Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Reflections on APIRA 2013 Kobe 2: Is Accounting Exciting?

My 'light' reading on the flight to Japan for the APIRA conference consisted of a book I'd stumbled across only recently. Manifestos for the Business School of Tomorrow is a collection of short essays about the state of business education in universities, which attracted a significant amount of interest when it was published in 2005. However, I think it's fair to say that much of this attention was extremely negative. For example, the book was described by one reviewer as "an entire book of negative rantings, interspersed with gratuitous profanity". Another wrote: "this book is dangerous and should be treated with extreme caution. The editors and authors are deranged if not certifiable".

So... not exactly a ringing endorsement then. And if you're easily offended, you have been warned. For the rest of us though, whilst it can be disturbing in places, there's plenty to enjoy, and parts of the book are extremely refreshing and amusing. My intention is to draw on the book to help illuminate my reflections on the APIRA conference. However, in doing so it seems I immediately fall into a trap set by one of the aforementioned reviewers, who predicted that:
"The obvious readership is that group of disillusioned, dispirited curmudgeons who have nothing positive to say about their students, research, administration, and publishers and who want to wallow in their misery with like-minded thinkers. Such readers will undoubtedly comb through these well-crafted essays and poems repeatedly, pulling out insightful nuggets to bolster their own tirades against the system."
That's me told already then!

Anyway - the main reason for me mentioning the book is that there happens to be a chapter devoted to conferences, written by Andre Spicer. He begins with the following assessment:
"Conferences are eagerly attended. Papers carefully prepared or cobbled together at the last minute. Thirty copies carefully run off to be binned by other conference delegates. Flights eagerly boarded. Irritating exam scripts left to languish on our desks. The dross of suburban life suspended for a few precious days. We arrive with irrational expectations. After a tangle with the local transportation system, we stagger up to the conference venue. The seasoned conference goer knows what will follow: Indifferent food. Petty controversy of the latest theory. Many glasses of the local liquor. Extra-marital affairs. Verbal violence. Arrogant grunts. Closed circles. Dashed hopes. Petty promotionalism. Scholastic policing. Grinding headaches. Boredom. Body pain. This is the reality of conferences. Every disgruntled conference goer knows how different these realities are to the promises which conferences make."
I'm sure most of us would recognise at least some of this. But what about the serious business of papers and presentations? According to Spicer, there is only more disappointment:
"When we give a paper we secretly imagine there will be rapturous applause, we will be mobbed by admirers who claim we have created an intellectual revolution, we will be approached by sexy young things gazing at us with the kind of desirous fire that played in the eyes of the young men of Athens after a session with Plato. Given these unrealistic, filthy and secret desires, it is not surprising that we are always disappointed with what we get back. Of course what we get back is a few friendly comments, perhaps a few thought-providing claims. In short, we get back something which falls far short of what we imagined. The kind of exchange which we get during a conference will always disappoint us. Our thoughts, images and fantasies will always be dashed. So, the act of conferring with others must always be tempered with a preparation for disappointment, for it always awaits you."
So, how did this year's big APIRA jamboree measure up? What's the reality of these mega conferences? Are they really worth going to, or should we prepare ourselves only for inevitable disappointment?

While I admit I did experience a few glasses of local sake, the odd grinding headache and an undeniable absence of rapture at the end of my presentation, overall I still thought the conference was well worth attending. I would certainly endorse the views expressed in Jane Broadbent's earlier guest blog on the conference. In particular, there were many excellent papers presented, accompanied by very good comments from the discussants assigned to each paper. I also had a great time in Japan and found the people extremely friendly and welcoming.

However, since Jane has already provided an excellent commentary on the many good things that came out of the conference, I hope that might give me some room to reflect on one or two other aspects.

In one of the sessions which I attended, two of the three papers consisted of disclosure studies on CSR in developing countries. One aspect of these studies that I really noticed was the way in which they generally theorised CSR from the point of view of existing disclosure studies. The question of how/why disclosure happens is these countries seemed to be understood as a 'gap' within the literature. However, in my view, this incremental/gap spotting approach is not necessarily the right approach to take, especially in countries such as China. Although underplayed in most disclosure studies, it seems to me that disclosure is heavily culturally and politically influenced. Yet serious consideration of the political nature of this form of knowledge production seems thin on the ground in these studies, which tend to ask the usual questions such as 'how much reporting/how many companies?' and 'how does disclosure quality compare to benchmarks like GRI?'

This apparent depoliticising of CSR disclosure studies in countries such as China may be related to the nature of academic knowledge production in those countries. In other words, it's not just CSR that is politically mediated, it's also academic research. It's not difficult to imagine how academic careers might be damaged by producing research which is implicitly critical of the state or its agencies.

By the time the next APIRA conference comes around in 2016, will academics in China and other developing countries (who I have the utmost respect for) feel more able to address these issues? I sincerely hope so.

On the subject of the next APIRA - this was announced with great fanfare by Garry Carnegie from RMIT in Melbourne at the closing banquet dinner. The organisers have even adopted a marketing slogan: 'Accounting is Exciting'. No really. Or, as Garry Carnegie himself put it, 'And why not?'

Why indeed? Well, it seems to underline the point made in Spicer's essay about the unrealistic promises and expectations made by conferences. Prepare to be excited? Or just that bit more disappointed?

I googled the phrase 'Accounting is Exciting' to see if anyone else had used this phrase and in what context. I then came across a set of powerpoint slides by none other than Ross Watts (he of Watts and Zimmerman positive accounting theory fame/infamy).

According to Watts, accounting is exciting "because it can be used to mislead". I don't know if that's what Garry Carnegie meant in his marketing pitch, but perhaps the slogan is a good one after all.



3 comments:

  1. Very interesting post and I agree with Ross L. Watts: "TODAY ACCOUNTING PRACTICE &
    RESEARCH ARE EXCITING"

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment. It's not often I find myself quoting from (never mind agreeing with) Ross Watts. There is (as Stephen Jollands pointed out to me) a further irony here. It's nice to see Ross Watts acknowledge the subjective, partisan nature of accounting, but at the same time, Watts has arguably done more than most to preserve the sort of hypothetic-deductive, neo-classical economic perspective that has largely ignored the sort of qualitative/interpretive/critical accounting research which has been exploring the question of how and why accounting misleads for the last 30 years or so.

      I don't know whether Watts's slides are an indication of whether he has undergone some sort of Damascene conversion, but certainly the noises coming from elsewhere in the US such as Harvard do seem to suggest a sudden u-turn on whether CSR matters are sufficiently worthy to be considered legitimate research topics. Whether this is a good thing I'm not sure - it would be fun to find out and debate with this community, but since we don't really publish in the 'right' journals I suspect we might have trouble getting noticed....

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