “dialogic accounting” that takes ideological conflicts seriously.  It draws on agonistic conceptions of democracy with the aim of better understanding the perspectives of different stakeholder groups (particularly those whose viewpoints are not well-represented in traditional accounting) and enabling them to develop accountings that accord with their own philosophical and political standpoints (e.g. by articulating demands for disclosures attuned to their decision and accountability needs).  The Marsden research, accordingly, seeks to develop new theorisations of the role of accountants, stakeholder engagement, and information systems needed to help SEA academics and others challenge traditional practices and develop new dialogic forms of accounting. The aim is not to replace one dominant form of accounting with another, but rather to foster more multi-dimensional accounting and accountability systems capable of engaging a variety of perspectives and facilitating wide-ranging discussion and debate about organisational matters.

Contact details

Professor Judy Brown

Professor Jesse Dillard:

Professor Trevor Hopper:

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