Great Adventures in Accounting

THe following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

(Image credit: Flickr user Dave)

by Stephen Hardy, Improbable Research staff

The supposedly staid, unglamorous field of accounting is in fact packed, to some degree, with exciting adventures. Accountants rarely divulge this fact to persons outside the profession, but three monographs, all produced in Australia, document some of the adventure and even some of the excitement.

Great Adventures in Accounting (1967)
In 1967, a paper by Professor R.J. Chambers of the University of Sydney essayed to describe the essentially adventurous nature of the accounting field.

“Prospective Adventures in Accounting Ideas,” R.J. Chambers, Accounting Review, vol. 42, no. 2, April 1967, pp. 241–53. Looking both backwards and forwards, Professor Chambers enthuses ruefully:

These fifty years have seen quite a few potentially fruitful ideas, with wide implications, brought to notice, noticed scarcely at all and almost abandoned.... Some 43 years ago, Hatfield said “Let us boldly raise the question whether accounting, the late claimant for recognition as a profession, is not entitled to some respect, or must it consort with crystal-gazing... and palmreading?” I wonder what Hatfield would think today, to see how far some would have us go in the direction of crystal-gazing. I leave you to think about what I am referring to.

Great Adventures in Accounting (1999)
Decades of accounting adventure later, Lee D. Parker of the University of Adelaide published a 31-page study presented in a tone that, in the context of its field, is almost giddy.

“Historiography for the New Millennium: Adventures in Accounting and Management,” Lee D. Parker, Accounting History, vol. 4, no. 2, November 1, 1999, pp. 11–42. (Thanks to Catherine L. Bartlett for bringing this to our attention.) The author, at the University of Adelaide, writes:

We stand on the threshold of the new millennium, facing, on one hand, an academy avowedly presentist and futurist in its research orientation, but, on the other hand, signs of a society rediscovering its past with upsurges of interest in heritage building and artefacts preservation, cinema audiences attracted to the plots of Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen and a host of historical periods and events, historical tourism, thriving antique furniture markets and so on.... While we owe the twentieth century founders of accounting and management history a considerable debt, there remains much for us to learn and even more to discover. Let us begin.

Great Circus Adventures in Accounting (2009)
The turn of the century brought a new openness to, and maybe even nostalgia and yearning for, accounting adventure, symbolized by the publication of a jaunty paper.

“Juggling the Books: The Use of Accounting Information in Circus in Australia,” Lorne Cummings and Mark Valentine St. Leon, Accounting History, vol. 14, nos. 1–2, 2009, pp. 11–33. DOI: 10.1177/1032373208098550. (Thanks to Martin Gardiner for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, respectively at Macquarie University, report:

This article outlines the role of accounting information in circus in Australia in the approximate period 1847–1963. Responding to the call for an increased historical narrative in accounting, we have studied the literature, documentation and personal memoirs concerning circus in Australia.... We have established that, despite elementary levels of education, many circus people exhibited an intuitive grasp of fundamental accounting principles, albeit in a rudimentary form. Nevertheless, since financial and management reporting practises were typically unsystematic, and even non-existent, in all but the largest circus enterprises, Australian circus management may not have been optimized.

Brief: Adventures in Accounting (1990)
“Accounting Error as a Factor in Business History,” Richard P. Brief, Accounting, Business and Financial History, vol. 1, no. 1, 1990, pp. 7–21. The author, at New York University in the United States, reports:

Accounting is often seen as a technical craft and it is common to assume that the technology produces objective, verifiable information that is free from bias. Similarly, accountants are regarded as disinterested, independent scorekeepers. Yet, economists like Morgenstern have also claimed that ‘business is transacted in the illusion of dealing with “accuracy” where there is none in an ordinary or scientific sense.’... [This] makes the case against viewing accounting as neutral and mechanistic quite compelling.


The article above is from the May-June 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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