Subjects, sources and dissemination

Authored by: John Richard Edwards

The Routledge Companion to Accounting History

Print publication date:  April  2020
Online publication date:  April  2020

Print ISBN: 9780815375869
eBook ISBN: 9781351238885
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This chapter starts by demonstrating the growth and increasing diversity of accounting history research with the role of interdisciplinarity in that process recognised. Concerns about the restricted coverage of historical studies in time and place are rehearsed, and the role of special journal issues in addressing these deficiencies, and in guiding the future direction of historical research, is recognised. Sources of evidence used to conduct accounting history research are discussed and the potential and limitations of written and oral sources are explored. Patterns of dissemination of research are analysed and possible explanations for an apparent decline in the role of generalist journals in that process are considered. Encouragement provided by editors of critical journals for innovation in the application of methodologies capable of providing meaningful interpretations of accounting’s past is acknowledged. The decision of the accounting history community to privilege articles over books and monographs is criticised and use of the popular press to disseminate research findings and connect with policy makers is encouraged.

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Subjects, sources and dissemination


This chapter starts by demonstrating the growth and increasing diversity of accounting history research with the role of interdisciplinarity in that process recognised. Concerns about the restricted coverage of historical studies in time and place are rehearsed, and the role of special journal issues in addressing these deficiencies, and in guiding the future direction of historical research, is recognised. Sources of evidence used to conduct accounting history research are discussed and the potential and limitations of written and oral sources are explored. Patterns of dissemination of research are analysed and possible explanations for an apparent decline in the role of generalist journals in that process are considered. Encouragement provided by editors of critical journals for innovation in the application of methodologies capable of providing meaningful interpretations of accounting’s past is acknowledged. The decision of the accounting history community to privilege articles over books and monographs is criticised and use of the popular press to disseminate research findings and connect with policy makers is encouraged.


There exist several resources that enable researchers to discover the titles of most previously published English-language material in the field of accounting history. The first three of Parker’s (1980b: ‘Introduction’) bibliographies ‘of secondary material on all aspects of accounting history’ cover publications to 1980 while Parker (1988) extends coverage to 1987. Since their initial publication, Accounting History Review (formerly Accounting, Business & Financial History) (1990) and Accounting History (1996) have produced annual lists of publications. There exists a plethora of historiographical articles that focus on publishing patterns in academic journals, including analysis and discussion of the subjects studied.

The categorisation of accounting history in terms of subjects studied has become, in my estimation, an increasingly difficult and unsatisfactory exercise. When Robert H. Parker produced his first bibliography it was possible to capture 94 percent of published items under 15 subject-based headings. I adopted Parker’s taxonomy when preparing the corresponding chapter for inclusion in the first edition of the Companion, though this involved adding six new categories. More importantly, the proportion of studies falling outside any of the identified categories had grown and this trend has continued since 2009. Part of the reason is the significant broadening of what counts as accounting history. Whereas most studies up to the late 1980s focused on what Napier (see Chapter 2) labels the ‘history of accounting’ (i.e., the study of accounting as a set of procedures or practices), the decades that followed have seen the rise of ‘socio-historical accounting research’, which focuses on how accounting impacts on individuals, organisations and society in general.

Central to this blossoming of the research agenda has been the focus on interdisciplinarity (Baskerville et al. 2017; Carnegie and Napier 2012: 330) under the initial impetus provided by the Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Accounting Conference first held in Manchester in 1985. The engagement with both scholars and theories from other disciplines liberated accounting historians from studies which were, in Hopwood’s (1985: 366) estimation, ‘partial, uncritical, atheoretical and intellectually isolated’. 1 Carnegie and Napier (1996) provide an excellent example of the way in which ‘New accounting history’ (Miller et al. 1991) radicalised the study of accounting’s past. Their 1996 paper in AAAJ identified the study of surviving accounting records of firms as one of eight promising areas for further study. Sixteen years later, they admit not to have anticipated the extent to which new ways of viewing accounting’s past ‘permitted extending the study of surviving accounting records into a diversity of social settings, such as the family home, the place of worship, the school, the prison and the asylum’ (Carnegie and Napier 2012: 336). In a similar vein, Walker (2011: 2) has noted ‘the venturing of accounting historians into the territories of social, diplomatic, political, architectural, literary, military, gender, ethnic, theology and art history’. The outcome, in Guthrie and Parker’s (2006: 7) estimation, has been that accounting history ‘matured from an almost unitary economic and historiographically unsophisticated discourse, into a vibrant and interdisciplinary, multi-paradigmatic scholarly literature embracing vigorous and largely productive introspection and debate’.

Despite the difficulty of classifying the study of accounting history by subject area, it is possible to make some general comments concerning the direction of accounting research. Cost and management accounting continues to be a thriving area of study (see Chapter 9) and the site for much of the debate concerning different ways of understanding accounting’s past (Walker 2008: 299). It is a subject where provocative and scholarly papers enhanced interest in an established area of research. Three papers, all published in Accounting, Organizations and Society, stand out: Loft’s (1986) investigation of cost accounting in Britain during and immediately after World War I; Hopwood’s call (1987: 207) for studies of ‘accounting in motion’ within its organisational context; and Hoskin and Macve’s research (1988) into the connection between West Point and the Springfield Armory. It was also, within this three-year period, that Johnson and Kaplan’s Relevance Lost (1987) appeared and further stimulated debate. The significance of these publications can be inferred from Carmona’s (2006: 246, 257) citation-based study that ranks all four within the top five ‘most influential works’ in accounting history.

Among the themes focused on by ‘new’ accounting historians, three, in particular, have featured prominently in the columns of Accounting, Organizations and Society (Napier 2006: 446). Publications on ‘Accounting, power and knowledge’ draw heavily on the work of Foucault in ‘attempts to identify (or construct) networks of people, principles and practices (“accounting constellations”) and to show how accounting can be “caught” in such networks’ (Napier 2006: 446, 462). Major contributions include Hoskin and Macve (1986, 1988), Loft (1986) and Miller and O’Leary (1987). The second theme identified by Napier (2006: 464) is ‘The accountant and the allure of professionalization’. Here Willmott (1986) was ‘one of the earliest writers to attempt to get beyond the official histories of professional accountancy bodies in the UK in order to apply ideas from the sociology of the professions’ (Napier 2006: 464). The third theme provides new understandings of accounting’s role in presenting the economic. Much of this work is Marxist-oriented with Rob Bryer its most active proponent.

It is also possible to cite two recent studies which provide evidence of subject areas that have proved popular with researchers and those which appear to have been neglected. 2 An examination of the content of a single journal, in this instance Accounting History, is not necessarily representative of the broader picture, but Fowler and Keeper (2016) do provide some useful indications of publication trends and of the difficulties in deriving precise classifications of available material. They employ a 10 subject-based analysis for the second decade of that journal’s publication for comparison with that constructed by Williams and Wines (2006) for the period 1996–2005. Studies of surviving business records and business history show significant decline as a proportion of total publications whereas work on public sector accounting is revealed to have enjoyed a noticeable rise. The major discontinuity, however, is the introduction of a new ‘broad and diverse’ category entitled ‘social institutions’ which accounted for no less than 30 or 16.6 percent of the publications during the period 1996–2005 (Fowler and Keeper 2016: 405). Matthews (2017: 80) also acknowledges the difficulty of achieving a subject-driven classification of published articles with 18.3 percent of publications over the period 1989–2015 despatched to an ‘Other’ category. He also draws attention to the fact that auditing, tax, insolvency and consultancy tend to receive little coverage which, in his estimation, seems rather peculiar given their prominent role, historically as well as today, in the work of professional accountants (Matthews 2017: 82).

Countries and periods

Starting in the early 1990s, a series of studies expressed anxiety with domination of the literature by authors working at Anglo-Saxon universities addressing events in Anglo-Saxon countries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Parker 1993: 106; Carmona and Zan 2002; Sánchez-Matamoros and Gutiérrez-Hidalgo 2010, 2011; Jones and Oldroyd 2015: 118). Jones and Oldroyd’s (2015: 119) recent review of publishing patterns caused them to conclude that, in some respects, ‘little has changed since 1990’. They explore the nature and depth of the problem by analysing submissions to the 2012 World Congress of Accounting Historians and comparing their findings with the content of the special issue of British Accounting Review, which they co-edited, entitled ‘Widening the accounting history debate’. Of the 119 papers presented at the Congress, just 50 were authored by ‘Anglo Saxon affiliates’ (Jones and Oldroyd 2015: 119). Second and fourth among the 23 countries represented at the conference were Turkish researchers with 20 papers and Italian with 14.5. The fact that these weightings are unlikely to be reflected in subsequent publications in English-language academic journals might be inferred from Jones and Oldroyd’s experience with the British Accounting Review’s special issue drawn from papers presented at the Congress. Twenty-nine submissions included five from the UK and the US, of which four were accepted, eight from Turkey (one accepted), three from Italy (none accepted), two from Japan (one accepted) and 11 papers from other non-Anglo-Saxon countries around the world which were all rejected (Jones and Oldroyd 2015: 120).

The international community of authors and the countries studied is nevertheless more diverse than it once was. Sánchez Matamoros and Gutiérrez-Hidalgo (2010, 137, 141) found that, out of 385 authors published in the three accounting history journals between 2000 and 2008, 20 percent were scholars from Italy, France, Portugal and Spain, compared to an equivalent figure constructed by Carnegie and Potter (2000: 184), for the 1990s, of 9.2 percent. Fowler and Keeper (2016, 390) similarly conclude that ‘Increases in the number of authors from different countries, researching on an increasingly diverse range of topics, countries and time-periods are evident’.

A recent review of countries studied (Matthews 2017: 83–4) compares findings for the period up to 1980 with that since 1989. It shows that the UK, as a site for investigation, has accounted for over 40 percent of published articles through time and, in conjunction with the US, supplied the basis for over three-quarters of all historical studies in the earlier period. The amount of space devoted to US and Italian studies declined, post-1989, to about 60 percent of previous levels. In the former case this is probably due to the diminished status of accounting history as a subject of study in that country (Fleischman and Radcliffe 2005); in the latter case because accounting historians in general are now rather less preoccupied with the role of Italy in the emergence of double-entry bookkeeping. Much of the growth of interest has occurred in other English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada and New Zealand) and in Western Europe (France, Holland, Portugal and Spain). Vast areas of the world – including Africa, China, Eastern Europe, India, Russia, Scandinavia and South America – remain almost entirely undisturbed. The extent to which this might be attributed to a lack of interest in accounting history or the absence of an incentive to publish in English-language journals is unknown. Accounting historians competent in the English language are sometimes pilloried for ignoring events in many parts of the globe but, given their modest numbers and the fact that there are plenty of local issues which remain under-studied, if studied at all, such criticisms appear to this writer difficult to justify, particularly given the threat from university administrators to ‘publish [quickly] or perish’.

Table 3.1 shows that the twentieth century was the period most studied both before 1980 and after 1989, accounting, overall, for about 40 percent of the total. Coverage of the nineteenth century, however, has increased significantly at the expense of all earlier epochs. There are many explanations for this which include the decrease in the attention devoted to early bookkeeping, on the one hand, and, on the other, the popularity of studying the rise of cost and management accounting during the British industrial revolution and the emergence of professional accountants and their organisational bodies in the nineteenth century. The outcome is that 80.2 percent of all published articles post-1989, leaving aside those incapable of temporal classification, are located in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Table 3.1   Publishing patterns by period studied











Sixteenth-eighteenth centuries



Nineteenth century



Twentieth century









Source: Derived from Matthews (2017: table 5).

The role of special issues in encouraging the investigation of new subjects, times and places is considered next.

Special issues

Special issues serve two main purposes. First, to encourage research into new or emerging fields of study and, second, ‘to stimulate new research and illuminate path-breaking directions on more developed themes that may not have been otherwise initiated’ (Carnegie 2012: 216). The role of special issues in encouraging researchers to pursue greater diversity in terms of subjects, periods and places studied is, in principle, welcomed, but the idea that ‘Special issues provide editors with the ability to guide the literature in distinct ways’ is, potentially, a little worrying (Bisman 2012: 21). It cannot always be the case that journal editors know what is best for the future of their subject or always behave in an entirely disinterested manner.

The first generalist journal to devote an issue to accounting history was ABR, 3 in 1980, to mark the centenary of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) (Table 3.2). According to its editor: ‘If this issue has a message it is that accounting history is a much wider subject than was generally realised. There is something of value here for everyone’ (Parker 1980a: ii). The growing historical content of AOS in the second half of the 1980s (Napier 2006: 447) received a further fillip from the 1991 special issue on ‘The new accounting history’ (Miller et al. 1991). In 1996, AAAJ published its first number devoted to historical studies, entitled ‘Accounting history into the twenty-first century’ and, in the same year, CPA contributed to these initiatives through an issue appropriately labelled ‘Critical accounting history’. The distinctive contribution of the special section of EAR in 2002 was to encourage accounting historians to broaden their coverage of time and space. Altogether, generalist journals published 11 numbers devoted wholly or partly to the study of accounting history between 1980 and 2002, but just one since. Two specialist accounting history journals – AHR/ABFH and AH – have contributed 34 special issues; 24 of which have appeared in print since 2003.

Table 3.2   Special issues on accounting history – title, journal, year and volume

Special history issue, ABR, 1980, 10(37A)

The new accounting history, AOS, 1991, 16(5/6)

Feminist perspectives on accounting research, AOS, 1992, 17(3/4) *

Accounting, calculation and institutions: historical studies, AOS, 1993, 18(7/8) *

Business history through accounting records, ABFH, 1993, 3(3)

From clay tokens to Fukushiki-Boki: record keeping over ten millennia, ABFH, 1994, 4(1)

Management accounting and empirical investigation, ABFH, 1995, 5(1)

Accounting history into the twenty-first century, AAAJ, 1996, 9(3)

Critical accounting history, CPA, 1996, 9(6)

Recent studies in French accounting history, ABFH, 1997, 7(3)

Regulation, AH, 1998, 3(1)

Organising the accounting profession in Asia, AAAJ, 1999, 12(3)

Histories of accounting professionalism, ABFH, 1999, 9(1)

US accounting history and historiography, ABFH, 2000, 10(2)

Accounting and indigenous peoples, AAAJ, 2000, 13(3)

Accounting in crises, AH, 2000, 5(2)

Recent research in accounting, business and management history by French authors, ABFH, 2001, 11(1)

Studies in Japanese accounting history, ABFH, 2001, 11(3)

Mapping variety in the history of accounting and management, EAR, 2002, 11(2) *

International accounting history special issue, ABR, 2002, 32(2)

Studying accountancy’s emergent occupational structures, AOS, 2002, 27(4/5) *

Accounting history: Chinese contributions and challenges, ABFH, 2003, 13(1)

Mechanisation and computers in banking, ABFH, 2004, 14(3)

Historical perspectives on accounting and audit failure, AH, 2005, 10(3)

Accounting history in the German language arena, ABFH, 2005, 15(3)

Accounting and religion: A historical perspective, AH, 2006, 11(2)

Women, accounting and investment, ABFH, 2006, 16(2)

International perspectives on race and gender in accounting’s past, AH, 2007, 12(3)

Italian accounting history, ABFH, 2007, 17(1)

Studies of Irish accounting history, ABFH, 2008, 18(1)

Accounting in other places, accounting by other peoples, AH, 2009, 14(1/2)

Perspectives and reflections on accounting’s past in Europe, AH, 2009, 14(4)

Accounting and management history: Some French examples, ABFH, 2009, 19(2)

Accounting and the military, AH, 2010, 15(2)

Histories of accounting research, AH, 2011, 16(2)

Accounting and the state, AH, 2012, 17(3/4)

Accounting and accountability in local government, AH, 2013, 18(4)

The emergence of accounting as a global profession, AH, 2014, 19(1/2)

Accounting and the First World War, AHR, 2014, 24(2/3)

Innovation in accounting thought and practice, AH, 2015, 20(3)

Widening the accounting history debate: Papers from the thirteenth World Congress of Accounting Historians, BAR, 2015, 47(2)

The history of accounting in hospitals, AHR, 2015, 25(3)

Accounting’s past in sport, AH, 2016, 21(1)

Accounting and charities, AH, 2016, 21(2/3)

Histories of accounting and agriculture, AHR, 2016, 26(2) *

Accounting’s history in diverse settings, AH, 2017, 22(3)


*  Special section


Having discussed the changing subjects which accounting historians investigate, we now turn to an overview of the sources they deploy.

Archival evidence

The historian (accounting or otherwise) aims to use evidence to craft a coherent and probable picture of what has happened in the past. Table 3.3 lists and classifies sources of historical evidence. According to its compilers (Fleischman et al. 1996: 61): ‘Most important for accounting history is communicative evidence, usually taking the form of written documents’.

Table 3.3   Evidences of history

Natural evidence

Past landscapes

Natural objects

Human remains

Alterations of natural objects (tilled fields, cleared forests, etc.)

Processive evidence

Language, customs, institutions

Tools, other artefacts

Communicative evidence


Chronicles, annals, biographies, genealogies

Memoirs, diaries, letters, newspapers

Literature, public documents, business records



Ballads, anecdotes, tapes, sagas

Recordings (tapes, disks)

Works of art

Portraits, other paintings, sculpture, coins, medals

Films, videotapes, music

Source: Fleischman et al. (1996: 61).

The question of what counts as ‘adequate’ evidence is studied by Napier (2002) with the process through which evidence is transformed into written history set out in Figure 3.1.

The process of historical research

Figure 3.1   The process of historical research

Source: Napier (2002: 137; see p.138 for a full explanation of the significance of the arrows in the above diagram).

Communicative evidence has long been considered the principal foundation for historical research, enabling investigators to make the discoveries from which their stories can be constructed. The use of archival material is of course problematic. Quite apart from the question of what counts as evidence, there are the following further problems: (i) only a fraction of the evidence initially available continues to survive; (ii) that which does survive may not be in useable form for a number of possible reasons (e.g., the material may be machine-readable but the equipment required for that purpose may be unavailable); (iii) surviving data may be non-representative of the past (e.g., accounting archives tend to concentrate on large companies and to exclude the small); and (iv) the meaning of what has been written down can be interpreted in different ways.

Critical historians often criticise the traditional historians’ use of archival evidence (e.g., Miller and Napier 1993). Some are equally concerned with a lack of ambition on the part of traditional researchers and argue they should do better:

The traditional interpretive historian benefits from exposure to methodological choices which can facilitate greater rigour in the accessing and interpretation of primary sources and can lift the ensuing analysis above the level of naive antiquarian narrative.

(Parker 1997: 131) Under fire from critical historians, Fleishman and Tyson’s (1997: 91) concern that archival-oriented researchers might be ‘an endangered species’ underestimated the latter’s resilience. Also, their characterisation of archivists as the ‘drones whose only job is to provide grist for the paradigmatic mills’ caricatures historians of both persuasions (Fleischman and Tyson 1997: 103). Fleischman and Tyson’s thoughtful vindication of archival research elicits several inconsistencies in the criticisms levelled by critical historians at the traditional, which include allegations that the former does not make the perceived mistake of searching for origins. Others agree. In Zan’s estimation (2004: 182), the search by Hoskin and Macve (1994) for the ‘genesis of managerialism’ is associated with the assumption of a ‘linear view of history’ of which traditional historians are so often accused. Fleischman and Tyson (1997: 105) also raise the following interesting question: ‘by what standard is it more acceptable to write an interpretive piece without doing archival research than it is to report the results of archival research without accompanying interpretation?’ The answer that the former displays scholarship and intellect and the latter merely hard work has a degree of validity, but it is one that disregards the essential archaeological contribution of the archival researcher.

The limitation of archival records as representations of the past is one of the criticisms directed at traditional accounting historians by some critical writers (Fleischman and Tyson 1997: 97–100). But, of course, critical historians also use discoveries as the evidential basis for their own work. Perhaps this was not so evident in earlier times when practitioners of the new accounting history had a stock of prior discoveries to re-interpret (Willmott 1986; Hopwood 1987; Miller and O’Leary 1987; Bryer 1991; Hopper and Armstrong 1991). But some critical historians were immersed in archival research from the outset (e.g., Hoskin and Macve 1986, 1988; Loft 1986), while others (such as Bryer 2006) more recently turned to original records as the basis for theorising accounting’s past.

Fleischman and Tyson (2003) staunchly defend the archival orientation of the so-called traditional researchers, but they also devote space to rehearsing some of the challenges associated with archival research and in advising researchers how they might best prepare themselves for that labour (see also Walker 2004). Johnson (2000) describes and analyses the hazards associated with archival research in her case study of the bookkeeping records of a company well-represented in the accounting history literature. Johnson (2000: 129) discovered that ‘the process of understanding, interpreting, and validating the record keeping’ of E. I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., ‘led to a number of misleading, confusing, and time-consuming issues which had to be resolved’. Her experience elicited the following warning to archival researchers who:

[m]ust understand that they are able to rely on secondary sources, when they exist, only as long as they remain circumspect when depending on the secondary interpretation of primary sources, and that even the primary sources themselves may lead the researcher astray.

(Johnson 2000: 129; see also Arnold and McCartney 2003) Sy and Tinker (2005: 63) launch a scathing attack on accounting historians of all persuasions for their commitment to written, primary sources which encourages ‘sterile empiricism’. They believe that, released from such constraint, the potential of historical research would be much enhanced. They demonstrate how it might be possible to escape from dead-end intellectualism ‘by sketching a Post-Kuhnian panorama in terms of a Non-Eurocentric, social, gendered, environmental, public interest and labour orientation’ (Sy and Tinker 2005: 47). Hammond and Sikka (1996: abstract) also express concern that ‘Much of the historical research in accounting continues to mimic idealized scientific methods in which written and official evidence is privileged’.

Oral history

Hammond (2003: 85) believes that enriched understandings of the past require ‘examining new documentary sources, including “oral history” (talking to people about their experiences)’. More specifically, in collaboration with Sikka, she ‘calls for the use of oral histories so that those marginalized and neglected by conventional history can be given a voice and problematize the narratives of “progress” dominating accounting history research’ (Hammond and Sikka 1996: abstract). Fleischman and Tyson (2003: 32) agree that archival materials (narrowly defined) suffer from ‘failure to represent the suppressed voices of the past – the poor, the illiterate, women, the economically powerless for whom accounting records were not an available avenue of expression’. Returning to Hammond and Sikka (1996: 91):

Without oral history, the role of accountancy practices and firms in colonizing organizations (Armstrong, 1987), influencing unemployment, divestment (Bryer and Brignall, 1986), crime (Mitchell et al., 1996) and industrial disputes (Berry et al., 1985), remains ill understood.

Oral history is privileged as ‘giving greater insight into the “why” and “how” of events’ (Burrows 1999: 100). The material collected may be about the interviewee or about people or events of which they are knowledgeable. Collins and Bloom (1991: 23) see the role of oral history as ‘an historical methodology, [which] can be used as a research tool to supplement and clarify the written record or provide a record where no written record exists’. Or it might be undertaken to preserve evidence for future use. For example, a project funded by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS) had as its purpose to record the life histories of influential figures in the Scottish accounting profession that might otherwise have been lost (Walker 2005: iii). Collins and Bloom (1991) provide guidance on the process of gathering oral testimony and, to illustrate its potential, explain how oral history could be used to study the evolution of accounting standards.

Initially, fears were expressed concerning the validity of oral history as an evidential base, and a literature developed to address allegations that it was ‘too soft and subject to bias’ (Hammond 2003: 85). Such reservations were put into context, though not resolved, by growing recognition of the fact that ‘all histories are selective and biased’ (Hammond 2003: 85). In Hammond’s judgement, traditional researchers rarely acknowledge this reality, and she welcomes a ‘literature on the use of oral history [which] grapples with questions of validity and authority without contending that a purely scientific and unbiased approach is possible’ (Hammond 2003: 85). Indeed, proponents of oral history consider one of its strengths to be forthright recognition of its limitations: ‘acknowledgement of the lack of objectivity is, in fact, key to the contribution of oral history’ because, what the researcher strives to discover, ‘must be based on the interviewees’ own interpretation of their experiences’ (Hammond 2003: 86).

Hammond (2003) is also well-placed to explain the potentials and pitfalls of the oral history methodology (see also, Hammond and Sikka 1996: 86–91; Matthews and Pirie 2001: chapter 1) based on her extensive, pioneering research into the histories of African-American accountants and of women in accounting. In a witty and erudite essay, Goldberg (1997) provides further discussion of the hazards of oral history, questioning the oral history contained in two studies of Australian accounting institutions (Burrows 1996; Linn 1996). Although favourably disposed towards historical research, Goldberg (1997: 113) was sufficiently aroused to conclude: ‘while both histories are well-written, how much of what they include about other people can I believe accords with perceived experiences of those people themselves?’ Such a criticism is not exclusive to oral history, of course, but the importance of taking steps to ensure, as far as possible, the accuracy of ‘facts’ reported is well made.

Examples of oral history research

It was not until relatively recently that much use was made of oral testimony in the construction of accounting’s history (Collins and Bloom 1991). An early example occurred when Zeff (1972) collected material for Forging Accounting Principles in Five Countries. While acknowledging the valuable role of committee minutes, internal reports, correspondence and other publicly available material, Zeff (1980: 14, emphasis added) observed: ‘these documents will seldom yield useful insights into the real factors that influenced the course of standard-setting. It becomes necessary to conduct interviews with the principal policy makers and others who were close observers of the standard-setting process’. Later in the 1970s, Mumford conducted a series of interviews of leading accountants, and 12 that took place between 1979 and 1984 formed the basis for a paper on ‘Chartered accountants as business managers’ (Mumford 1991). The practical problem of getting tapes transcribed slowed this project, however, and it was not until 16 years later that arrangements were made for the results to made publicly available thanks to a research grant from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (Mumford 2007).

The growing amount of oral history-based research is to be welcomed, even if much of it continues to contain stories of the great and the good rather than the marginalised ‘voices from below’ (Napier 2006: 459–60). Matthews and Pirie (2001) explain how they tackled the thorny problem of who to interview when collecting material for their study of the British auditing profession. The initial plan was to compile a random selection of interviewees from the ICAEW’s list of members, but this was abandoned in favour of the ‘purposeful’ sample recommended by Hammond and Sikka (1996: 88) in the endeavour to capture the ‘key figures’ (Matthews and Pirie 2001: 2) as well as to ensure adequate coverage of other voices.

Matthews and Pirie (2001) also discuss dispiriting issues which can arise following the collection of oral evidence. Several of the interviewees displayed misgivings over the publication of extracts from their interviews having seen the transcribed version. Most participants eventually acquiesced but seven, of 77, withdrew their permission altogether. Four of these were retired partners from the then Big Six: ‘One, an ex-Coopers and Lybrand partner, refused despite giving a charming and informative interview at the end of which he stated that he had no objection to almost all of what he said being ascribed to him’ (Matthews and Pirie 2001: 9).

Pictures as archival resources

Pictorial sources are increasingly used to improve our understanding of accounting’s past. A pioneering contribution is Yamey’s (1989) Art and Accounting which examines the many roles that the appearance of an account book signified in paintings and other art between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Turning to the content of published accounts, McKinstry (1996) explains the use of design and designers by Burton plc, revealing that, from 1984, the firm’s annual report was transformed into a corporate communications tool. A significant increase in ‘face work’ is evident from Campbell et al.’s (2009) study of 14 companies for the years 1989 to 2003. Davison (2011) examines the role of paratext in framing the annual report, drawing attention to the increased use of images as evidence of growing attention to paratextual presentation and the perceptions of stakeholders. Walker (2015) studies how images of accounting were used as part of a US state-directed attempt to protect and advance a threatened way of life in the 1930s and 1940s. A more general study of the potential of photographs as an archival source is provided by Parker (2009; see also Davison 2013) who explores the methodological dimensions and potential of photo-elicitation, particularly as a historical research tool for critical accounting and management historians.


Fleischman and Radcliffe (2005: 61–2), in their celebration of the ‘expansion and maturation’ of accounting history research during the ‘roaring nineties’, consider its ‘coming of age’ to be signalled by the growth of publishing opportunities. The role of accounting journals in the dissemination of accounting history research is considered in this section where attention is also drawn to other publication outlets which might be better exploited.

Specialist accounting journals

The first English-language journal devoted to the publication of articles on accounting history was titled Accounting History. It was launched by the Accounting History Society in England and Wales in 1976 but discontinued ten years later due to lack of submissions. In Australia, in 1980, Robert W. Gibson launched the Accounting History Newsletter which ran until 1989 and, following renaming as Accounting History, continued through to 1994. The three specialist accounting history journals, today, are the US-based AHJ, launched 1977, the British-based AHR (initially ABFH), launched in 1990, and AH, new series, founded in Australia in 1996.

The appearance of specialist accounting history journals provided a major boost for the publication of historical material. Between 1970 and 1980, 161 articles were published in refereed journals, of which 28 appeared in ABR (17.4 percent), 16 in Abacus (9.9 percent), 15 in TAR (9.3 percent) and 9 in JAR (5.6 percent) (Matthews 2017: 76). AHJ accounted for 37 (23 percent) of the articles published over that same time period. The dominant role played by specialist journals over the later period 1989–2015 – accounting for 43.4 percent of all published articles – is revealed in Table 3.4. The part played by generalist accounting journals in projecting accounting history as a respected subject for study is further examined in the next sub-section.

Table 3.4   Journals publishing accounting history articles 1989–2015
















































Source: Extracted from Matthews (2017: 77).

Generalist accounting journals

Generalist accounting journals have contributed significantly to the expansion of what counts as accounting history but by no means all continue to participate signficantly in that process. According to Fleischman and Radcliffe (2005: 62), ‘certain flagship U.S. accounting journals were once willing to publish quality history articles’, but this is no longer the case. In the 1960s and 1970s, JAR published a number of historical works, but there was then a void until 1989 (when it published a three-page comment by Scorgie), and nothing since. 4 Another elite journal, TAR, published accounting history articles most years through to the 1980s but, since then, only a handful (Matthews 2017: 78) including, most recently Sangster (2016, 2018). The publication of historical material in generalist journals therefore depends on editorial policy, and it is for this reason that accounting history owes a debt to editors who opened the door to the discipline early on. Examples include Parker at ABR and Murray Wells at Abacus. The publication culture which they helped develop has been important in making accounting history a respected area of study. ABR and Abacus remain receptive to historical work and have been joined by some of the more recently launched critical journals.

In an editorial accompanying the first issue of AOS, Anthony Hopwood attacked the ‘all too often’ perception of accounting as ‘a rather static and purely technical phenomenon’ (Hopwood 1976: 1). Sometime later, Hopwood (1987) launched a withering attack on prior historical research on the grounds that it adopted ‘a rather technical perspective delineating the residues of the accounting past rather than more actively probing the underlying processes and forces at work’ (Hopwood 1987: 207). Hopwood advocated an examination of accounting over time through a consideration of the preconditions for change, the process of change and its organisational consequences. His critique of prior research naturally went down poorly with many traditional historians, but his support for ‘new accounting history’ encouraged much greater diversity in historical methodology and an upsurge of interest in accounting history as a legitimate subject for study.

In their inaugural editorial, Guthrie and Parker (1988: 3) asserted that AAAJ would ‘offer a unique mix of research topics and traditions which have been marginalised by more traditional journals’ including ‘critical and historical perspectives of current issues and problems in accounting and auditing’. They also encouraged innovative theoretical approaches and the deployment of new methodologies. In a similar vein, the research areas within which CPA invites submissions include ‘Studies of accounting’s historical role, as a means of “remembering” the subject’s social and conflictual character’.

Although the three specialist accounting history journals carry a much larger number of history publications than do the generalist journals listed in Table 3.4, taken together, citation analysis indicates that it is the latter that have more influence on the accounting history community (Anderson 2002; Carmona 2006; Bisman 2011). Bisman (2011) carried out an analysis of citations appearing in 546 articles published over the 13-year period from 1996 to 2008 in the specialist accounting history journals. It was discovered that this data set contained 6,108 references to research publications in 64 separate journals. After deleting journals cited infrequently, their number was reduced to 27 but still accounted for 5,750 (94.1 percent) of all citations.

The level of citation of generalist journals (Table 3.5) appears, at first sight, remarkable given the much larger number of history articles published in the specialist journals. AOS is comfortably the most cited journal and the next three generalist journals in the list all have more citations than AH. A similar situation exists in the case of AHJ once self-citations are removed. The inevitable conclusion is that publications in generalist journals are more highly regarded by the accounting community than those in specialist journals. One influential factor in the hegemony of generalist journals, however, is that papers appearing in specialist journals might previously have sought homes in generalist journals which are cited to connect with the initially intended audience. Why might authors choose to target generalist journals? One simple explanation in the case of the British-based researcher is that specialist journals are given a rating of 2 by the Academic Journal Guide (AJG) 5 whereas the generalist journals listed in Table 3.5 are graded 3, 4 or 4*.

Table 3.5   Citations by specialist accounting history journals










































B&EH *




































Source: Derived from Bisman (2011: 166–167, 169).


*  This heading covers six business and economic history journals.

Whatever the motivation for authors aspiring to publish in specialist or generalist journals, the inescapable message conveyed by Table 3.5 is that it is the latter that has the stronger impact on the diffusion of accounting history research (Carmona 2006: 262; Sánchez-Matamoros and Gutiárrez-Hidalgo 2011: 332). It is therefore interesting and relevant to study the apparent willingness of generalist journals to publish historical material, and this is the subject of Table 3.6.

Table 3.6   Publications in English-language journals *

Number of publications

% of grand total




% change





















All history































Other generalist































All generalist






Grand total







*  Table 3.5 is based on the annual listings of accounting history publications contained in AH and AHR/ABFH for two five-year time periods. The assessment of what counts as an historical article in generalist accounting journals, by those responsible for compiling the annual lists, is accepted and contains no bias given that the compilers were the same in both time periods.

Journals listed in Table 3.6 are divided into three categories: history journals, critical journals and other generalist journals. The number of publications in history journals is consistent for both study periods – 1998–2002 and 2012–2016 – with major increases in the number of articles published in AH (which comprised four issues a year in the latter period compared with two earlier on) matching reductions of about one-third in each of the other outlets. The number of papers published in the critical journals declined by 28.5 percent. Those in AAAJ actually rose by 10.5 percent whereas publications in AOS – the source of many of the papers most cited by the accounting history community – fell sharply from 46 to 19. The decline in visibility of accounting history papers in the ‘Other generalist’ category is even more dramatic – falling by almost two-thirds from 102 publications in 1998–2002 to just 36 in 2012–2016. Whereas generalist journals accounted for 52 percent of history publications in the earlier period, they contributed just 37 percent in the latter.

It is difficult to imagine why these major changes should have occurred although I am sure that many in the accounting history community have opinions on this issue. The drop in the publication rate in generalist journals is even more dramatic if one accepts the hypothesis that scholars are likely to have become more incentivised to publish in such journals, over time, given the higher status attributed to them by some research funding regimes. One possible explanation is that the level of scholarship within the accounting history community is declining. Another is that some generalist journals, at least, have become less receptive to historical studies. As noted above, publishing patterns in elite US journals radically altered with the movement towards empirical accounting research that began in the 1960s, and the subsequent positivists’ agency-information research programme. Both normative researchers and historians were casualties of that ‘revolution’ (Beaver 1989). There is the possibility that changes in publication criteria among qualitative generalist journals is affecting the acceptability of historical studies.

The editors of the critical journal, AAAJ, recently used part of a reflective essay for the purpose of ‘Confronting theoretical engorgement’ (Guthrie and Parker 2017: 9). Drawing on their experience as editors and authors, they concluded that too many reviewers have become obsessed with theory, ‘contending that a paper is inadequately theorised, arguing for better integration of theory throughout findings exposition, or declaring the study to be insufficiently theoretically problematised’ (Guthrie and Parker 2017: 9). They describe such statements as having become ‘the lingua franca of the contemporary accounting research community’ (Guthrie and Parker 2017: 9). Such criticism, they continue, ‘ignores the value of interpretive research that inductively generates theory, such as field-based case study, ethnography, grounded theory, historical archival research in the business and accounting history traditions’ (Guthrie and Parker 2017: 10).

Books and monographs

During the 1970s publishing houses recognised the opportunity to make money from reprinting books of interest to accounting historians. Scholar Books’ ‘Accounting classic series’ (1975), initiated and seen through by Robert (‘Bob’) Sterling, comprised 13 texts. A more substantial initiative got underway the following year with Richard P. Brief of Stern School, New York University, serving as the main facilitator between the academic community and, successively, Arno Press and Garland Publishing. Those publishing houses printed approximately 370 books on accounting history between 1976 and the end of the century. It was a phenomenal project which made available early bookkeeping texts that would otherwise have been extremely difficult to access, such as Edward Hatton’s The Merchant’s Magazine (first published 1695), 6 reprints of accounting classics such as Dicksee’s Auditing (first published 1892), anthologies of extracts from government reports such as Edwards’ (1986) Legal Regulation of British Company Accounts 1836–1900, collections of articles on particular topics or by well-known authors, and completely new contributions to the literature such as Hein’s (1978) The British Companies Acts and the Practice of Accountancy 1844–1962. Since 2000 the Routledge New Works in Accounting History series has supplied a further 34 book-length contributions for use by the accounting history community.

As the contents of Chapters 1 and 2 of this Companion demonstrate, books on accounting history have proved their worth in the development of the discipline. Carmona (2006) provides statistical confirmation of their significance for the diffusion of knowledge through the application of citation analysis to the accounting history literature of the 1990s. Whereas journal articles received 3,724 citations or 21 percent of the total, other sources of accounting history literature, mainly books and research monographs, received 13,985 citations or 79 percent of the total. Carmona (2006: 256) further reveals that 11 out of the 27 ‘most influential works’ were published as books. He concludes: ‘books and research monographs constitute key venues for the dissemination of accounting knowledge’ (Carmona 2006: 256).

Despite their importance, Edwards’ (2004) analysis of accounting history publications, 1998–2002, reveals that only 2.8 percent of these were books. Indeed, 8 of the 11 influential books identified by Carmona (2006) were published before 1980 and none of them after 1990. The modus operandi of research assessment projects, today labelled the Research Excellence Framework, which date from 1986, 7 is certainly responsible for the emphasis on journal articles in the UK. While a wide range of eligible outputs are identified for submission to research assessment panels and guidance notes suggest that output media is less significant than the quality of the research it contains, no one really attaches much weight to these assertions. For accountancy, the first type of output usually identified is ‘refereed articles’ and this is what university administrators encourage accounting faculty to publish.

This effective bias against books is at variance with the state of affairs in the sister discipline of history. Indeed, within university history departments in Britain, the book rather than the portfolio of articles is judged to be the appropriate vehicle for communicating the results of sustained historical scholarship. A relevant book also becomes, as Carmona (2006) demonstrates, the source of initial reference for new researchers, and it is of course the purpose of the Companion to help satisfy their needs. Parker (1999) also makes the case for book-length accounting history publications when calling for a ‘return to the “grand tour” literary narrative’ capable of ‘offering a longer term, broader scope macro-scope view of the past’ (Parker 1999: 24). 8

Popularising research findings

Carnegie and Napier (2012: 351) are convinced that accounting historians can make useful contributions to policy debates:

An understanding of the factors implicated in past change events may allow historians to evaluate current proposals for accounting reform and even to advance their own recommendations (Gomes et al. 2011). For example, recent debates over such notions as fair value would undoubtedly have been more informed had participants had a clearer idea of the origins and development of fair value as a term and as a concept.

In a similar vein Gomes et al. (2011: 392) argue that we should strive to ‘demonstrate the contemporary relevance/implications of accounting history scholarship’. And there are signs that some academics take these urgings seriously. For example, accounting historians have actively contributed to the ICAEW’s Information for Better Markets Conference, held annually in London, which is attended by an audience of leading practitioners and policy makers as well as academics from a range of international institutions. Zeff (2013) – The objectives of financial reporting: a historical survey and analysis – was initially presented to the 2012 Conference which focused on the question of ‘Who is financial reporting for?’ Two years later a paper by Nobes (2015) – Accounting for capital: the evolution of an idea – was read at the annual Conference devoted to the theme: ‘Capital: reporting, regulation and resource allocation’.

The importance of disseminating research findings to a non-specialist readership and generating impactful research is increasingly recognised by research funding bodies and research assessment agencies. The UK government-financed Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), for example, attaches great importance to ‘public engagement’ through appropriate initiatives capable of bringing together researchers and the general public. For this reason, researchers, although initially publishing their findings in academic journals, should seek wider circularisation of their work through books, newspapers and professional journals. In so doing, the practical significance of their discoveries can be explored,

An episode in accounting’s history from the 1960s demonstrates the practical significance of placing accounting findings in the public domain. During the latter part of that decade there occurred a series of causes célèbres that called into question the utility of published financial reports. The game-changing event was Edward Stamp’s (Stamp 1969b; see also 1969a) letter to The Times which is evidence to support the idea that it is not so much what you say but where you say it. A few years earlier the Australian academic, Ray Chambers, had published an article in Abacus complaining that, under existing GAAP, it was possible to come up with a ‘million sets of mutually exclusive rules, each giving a true and fair view of the company’s state of affairs and its profits!’ (Chambers 1965: 16). He continued: ‘Where there are so many possible rules there are in effect no rules’ (Chambers 1965: 16). Published in an academic journal, Chambers’ paper attracted no more than a ripple of attention whereas Stamp’s intervention, broadcast in the British establishment’s favourite newspaper, The Times, fuelled a debate that soon afterwards led to the creation of the Accounting Standards Steering Committee and the publication of accounting standards in the endeavour to improve financial reporting practices.

Despite the importance of wider dissemination, the results of accounting history research seldom feature prominently in professional journals or other popular media. Indeed, Beattie and Goodacre (2004: 25) observe a general decline in publications by academics in Britain’s professional accounting journals. This clearly places a significant limitation on the profile of accounting history beyond the academic community.


This chapter focuses on the growth of accounting history as an academic pursuit. The subject areas studied are expanding, with the last 30 years witnessing diversity in the methods used to gather data and interpret the meaning of accounting’s discovered past. The community of accounting historians is well served in terms of publication outlets; there are three specialist journals and many generalist journals that are open to their work. The editors of critical and interdisciplinary accounting journals have played a key role in expanding the methodological horizons of accounting historians.

There are continuing concerns about the Anglo-Saxon dominance of the discipline, though less so than when the Companion was first published in 2009. Authors in English-language journals tend to focus on the accounting histories of their own countries post-1800. This is a highly restricted orientation in terms of time and place. There is no doubt that many of those whose first language is not English are at a significant disadvantage when targeting English language journals as outlets for their work (Fleischman and Schuele 2009). Things continue to improve, however, with international conferences providing just one forum where ideas for trans-national collaboration can emerge and develop. Also, special issues of academic journals have been successfully employed to help widen the scope of the subject and the geographical focus of historical studies.

Although accounting history, as an area of study, is in a fairly healthy state (Baskerville et al. 2017: 404–5), there are signs that the momentum provided by theoretical and methodological innovations in the 1990s has not been entirely sustained. Table 3.6 indicates a significant reduction in the number of published research papers over the period 2012–2016 as compared with 14 years earlier. Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that the same timescale reveals a disproportionate reduction in the number of papers published in generalist journals. This concern is heightened by the knowledge that generalist journals are more highly rated by funding bodies and, indeed, by the accounting community itself when its outputs are the subject of citation analysis.

Accounting historians have traditionally relied heavily on communicative evidences in the written form. There has been healthy discussion of the potential and pitfalls of archival sources for the work of both traditional and critical historians. Methodological debate has demonstrated how oral history can be employed not only ‘to supplement and verify other forms of history’ but also ‘to problematize and contradict the traditional stories of accounting’ and ‘give sustained visibility to the lived experiences of the wide variety of communities affected by accounting’ (Hammond and Sikka 1996: 80–1).

The existing subject matter of accounting history is enormous as revealed by the themes featuring in this Companion. Overall, the depth of coverage of these research areas varies; some are long-established others are relatively new. Accounting history research is thriving in many countries, but the scope for further development is great. The potential arenas for research are vast and the number of accounting historians meagre by comparison. As the remaining chapters in this Companion reveal, there is reason for the accounting community to believe that progress has been made, but there remains much to be done.

Key works

Carmona (2006) offers a broad-based study of the accounting history literature published during the 1990s. The authors and the coverage of their research are profiled and criticised.

Fleischman and Tyson (2003) offer a useful introduction to the pursuit of accounting history research based on archival sources. The chapter is a practical guide to locating primary materials.

Hammond and Sikka (1996) criticises written evidence because it privileges major personalities and ignores ordinary people whose lives and experiences can be better captured and understood through oral history.

Matthews (2017) profiles the history of publications in accounting history from the early days of the twentieth century through to 2015.

Walker (2006) examines the changing frontiers of accounting history and the challenges facing the discipline including limited interdisciplinary engagement and Anglo-Saxon dominance of research agendas.

Appendix: Journal Abbreviations



Accounting and Business Research


Accounting, Business & Financial History


Accounting Historians Journal


Accounting History


Accounting History Review


Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal


Accounting, Organizations and Society


British Accounting Review


Business History


Business History Review


Critical Perspectives on Accounting


European Accounting Review


Financial Accountability & Management


Journal of Accounting Research


Management Accounting Research


The Accounting Review



Carnegie and Napier (2012: 330) suggest that this was not an entirely fair assessment of the prior contribution of accounting historians, but there is no doubt that Hopwood’s comments produced a fundamental reappraisal of the state of the craft and encouraged the development of theories and methods capable of ‘taking the study of accounting beyond work that had hitherto been dominated by economics’.

A list of journals together with abbreviations appears in the Appendix.

Papers which use historical data, such as Basu’s (2003) study of income smoothing in early nineteenth-century railroads, but make no attempt to place the discussion within either the contemporary context or other relevant historical literature, would fall only within a very wide definition of accounting history.

The AJG supplies a guide to the range and quality of journals in which business and management academics publish their research, where 1 is the lowest rating and 4* the highest.

Today, many pre-1800 publications can be accessed through the following websites: Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

The main purpose of these reviews is to enable the higher education funding bodies to distribute public funds for conducting research based on research quality.

Duke and Coffman (1993) offer helpful advice on writing accounting or business histories of this type.


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