Friday, 30 August 2013

Living on CSEAR island: Do we have a problem? Tell us what you think!

CSEAR will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. The network has developed from a small number of UK-based researchers in 1991 to an international network of academics and practitioners engaging in various social and environmental accounting related activities.

At this year’s Summer School, two workshops will be held on the topics of the Future of the Field and CSEAR Future(s). Conference attendees are invited to share thoughts and ideas on these topics during the workshops and on poster boards located in the open space in the Gateway.

These are opportunities to celebrate achievements, discuss the messiness, and imagine possibilities of SEAR field and the CSEAR community in the past, now and in the future. There is no expectation for the participants to develop ‘one voice’, ‘one view’ and ‘one way forward’ for CSEAR. Rather, these activities aim to create space to discuss, connect and create possibilities for research, teaching, and engagement which may emerge.

In the first of these two important workshops, Carmen Correa, Matias Laine, Colin Dey and Ian Thomson will lead a debate that seeks to confront some of the issues - and problems - facing the CSEAR community. The starting point for the workshop is the forthcoming SEAJ article, "Struggling Against Like-Minded Conformity in Order to Enliven SEAR: A Call for Passion", written by Carmen and Matias. Their paper reflects upon the behavioural and attitudinal issues of scholars within the community of social and environmental accounting research and seeks to stimulate debate by discussing the authors' views on how the CSEAR community operates. 

Correa and Laine acknowledge that many within our community may feel happy and 'at home' within CSEAR, and that CSEAR has been of great importance in establishing social structures to foster research activity. However, they also suggest that:

"such an institutionalisation of social structures is not without problems: many basic issues come to be taken-for-granted and thus move beyond discussion (Spence, Husillos, and Correa-Ruiz 2010). We concur with Gray, Dillard, and Spence (2009, 564) that SEAR scholars need to expose our taken-for-granted assumptions more explicitly. Not only do such issues easily bring the development of this research genre to a standstill, but also they may lead to in-breeding and clubbishness (Spence, Husillos, and Correa-Ruiz 2010)."
A key concern for the authors is a lack of passion within the community, which is dominated instead by conformity:
"Many SEAR scholars tend to agree with each other, but when they do not agree, the issue is not taken up in discussion at all... There is too much of an obsession with appearance and coherence, and so frequently there is neither self-questioning nor any intention to really challenge others’ assumptions. Similar arguments can be directed towards the audience. Instead of listening, we audience members often only hear. We simply interpret the ideas of others according to our own research approach and do not acknowledge the premises and taken-for-granted assumptions behind them. Indeed, these are rarely, if ever, challenged at a conference."
To address these concerns, they argue that:

"We need to engage with others in order to learn. Spence, Husillos, and Correa-Ruiz (2010) emphasised that ‘what is needed is to show the political imagination to engage with actors other than simply other members of the SER cargo cult’. However, what we here call for is a different attitude of SEAR scholars, as individuals, irrespective of the type of forum or scientific gathering that they use to interact and dialogue about their research. Engagement takes place on the individual level – organisations, communities or strands of literature do not engage. Rather, we argue that engagement starts with the ability to listen to the other. Through listening, one comes to learn what the other has to say. Instead of simply dismissing views that are not coherent with one’s own worldview, such encounters should be seen as opportunities. Then, there is the possibility of coming to understand the other. However, such engagement may not be realised if we hold on to taboos – that is, if we are not willing to expose and get deeper into the taken-for-granted assumptions underlying each piece of research."
During next week's workshop, the intention is to explore Correa and Laine's call for deeper engagement and listening. In anticipation of this, we would welcome views and thoughts on the issues and challenges raised by this paper:

  • Do you agree/disagree that there is a lack of passion, and too much conformity within the CSEAR community?
  • Are these issues symptomatic of a wider structural problem within the community - as notoriously described by Spence et al (2010) as a 'cargo cult' of CSEAR 'islanders'?
  • To what extent do structures such as the CSEAR conferences and SEAJ contribute to or alleviate these problems?
  • Is the publication of a journal article in SEAJ and the running of workshops at CSEAR likely to resolve these problems, or are we simply talking to ourselves and repeating well-worn arguments that have been raised before?
  • Rather than exhorting the CSEAR community for being passionless, should we be encouraging and helping them to be more free to pursue their passions?
  • Where, if at all, are the positive examples or role models of existing CSEAR work that demonstrates what can be achieved?   
Follow the debate here, on Facebook, and on Twitter, using the hashtag #CSEAR2013.

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.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Reflections on APIRA Kobe 2013

By Professor Jane Broadbent
Royal Holloway, University of London
Wow!  On Thursday 25th July 2013 we (Richard Laughlin and me) arrived to the biggest APIRA conference in its history, held in Kobe at their conference centre built on reclaimed land in the harbour.   A week of holiday taken before we arrived meant that we had seen Mount Fuji as well as surviving a week of organised confusion.  Everything seems to run to time in Japan, even given the volume of traffic in Tokyo.  Perhaps we were lucky? Once more, we were reminded of the terrible lack of language learning in the UK, we could only command a few very basic words to speed us on our way.  The confusion was much reduced by the kindness of the Japanese, and ‘Arigato’ – ‘thank you’- sums up my feelings for the trip, even in retrospect.

Kobe is a city that suffered a huge earthquake and the remains of this have been left in places to remind those of us who forget that the force of nature is far greater than that of the people who live on this earth.  Sadly the great Tsunami of March 2011 and indeed the Christchurch earthquake of February 2011 are more recent reminders that we take the environment for granted at our peril.  This reminder seems appropriate for a conference with a strong stream of papers in the Social and Environmental Accounting section. 

The conference was a BIG one in many ways.  It had more participants than ever and with 6 plenary sessions presented the conventional papers were packed in a broad range of well attended parallel sessions.  Catching up with friends, meeting new people was squeezed between sessions and inevitably it was not possible to attend all the papers that one might have chosen to simply because of session clashes.  The programme offered and abundance of riches!  Our social life suffered as a consequence and we spent too little time just talking to people.

It was a big conference for Richard Laughlin and myself as we were also launching our book Accounting Control and Controlling Accounting: Interdisciplinary and Critical Perspectives, published in May this year by Emerald, who also publish Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, the journal associated with the APIRA Conference.  We were given a session to present the arguments of the book and fabulous commentaries were provided by James Guthrie and Pala Molisa.  James is well known to most of us but Pala may not be.  He is an outstanding emerging scholar based at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.  Check out his paper presented at the conference.  Watch for him in the future!

The point of presenting the book at the conference was to provide a forum to launch the Broadbent and Laughlin Emerging Scholar Award.  This is being funded from the royalties of the book, held in trust for this purpose by Emerald and our advance royalties are such that we can be sure the prize will be presented in the next two APIRA Conferences as well.  The aim is to recognise outstanding emerging scholars contribution to research in accounting using interdisciplinary and critical approaches.  It was presented to Laure Celerier and Luis- Emilio Cuenca-Botey both studying for their PhDs at HEC in France.  Check out their excellent paper, but recognise that the award was not for the paper but to recognise the contributions we expect from these two emerging scholars.  Watch for them in the future as well.

In a very busy schedule we are incredibly grateful to the organisers for giving us so much space.  This was a great privilege.

So, what about the papers and the academic debates – the most important reason for being there.  For a SEA audience my commentary is perhaps limited as my engagement with the sessions was not comprehensive, given the difficult process of choosing where to go from a rich and varied programme.  However, some sessions I attended offered some great highlights.  For me the plenary by Jeffrey Unerman was a highlight, suggesting the need for more theoretical engagement in research in the community.   This is a suggestion I have a great deal of sympathy with.  It is also helpful to highlight the debates that were raised in one of the sessions that discussed various aspects of gender.  Would that we had more time to have debated these issues further on the day, but they are an important element of the SEA remit and hopefully will be debated further in the CSEAR arena.  Most immediately relevant was the paper by Kathryn Haynes and Alan Murray, looking at ‘’The Future Women Want’ - gender equality and sustainable development’.  This paper was an exciting development of the gender and the SEA debates and it was for me welcome for its radical edge.  This work is the result of direct engagement in praxis on the part of the authors as well as an engagement with a divers and radical literature.  I will not summarise it but recommend you to read it and take to heart the message of looking hard at how research might tackle the issue accounting can help in addressing the tensions and differences in approaching gender equality and sustainable development.

The importance of contextual understandings was highlighted by Komori’s paper on women’s role in the Japanese accounting profession.  Her arguments can only be understood with a strong understanding of Japanese culture.  This remains a lesson to be recognised in the context of SEA more generally and reminds us that the need to go beyond the interrogation of that which is reported in external reports. 

The final paper in this session presented by Pala Molisa,  ‘Accounting for Pornography, Prostitution and Patriarchy’ is a long and interesting if somewhat wayward paper!  If the social in SEA is to mean anything this theme must be addressed and this paper, which may well be several papers when it is taken forward is a great start. 

For me all these ideas are bold and interesting and are ones that the APIRA community and the SEA community must take seriously.  They offer some of the BIG ideas at a BIG conference. 

In three years time the APIRA Conference will be in Australia and even fewer of the attendees will be people we know.  This is really encouraging.  The abundance of new and interesting scholars that were present at this conference will take the interdisciplinary and critical accounting project forward with panache.  And they must do so if we wish to change the world for the better.

Jane Broadbent

1st August 2013