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Ezzamel, Accounting, the Divine and the Symbolic

Ezzamel, Accounting, the Divine and the Symbolic

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Published by Zoltán Horváth
This paper explores the symbolic and ceremonial roles of accounting in organisations and
This paper explores the symbolic and ceremonial roles of accounting in organisations and

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Zoltán Horváth on Jan 15, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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ACCOUNTING, THE DIVINE AND THE SYMBOLIC: THEMEMORIAL TEMPLES OF ANCIENT EGYPT*Mahmoud EzzamelCardiff Business SchoolCardiff UniversityAberconway BuildingColum DriveCardiff CF10 3EUE-mail:
Second draft: March 2003
* An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the staff seminar series, in theDepartment of Sociology, Cardiff University and the Accountancy, Finance andInformation Systems Department, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand,September-October 2002. I am grateful to my son, Adam, for translating some of thesource material from French into English.
This paper explores the symbolic and ceremonial roles of accounting in organisations andsociety. These roles are explored further in this paper by examining the link betweenaccounting and the unique setting of religious and cosmic order in the New Kingdom(1552-1080 BC), ancient Egypt. Accounting is conceptualised as an integral part of theconstellation that formed the heavenly order that was deemed by the ancient Egyptians tohave underpinned their world. This constellation brought into a fragile equilibrium acomplex assemblage of relations between the gods in the sky, the Pharaoh representingthe gods on earth, the dead and the living. Central to these conceptions were carefullyarticulated notions of time and space. Any destabilising of this order was consideredcatastrophic, and accounting, just like writing, was considered instrumental in ensuringthat this necessary equilibrium was observed and maintained. In this setting, accountingwas strongly intertwined with conceptions of religion, cosmic order, and sacred time andspace. Accounting inscriptions were frequently combined with linguistic texts and pictorial scenes as well as religious monuments to produce a powerful discourse thatmade possible the construction and perpetuation of this orderly universe.
The symbolic role of accounting in organisations and society has been recognised for some time. For a few decades, researchers have been attributing roles for accounting thatemphasise ceremonial, ritual, mythical and magical dimensions (e.g Cleverley, 1973;Gambling, 1977, 1985; Burchell
et. al.
, 1980; Meyer, 1986; Ezzamel and Bourn, 1990).For example, Gambling (1977; 1985), Burchell
et. al.
(1980) and Ezzamel and Bourn(1990) have explored the role of accounting in legitimising favoured courses of action,and in providing ammunitions to discredit the arguments of opposition. Meyer (1986) hasnoted how accounting operates as an institutionalised practice that can lead to a de-coupling between declared intentions and organisational action in order to preserve the
 status quo
. Gambling (1977) has drawn parallels between some aspects of modernaccounting and traditional witchcraft practices in considering both as providingcomplicated rituals in response to uncertainty. Just like witchcraft, Gambling contendsthat accounting can operate in a manner that renders possible the accommodation of ‘awkward facts’ whilst not undermining the fundamental beliefs which form the fabric of society. Other writers, e.g. Cleverley (1973) have even asserted that accounting and budgeting systems function as a sort of religious ceremony – a rain dance.These extensions beyond the roles traditionally ascribed to accounting have significantlyenriched and broadened our understanding and conceptualisation of accounting. In thesestudies, any new roles attributed to accounting are typically teased out in a context where both the traditional and non-traditional roles intermingle. In many cases, this has led tosituations of contested claims by different schools of thought (see for example the debateon the ‘traditional’ versus ‘new’ accounting history, e.g. Edwards and Newell, 1991,Edwards
et. al.
, 1995; Miller and Napier, 1993; Hopper and Armstrong, 1991). Thosewho see the role of accounting as exclusively traditional would claim that an attributionof non-traditional roles is the outcome of the discretion of the researcher in interpretingthe data, rather than being underpinned by concrete evidence (Fleishman
et. al.
, 1996;Fleischman and Tyson, 1997). In contrast, those attributing new roles to accounting

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