Accounting as Reality Construction

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Accounting Organizations and Socie~y, Vol. 13, No. 5, pp. 477---485, 1988. Printed in Great Britain

0361-3682/88 $3.00+.00 Pergamon Press plc

TOWARDS

A C C O U N T I N G AS R E A L I T Y C O N S T R U C T I O N : A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY FOR ACCOUNTING PRACTICE*

GARETH MORGAN

York University, Toronto

Abstract

Accountants often see themselves as objective appraisers of reality,.representing reality "as is". This paper takes a different view, arguing that accountants typically construct reality in limited and one-sided ways. It shows that the idea of objectivity in accounting is largely a myth, and one which stands in the way of interesting future developments in the discipline. The paper develops an alternative perspective on the r~ture of the accounting process, building on insights regarding the interpretive and metaphorical nature of accounting, and arguing that accounting should be approached as a form of "dialogue" through which accountants can construct, "read" and probe situations in a variety of ways.

I'd like y o u to visualize a n Escher lithograph. Perhaps it is H a n d With Reflecting Globe, w h i c h features Escher l o o k i n g at h i m s e l f i n a crystal ball (Fig. 1). T h e artist has c r e a t e d a n image of himself l o o k i n g at h i m s e l f w h i c h b i n d s the v i e w e r i n t o the p i c t u r e as if h e o r she w e r e actually s t a n d i n g i n Escher's shoes. I n this l i t h o g r a p h the artist is m a k i n g a fundam e n t a l e p i s t e m o l o g i c a l point. It is that h e as an artist, a n d w e as e v e r y d a y o b s e r v e r s a n d participants i n life, are active p r o d u c e r s of w h a t w e see a n d e x p e r i e n c e . I n a b r o a d sense, all knowledge is a m a t t e r of p e r s p e c t i v e . Just as a n artist makes a l i m i t e d r e p r e s e n t a t i o n of the "reality" c a p t u r e d o n his o r h e r canvas, the k n o w l e d g e g e n e r a t e d b y the n a t u r a l scientist, b y the social scientist, or b y t h e l a y p e r s o n i n the c o u r s e of e v e r y d a y e x p e r i e n c e , is always a limited, partial k n o w l e d g e . W h i l e this k n o w l e d g e usually "says something", it also leaves a great deal unsaid. A n d w h a t is said o n l y rings true from the s t a n d p o i n t of a l i m i t e d view: just as the laws of physics o n l y apply w i t h i n clearly d e f i n e d parameters, t

I a m e v o k i n g this i m a g e r y as a basis for the arg u m e n t that follows, since I w a n t to focus o n the p r o b l e m s faced b y a c c o u n t a n t s i n r e p r e s e n t i n g the reality of the situations t h e y wish to " a c c o u n t for". A c c o u n t a n t s o f t e n see t h e m s e l v e s as engaged in an objective, value-free, t e c h n i c a l enterprise, r e p r e s e n t i n g reality "as is". But in fact, they are s u b j e c t i v e " c o n s t r u c t o r s of reality": pres e n t i n g a n d r e p r e s e n t i n g the situations in lim i t e d a n d o n e - s i d e d ways. T h e y are n o t just t e c h n i c i a n s p r a c t i s i n g a t e c h n i c a l craft. T h e y are part of a m u c h b r o a d e r p r o c e s s of reality cons t r u c t i o n , p r o d u c i n g partial a n d r a t h e r onesided views of reality, exactly as a n artist is obliged to p r o d u c e a partial v i e w o f the reality he o r she wishes to r e p r e s e n t . By a p p r e c i a t i n g a n d e x p l o r i n g this d i m e n s i o n o f the a c c o u n t i n g process, a c c o u n t a n t s have a m e a n s of d e v e l o p i n g a n e w e p i s t e m o l o g y of acc o u n t i n g that will e m p h a s i z e the i n t e r p r e t i v e as o p p o s e d to the s u p p o s e d l y "objective" aspects o f the discipline, p e r h a p s in a w a y that will h e l p b r o a d e n a n d d e e p e n the a c c o u n t a n t s ' c o n t r i b u tions to e c o n o m i c a n d social life....
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