Thursday, 2 February 2017

A Retrospective Musing on the Textbook in Social and Environmental Accounting

Reflections on Accountability, Social Responsibility and Sustainability: Accounting for Society and the Environment by Rob Gray, Carol Adams and Dave Owen (London, Pearson), 2014
by Professor Rob Gray
I am very grateful to Ian (Thomson) and Colin (Dey) for the invitation to write for Colin’s blog on something that was starting to nibble away at the back of my mind. The “something” was a combination of the hoary old chestnut – whither academic social accounting? – and a related concern over the role(s) of substantive authored books within social accounting (and, in all probability, business and management more widely). Musing on the state of academic social accounting is nothing new but the need to get published in a few selected journals continues, it seems, to drive out wider and more natural curiosity about how the world works (or doesn’t work) and our place within it as social accounting academics and scholars more widely. (Robin Roberts’ contribution on the CSEAR blog touches on this). I worry if the inevitable and very practical advice to younger academics to leave wider reflections until after their PhD really means that they never get around to learning how to indulge in such reflection. Publication trumps pondering? Metrics trump musing? These inchoate firing of the aging synapses were stimulated by some recent chats about textbooks…. and, in particular, by a realisation that there are very few books offering wide-ranging views of social accounting. Moreover, the gap (hiatus perhaps) between Accounting and Accountability (1996) and Accountability, Social Responsibility and Sustainability (2014) of almost 20 years later was filled by neither neophytes nor old lags falling over themselves to make sense of this most wonderful and perplexing subject. (Apologies for the self-absorption that this perhaps reflects).  Of course there are the excellent collections from Jeffrey, Brendan and Jan and the somewhat more focused texts from, for example, Stefan (Schaltegger) or Stuart (Cooper) but none of these seek to offer a contesting and potentially comprehensive world view of the subject (in the way that, for example, Reg Mathews and, coincidentally, Bob Perks did in 1993 and Ralph Estes did in 1976).  Is there now no time for such creations? Is there perhaps no appetite for the production – or even consumption – of such things? Are attempts at overviews of a discipline impossible? over-ambitious? entirely unnecessary? 
These notions are cast into relief by having time to reflect upon the labour of (mostly) love that Dave, Carol and I undertook over far too many years to produce Accountability, Social Responsibility and Sustainability (2014). Whilst far from sitting back and waiting for the accolades, bouquets and plaudits to overwhelm us after the book was published at the start of 2014, we were somewhat puzzled by the apparent lack of response and its relatively low impact on citations. The text had been written for a number of reasons and it is perhaps salutary to suggest that maybe we have misjudged our community. That, as much as anything, promoted the following brief reprise on our collaborations.
In the 1980s when Dave and I were still in short pants and trying to get a grip on what was happening in accounting academe, there was virtually nothing on aspects of social accounting and any commitment to this area was met with howls of derision, fatherly advice to choose other paths and refusals to allow such sedition to take root in departments of “proper” accounting. Dave and I, linking up with Keith Maunders, set out to do two things. First, we wanted to try and satisfy ourselves that there was a thing worthy of the title social accounting and that it did have a substantive relationship with “real” accounting. Secondly, we wanted to show that this stuff could be taught as a (relatively) coherent and important programme. In effect, we want to proselytise and to champion this area as a worthy subject in and of itself.  The result was Corporate Social Reporting in 1987.
We got lucky. Rather to our surprise. there was a reasonable response to the book (reference the open-season that the crits declared on all things social accounting). Perhaps more significantly, (and even more to our surprise), the world also changed in about 1990 and the subject (but especially the “environmental” bit) suddenly became sexy. Environmental issues in accounting became almost ubiquitous and, as Dave remarked elsewhere, seemed to be drowning out the social issues of social accounting. Hence we determined to really try to step things up a bit (helped by Reg Mathews and Bob Perks) and try to produce a more nuanced and wide-ranging text. Accounting and Accountability (1996) was the result.
Accounting and Accountability, much to our delight, became a stalwart of the social accounting literature. It was very widely cited (great news) but very widely relied upon (not such good news it turns out).  The reasons for this uncharacteristic modesty lay in the book’s significant limitations: most notably the limited take on theory and the relatively narrow range of views incorporated and organisations embraced.  A victim of its own success, the book had been the best we had been able to produce at the time – given our still developing understandings - but its frequent citation as the last word on theories of and for social accounting theory was increasingly disturbing.
It took a long time, (for a lot of reasons), to produce Accountability, Social Responsibility and Sustainability (2014). This was our attempt to articulate a view and views of social accounting more substantively. It was even a bit of an apology for having been so naïve in places last time around.  Much wider in its embrace of the business and management literature, more nuanced (we hope) in its treatment of CSR and sustainability, and much more cognisant of both financial and organisational context, the text sought to offer a more comprehensive range of views, theories and understandings of social accounting.
But here’s the nub. The reaction to it has been extremely muted: indifferent even. The reviews, although excellent, have been few and far between. The citations take a while to pick up but remain scarce. Our reaction to this is far from sulky – simply a bit bemused. Has that boat sailed? Did we really miss the point? Or are textbooks of less and less interest perhaps? To repeat, the absence of any substantive texts in the intervening 20 years is perhaps significant.
I get to wondering about other areas of accounting – and, indeed, of business and management more widely.  With the pressure on journal publication and the absence of obvious tangible rewards for textbook writing is academe entering another phase in which shared knowledge and understanding is less important than a localised adherence to something approaching normal science? Are textbooks dead? Do you care? What do you think?
Thanks for reading this.

Accountability, Social Responsibility and Sustainability: Accounting for Society and the Environment
Jan 2014, Paperback, 360 pages
ISBN13: 9780273681380: ISBN10: 0273681389