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Social Accounting Research

As if the World Matters:

Postalgia and a new Absurdism1,2
Rob Gray, Jesse Dillard and Crawford Spence3

Prepared for the IRSPM/EGPA International Workshop on

Social Audit, Social Accounting and Accountability, Charles
University, Prague, 2008

DRAFT: 3B (February 2008):

Address for Correspondence: Rob Gray, CSEAR, Gateway, School of Management,

University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9SS, Scotland. Email: rob.gray@st-

The clearly derivative nature of the title is conscious and deliberate. In particular both
Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Matter (Schumacher, 1973) and the
far more recent and pragmatic contribution of Porritt’s Capitalism as if the World Matters
(Porritt, 2004) is woven within what follows. Postalgia “refers to a longing for a heavenly
future, a desire that is central to change-talk and change initiatives…” Ybema, 2004)
Acknowledgements: This paper is derived from a presentation initially prepared for the
AOS seminar “Calculating Sustainability” Venice, March 2007. The comments of participants
at that seminar and the early stimulus of Anthony Hopwood and Fabrizio Panozzo are very
gratefully acknowledged. Subsequent comments from, inter alia, David Collison, Sue Gray
Anthony Hopwood, Markus Milne, David Owen and participants at the 2007 APIRA and
CSEAR (UK) Congresses have had a major influence on the direction of the paper and its
long struggle towards completion. Thank you.
Rob Gray and Crawford Spence are respectively Professor and Lecturer in Social and
Environmental Accounting at the University of St Andrews. Jesse Dillard is Professor of
Accounting at Portland State University.
Social Accounting and Postalgia

Social Accounting Research As if the World Matters:

Postalgia and a new absurdism

This essay- principally directed at the academy - considers the question “Has the
social accounting project failed?” in a deliberately speculative exploration of social
accounting in its most inclusive articulation. The examination re-evaluates what
social accounting is, could and/or should be. Our departure point is recent papers
from Lehman and Milne, that deal with both the limitations and the possibilities of
social accounting and those involved therewith. More specifically, we seek to
understand whether social accounting could have succeeded more obviously in
raising and maintaining an energetic discourse that is reflective of the distorted
societal milieu, the crisis-ridden social and environmental context, and the pernicious
system that our accounting and our research reifies, supports or, worse, ignores.
The analysis attempts to offer some new directions and conceptions. A new(er)
notion of social accountability in complex institutional situations emerges from the
analysis reflecting promising advances in shadow, counter, and alternative
accountings. In looking to the future, we consider: social accounting as an empty
signifier; the possibilities of commitment to community overriding concerns for the
subject matter; and an overwhelming, even immobilizing, sense of privilege. We
seek to abandon hubris and the self-indulgence of the precious and embrace what a
‘good’ academic and a ‘good’ social accountant might be.

Social Accounting and Postalgia

“The short-termness of politicians and the media …. can be balanced only by

confident scholars shielded from political and commercial pressures. But academia
has become so dependent and demoralised that it can no longer play that vital role”
Sampson (2004) p210

1. Introduction
To try and talk about `social accounting’ as a singularity is probably to invite
confusion. `Social accounting’ embraces an immense diversity of practices – from
(for example) environmental management accounting to habitat inventories; from
Multi-National Corporation stand-alone `sustainability’ reports to dialogue-based third
sector syntheses (Schaltegger and Burritt; 2000; Jones; 1996; Kolk; 2003; Pearce,
2003). It is to this diverse notion of social accounting and to social accounting in the
academy that we wish to direct our attention here.

Social accounting has attracted a range of criticisms over the years for its: quietism
(Tinker et al, 1991); masculism (Cooper, 1992; Cooper et al., 1992); managerialism
(Neu et al, 1998); attachment to modernity (Everett and Neu, 2000; Andrew, 2000)
and liberalism (Shenkin and Coulson, 2007); its (incorrectly alleged) attachment to
voluntarism (Gallhofer and Haslam, 1997); its (correctly alleged) attachment to
proceduralism (Lehman, 2001); and its under theorised nature (see, for example,
Puxty, 1986; 1991). Many of these challenges have substance and various attempts
have been made to respond directly to them and/or to re-direct social accounting
research, teaching and thinking in the new directions suggested by a synthesis of the
resultant dialectic.

More recent and telling critiques have been offered by (for example) Cooper et al.,
(2005) and the challenge that their illustration of an entirely different type of social
account presented to the potentially conservative, organisationally-based exploration
of social accounting. More recently still, there have been a series of formal and
informal discussions around the possibility that the social accounting project might
have failed4; and Milne (2007) has challenged social accountants to consider the
narrowness of their enterprise and their own social and environmental behaviours.
Such challenge is cast into relief by endeavours such as that from Cooper et al. and

This is not intended as a straw person and the suggestions certainly deserves attention.
Specific examples of this suggestion occurred both in exchanges prior to and during an AOS
seminar in Venice in March 2007 and emerged in an international consultation by CSEAR of
its wider membership reconsidered the Centre’s mission, governance and success, (see, for
example, Social and Environmental Accounting Journal 26(2) pp1, 14-18).

Social Accounting and Postalgia

by the growing interest in shadow, silent and counter-accounts. Such initiatives offer
a challenge to potentially sterile academic pursuits and they act as telling examples
of engaged and self-conscious action research (see Gray et al, 1996; for an
introduction and summary and see, for example, Gray, 1997; Adams, 20045;
Gallhofer et al., 2006)6,7.

It is initiatives such as these that remind us that we are engaged in a critical

endeavour of debate around accountability, business and society. As such, there is a
probably a persuasive case for arguing that our only concerns should be that which
might demonstrably contribute to a better life – and never forgetting that for many, a
better life is any life at all. If, then, social accounting discourses and conversations
are to more actively (and exclusively) engage the liberationist purpose (that the
critical project amongst others has counselled)8 then a case emerges that all
conversations which refuse to permit such examination must, of definition, be
considered illegitimate. If we cannot openly discuss the contention that commerce, in
principle at least, cannot be responsible or sustainable then those who would prevent
us from so talking must either justify that suppression or have their voices silenced.
On a planet on the verge of desecration, nicety and parlour manners may have a
diminishingly important place.

So we come to our key questions. Our primary concern is to ask how we as

accountants and especially as accounting academics might act/speak/be in ways
which are commensurate with the immense privilege most of us in the academy
enjoy. How might an accounting make any positive difference to the brutalised
oppressed, a vandalised nature and the wounded planet? Subsidiary to that question
we hope to address why social accounting is needed and, tangentially perhaps, how
we might start to improve the debates within social accounting.

In private conversation Carol Adams questions whether her work on Alpha and the reporting-
portrayal gap should be thought of as a “counter account”.
For more information see Gibson et al, (2001a, 2001b) and the associated information on
the CSEAR website.
Action Research – or more especially critical action research as articulated by Richard Baker
(Baker 2006) may offer a way of articulating the social accounting project and is being
developed in a way that offers a richer way in which to conceptualise engaged work of this
The ambition here is that social accounting may need to hitch Habermas, Gadamer, Taylor
et al., to a more violently liberationist wagon: a suggestion which probably takes us closer to
the debates in Butler, Laclau and Zizek (2000)
Social Accounting and Postalgia

The essay is organised as follows. Following this Introduction, Section 2

examines whether social accounting has any importance and whether accountants
are indeed the right people to address and develop social accounting. Section 3 gets
to the meat of the issue and examines whether or not we might think that social
accounting has failed before considering whether we can talk about a social
accounting in Section 4. The final section of the paper explores, in Section 5, how we
might move forward.

2. If We Wanted To Get There Would We Start Here?

In order to clear the ground a little, we consider that there are four basic questions
that deserve revisiting. These are as follows. First; why is it that social accounting(s)
might matter - if at all? Second, does the use of the term “accounting(s)” constrain us
in any important way? Third, need social accounting have anything to do with themes
of conventional accounting? And, finally, need social accounting have any necessary
attachment to accountants? To some degree, these may seem trivial questions but if
we are to try and re-imagine a new future for social accounting, it behoves us to have
some notion of at least some of our built-in biases and historically acquired

Why might social accounting matter?

Briefly, social accounting within the academy has been predominantly concerned with
organisation-based accounts of social and environmental interactions. One major
theme within this has been a concern to develop accountability in the name of some
democratic ideal, (see, for example, Lehman, 1999; Shenkin and Coulson, 2007).
The focus, possibly unfortunately, has principally been upon corporations – especially
large corporations. This has, at its simplest, probably been driven by the conventional
focus of traditional accounting academe mingled with a very proper concern over the
power and influence of the corporation in the construction of hegemony, (see, for
example, Porritt, 2005; Korten, 1995). If conventional accounting matters – and it
most clearly does – then social accounting can (a priori) matter at least as much.

Enquiry into social accounting offers, inter alia, holds the promise of an international
industrial and financial complex held substantially accountable for its activities. Such
an accountability – if applied successfully – would expose much duplicity; it would
make transparent the essential and unavoidable conflicts that a global, astonishingly
successful (and probably essentially rapacious) capitalism generates. The vision –

Social Accounting and Postalgia

optimistic though it might be – is that even such a procedurally-based accountability

(Lehman, 2001; Shenkin and Coulson, 2007;) would allow for the possibility that a
stark clarification of the social injustice and environmental degradation embedded in
production, consumption and expansion – indeed in modern financial capitalism
-would demand that both civil society and the state act in a manner which has the
potential to produce a very different world from the one in which we now live.

Such an accountability would have the potential to heavily temper – even erase –
current notions of success and reputation as the currency of late financial capitalism.
The uncontrollable financial markets – possibly the most pernicious fora on the planet
– would, at least be recognised for what they are and, even, possibly, be subject to
questioning and retrenchment, (Gray 2002b). Debates about organisational
sustainability and responsibility might be held with evidence rather than entirely
through assertion and public relations machines, (Milne et al, 2006).

This sense of the potential of social accounting and accountability is not intended as
utopian in itself but rather as a means through difference might be able to emerge.
vision9. The essence, as we understand it, is to re-introduce some intrinsic but explicit
ethic to capitalism that might offer a path towards limiting current devastation and
injustice and perhaps potentially halt our current headlong plunge towards dystopia.

It is in this way that we see social accounting mattering and it is these types of
underlying principles – albeit reformist rather than directly revolutionary – by which
we would like to see social accounting should ultimately judged.

Social ….. `accounting(s)’?

The creation and communication of accounts in the broad sense has been frequently
identified as a ubiquitous human activity, (Abercrombie et al., 1984; Arrington and
Puxty, 1992; Arrington and Francis, 1993). Thus a social accounting which envisages
a universe of all possible accountings need only engage with the baggage of
traditional accounting to a limited – and possibly deliberate - degree. This seems, to
us, to be a red herring and the considerable literature in social accounting that pays
almost no recognisable obeisance to the literature and principles of traditional

Indeed, any vision of utopia lies beyond our scope here and, as we have argued elsewhere
(Gray, 1992; Dillard XXX; Spence 200?), our notion of utopia would be unlikely to possess
much in the way of formal accounting and little or no formal social accounting.
Social Accounting and Postalgia

accounting tends to confirm this, (see, for example, Raynard, 1995; Spreckley, 1997;
Pearce, 2003; Pearce and Kay, 2005; Quarter et al., 2003).

Social within conventional accounting?

It seems important to recognise that for many commentators, social accounting is
predominantly concerned with the manifestation of social and environmental issues
within the conventions of traditional accounting (see, for example, Solomons, 1974;
and for illustrations of this see, for example, Schaltegger and Burritt, 2000; Epstein,
2004; Hughes et al., 2000; Gray et al.,1998). As (for example) risk, asset impairment,
environmental liabilities and the implications of carbon trading find their way into the
financial numbers of the organisation and the financial statements begin to morph
slightly; as (for example) cost classifications develop and investment appraisal takes
a longer view; and as audit (for example) adds environmental and reputational risk to
its issues of concern, social and environmental issues begin to have some – probably
fairly slight – impact on the world of the economic. But, the social and environmental
issues are only manifest here to the extent that they are translated into the economic:
they have no intrinsic social or environmental importance.

The concerns within this area of the literature appear to owe more to an interest in
the conventionally financial and economic than they do to an interest in the social or
the environmental, per se. The interest in social accounting here seems lie in the
potential for – albeit incremental – change in conventional accounting practice.

However, much more substantively, traditional accounting itself must be treated with
considerable care if we are to ever think of it as a vehicle for justice or environmental
responsibility. To the extent that any social accounting is inseparable from
conventional accounting, it must fall foul of the penetrating and significant charges of
`the’ critical accounting project, (see, for example, Cooper and Hopper, 1990;
Gallhofer and Haslam, 1997; Laughlin, 1999; Power and Laughlin, 1992; Tinker,
1984). That is, as we well know, accounting, inter alia, serves vested interests, is
masculist, positivist and oppressive,; it silences voices and only recognises that
which is and can be priced – and price reflects only what vested interest will allow it
to. If international financial capitalism is not the answer to your problems then neither
is traditional accounting.

Social Accounting and Postalgia

So what about accountants?

Medawar has commented (see 1976 as well as in conversation and see
Hopwood,1985) that if you were setting off to develop a system of social accounting
and accountability you would be well advised not to start with accountants. The
reasons for Medawar’s concerns are obvious once pointed out. Accountants’
attachment to rules and procedures; their general identification with those holding the
power; and their largely deserved reputation for conservatism and avoidance of risk
and innovation will inevitably limit their ability to innovate. Any worthwhile social
accounting will involve innovation and an interactive and developmental approach to
the new craft. Accountants are trained (see, for example, McPhail, 1999; Annisette,
2000; Gray and Collison, 2002; Gray et al., 2001) to believe themselves, for example,
to be impartial, technical and concerned with precision and accuracy, (Hines, 1988)
when they are, of course, none of these things. Accountants are by no means
disinterested (see, for example, Morgan, 1988) and there is little evidence to suggest
that, as a group, they would be your first choice to embrace a public interest which
privileged civil society and the disenfranchised over capital and the powerful.

And yet, to see the social accounting initiatives from accountants over the years as
only exercises in (say) legitimation or appropriation of territory seems contentious,
(see, for example, ASSC, 1975; AAA, 1973; but see also Hopwood, 1978). Indeed,
the frames, methods or disciplines acquired by accountants have potential value10,11.
In many regards, the most important talent of the accountant probably lies in the design,
recognition, assessment and control of information systems both within and outside an
organisation. In putting these internal and external systems together, the accountant
can generate data, evaluate its probable reliability and determine its appropriateness to
the issues under consideration. These factors, together with an experience in the
communication of information, suggest a range of talents that seem essential for much
social accounting of whatever form.

There is the more difficult issue of the extent to which accountants will adopt the baggage of
traditional accounting through unconscious attachment rather than as a conscious rational

These comments are drawn from Gray (1990) which was designed to encourage
accountants to engage in environmental accounting practices. Whilst the statements may well
be accurate, they are also fairly naïve in a number of regards. Amongst the most striking is
that accountants appear to value themselves for abilities that actually they do not possess –
like valuation and the like, (Gray, 1990; Gray et al, 2001).
Social Accounting and Postalgia

Whilst it may very well be that it is the attachments to the baggage of the accountants
that attracts the most telling of the criticisms of `the social accounting project’ as
manifest in the accounting literature (that social accounting is managerialist, marginalist,
liberal, procedural, reformist etc) Nevertheless, we retain a (wary) association with
accounting/accountants for the time being. We do this reasons both pragmatic and

First , there is a moral, deontological case for the development of social accounting
by accountants. This rests on the notion that, faced with poverty, injustice,
environmental degradation and so on, our position of awesome privilege demands
that we seek to reform, not just our own lives and our roles in civil society, but our
professional and employment lives as well. So a natural moral question is to ask
“what can accountants qua accountants do?” – and one answer is to make
accounting more “social”. Social accounting is one possible manifestation of that.

Second, as the critical accounting project has so vividly and convincingly

demonstrated, accounting and finance are deeply implicated in the state of society
and the natural environment. That suggest a moral responsibility to understand,
ameliorate and possibly reverse the negative aspects of that implication. If
accounting (and finance) are closely associated with poverty, injustice and
environmental degradation can a more social accounting offer a better prospect for
the species (and, indeed, other species)? This seems a project worth pursuing –
although the answer is far from clear.

A crucial caveat needs spelling out. Nothing we say here is suggesting that
accounting is the best or only place to start. But having made some prior decision (for
whatever reasons) to remain an accountant albeit one in the academy, examination
of the possibilities offered by accounting seem an appropriate place to start. There is
no suggestion that social accounting is any more important than a social finance;
social business, social law, or even social activism outside the academy etc etc.12
(See, for example, Shenkin and Coulson, 2007, for one tentative foray in this

What seems remarkable (and perhaps tells us something useful about accounting and
accountants) is the diverse traction that social accounting does appear (we stress `appear’ as
we have no empirical support or this) to have gained. The hypothesis may be worth exploring;
explanation might be interesting.

Social Accounting and Postalgia

Finally, there are the better established arguments which suggest that (utopian
visions aside) a social accounting will, eventually, be a part of any solution to the
extent that it can be prevented from becoming part of the problem. Crucially, there is
a recognition that traditional accounting is so mischievously interested and
distracting, colonising and totalising that, for any liberation or emancipation to take
place it must change its nature. Social accounting can offer some of the ways in
which accounting might change13. Now, whilst seeking to change accounting practice
has the potential to change organisational practice and consequently societal
perceptions (see, for example, Ball, 2007) there remains the very real empirical
concern that the only accounting change that is likely to gain traction is that which
has either the backing of the powerful (currently international financial capitalism) or
a groundswell of civil society behind it. That social accounting appears to have
neither is, obviously, a major issue that needs to be addressed because it means (we
now know) that most change that occurs in the public domain is likely to be anodyne.

However, within the academy, there remains (in principle at least) the freedom to
seek out such change as may be feasible. And so, to move on, we believe we need to
address a slightly more stark – if potentially parochial - concern that is occasionally laid
at the door of social accounting: namely, has it failed?

3. Has Social Accounting Failed?

Despite the challenges that social accounting has attracted, and despite the fact that
it has not succeeded in the benign and global reformation of capital, to see the social
accounting project as all failure (or perversely, as all success) would be unhelpful.
Social accounting has, for much of its life, had to fight to have an existence: it was so
contemptuously treated (certainly in accounting) until the about 1990 in most
locations that to expect survival of a “social accounting project” at all was ambitious.
That it has survived and thrived means, we would suggest, that whatever else it is,
the social accounting project is no failure. (See, for example, Gray, 2004; Laine,
2006) .

Of course, in principle, if social accounting is the universe of all possible accountings then it
probably offers all the ways in which accounting might change.

Social Accounting and Postalgia

Histories of social accounting already exist (see, for example, Mathews, 1997; Gray
et al., 1996; Gray 2002; Owen, 2007b) and so there is no need to repeat them here.
It is probably worth, however, drawing out two temporal threads for what follows14.

First, we might draw a crude periodisation of social accounting activity. The

experimentation of the early 1970s which led to employee and employment reporting;
the 1980s emphasised additional disclosures in the annual report and then we see
the re-emergence of the stand-alone reports from 1990. These standalones
emphasised the environmental, (until about 1995), then the social and community
issues alongside environmental matters (until about 2000) since when there has
been considerable diversity in the legends of reporting but “sustainability” and
“responsibility” have dominated.15

A second temporal thread might seek to draw parallels between the development of
legislation covering social and environmental issues in business (including reporting)
and the climate and nature of voluntarism. The initial Anglo-American optimism and
interest in accountability and responsibility in the 1970s (see, for example, ASSC,
1975; AICPA, 1977) gave way to increasingly focused guidelines (typically on
environmental reporting) and then to the current enthusiasms for the Triple Bottom
Line (TBL) and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Such insistent voluntarism
contrasts with both the evidence about the failures of voluntarism (see, for example,
Kolk et al, 1999; Leipzeiger, 2003) and the marginal but nevertheless more regulatory
efforts that have occurred outside the Anglo-American nexus, (Hibbit and Collison,

Theorising these developments has not been the strongest element of the social
accounting project. Much is offered by the normative frameworks of accountability
and, increasingly, an over-arching context is offered by sustainability16. More positive
theorisations have drawn from an immense array of theory from agency theory to
Marxian analysis, from institutional theory to reflexivity. As with much of conventional

That both of these threads ignore the public and third sectors is an important matter to
which we will return later.

Such a crude periodisation could be leant support by the KPMG surveys – KPMG (1999,
2002, 2005).
The extent to which accountability and sustainability can be made mutually supportive
remains, however, unclear.
Social Accounting and Postalgia

accounting, however, an ad hoc activity like social accounting is likely to defy

attempts to coherently theorise its practice.

But what, if anything, has social accounting achieved?

Accepting that we do not have any clear and objective yardstick by which to make
such an evaluation an ad hoc assessment might recognise that social accounting:
has produced a healthy and diverse network of scholars, teachers and (to a lesser
extent) practitioners; it has advanced the subject in teaching and, most significantly, it
has generated a range of experiments, engagements and challenges with practice,
(see, for example, Unerman et al, 2007). More especially, if we consider social
accounting within the academy then its achievements:- to develop what is
understood by social accounting; to make the subject of social accounting teachable
and researchable; to give a community of scholars a legitimacy; and to engage with
and stimulate practice –strongly suggest that project has actually been a noted
success. Certainly applying any label of “failure” to social accounting seems

But has social accounting managed to develop or maintain a creative energy, an

imaginative angst, a frontier of antagonism, between the world as is and the world as
should be? (See also Everett, 2007). Here we might be less sanguine.
There are two themes we want to explore here: social accounting in the academic
community and, of more essence, social accounting and engagement with practice
and policy.

Social accounting and the academic community

Milne’s trenchant critique provides a helpful stepping off point (Milne, 2007). Milne
examines Mathews’ categorisation of the elements of social accounting: Social
Responsibility Accounting; Total Impact Accounting; Socioeconomic Accounting and
Social Indicators Accounting (Mathews, 1984). Milne then re-assesses social
accounting research over the past 20 years and concludes that most effort has been
directed at the disclosure of social and environmental information by companies
(what Mathews called Social Responsibility Accounting) to the almost exclusion of
wider research. Balancing the recognition that Milne somewhat overstates his case17
with the recognition that Mathews’ categorisation was not universal in the first place,
There is, for example, now a fairly substantial corpus of fieldwork research in social

Social Accounting and Postalgia

there is still, in all probability, a substantial charge to be answered. Casual empiricism

(see also the CSEAR website Reviews section for support) would suggest that a
significant majority of the 20-30 international articles published each year on social
accounting18 are concerned with disclosure studies. Such circumstantial evidence of
potential herding behaviour might be a function of data availability and convention but
might contain a more worrying hint of Tuttle and Dillard’s argument about research
exhibiting institutional isomorphism as it moves from diversity to homogeneity, (Tuttle
and Dillard, 2007). Would different emphases have encouraged the emergence of a
different landscape in social accounting? We would, however, contend, as does
Milne (2007), that there is something fundamentally unhealthy about an area of study
that has such infinite potential and yet seems to exhibit what appears to be so
relatively limited an imagination.

Has the revolutionary fervour given way to systematic development of smaller and
smaller issues in the interests of publication and research assessment? Is the
complexity of the issues addressed in social accounting research a function of the
research tools and modes of scholarship and publication which are considered
currently acceptable? Alternatively is there something about accountants (Medawar,
1976, Hopwood, 1985) that encourages conformity and, at its extremes, the
inability/reluctance to escape the “epistemology of modernity” as Lehman has it
(Lehman, 2006; 2007). Additionally, it appears that there are conservative tendencies
in academe itself (Tuttle and Dillard, 2007).

So, although social accounting might succeed in attracting accounting academics

dissatisfied with the mainstream and who have some wish to undertake an
engagement closer to matters of `real’ (not exclusively economic) concern and
importance, perhaps neither we as individuals nor as a community possess the
capacity or imagination to research absence (Choudhury, 1988) or silence (Hines,
1992) in new and innovative ways. Social accounting research has, for example, few
theorists. Consequently it seems to rely inordinately on either some very loose
approximation to normal science or the work of, for example, Lehman, Power and
Tinker. We continue to struggle with the ways to energise imagination and produce a
literature of imagination and engagement (Gray, 2002; but see later). Such an
absence leaves us open to charges of failure from theoretical communities. More
substantially, we would have to accept that while most social accountants (see

For more on this see Gray (2005); Parker (2005); Deegan (2007).
Social Accounting and Postalgia

below) explicitly recognise that social accounting is “interested”, it is probably the

case that the full extent of that interest has not been carefully explored, understood
and exposed (see, for example, Hopwood, 1985; Lehman, 2006).

Furthermore, it seems important to note that there would appear to be a high degree
of self-discipline in the work that is undertaken in social accounting. That is,
speculation and proposals for practice in the literature are probably unlike to sit too
far from what is currently considered to be the art of the possible. Speculations about
the consequences of (for example): profoundly reducing the volume of financial
accounting; producing accounts through poetry; developing full TBL accounts;
applying full dialogic accounting systems19 to all TNCs, etc.; are scarce. Are they a
victim of self-discipline? Would journals refuse to distinguish between such careful
speculation and indulgent arm waving and incoherent assertion? This may well be an
issue that academe needs to sort out.

This leads to a significant point: social accounting academe is so often limited to

being a function of current social accounting practice20. Research is largely limited by
an activity that is a function of international financial capitalistic hegemony. In a
remarkable sense, we find ourselves only able to study that which power will allow us
to study – how revolutionary is that? This is not a new phenomenon21 – nor is it
limited to social accounting. But it certainly offers a challenge to any project which
wishes to be both innovative and reformist (perhaps even revolutionary) when the
empirical terms of the work must be negotiated in unfairly balanced contracts with the
very organisations one wishes to change.

So, whilst there might be a case that social accounting is currently not obviously
building a new or revitalised project, it has achieved a great deal. The social and
environmental language of business, accounting and finance has changed; claims for
See, for example, Thomson and Bebbington, (2005)
One of the most remarkable recent manifestations of this must surely be the almost
complete absence of any “carbon accounting” in the social accounting literature. With the
largely unprecedented adoption of “carbon“ as a focal point by both business and policy, we
predict an upsurge in interest in carbon accounting and, somewhat belatedly, an academic
literature on it
The irony here is that much early social accounting research managed to gain some
empirical traction through the cataloguing and analysis of disclosure in annual reports as a
way to provide the subject with some reification and validity. Do we remain haunted by this

Social Accounting and Postalgia

accountability by capital have been shown to be empty; through the analysis of

“completeness”, voluntary disclosure has been exposed as cherry picking; the claims
for responsibility and sustainability are exposed as hollow; and we do now know how
to undertake substantial social, environmental and sustainability reporting. The claim
that “it cannot be done” is no longer tenable. And each of these achievements has
been made within the language and terms of business - and ought to be less
refutable as a result. (That business – and most of business academe - chooses to
ignore them is not entirely the fault of social accounting).

Engagement with practice and policy

The social accounting academic community can take some (in places considerable)
credit for innovations: the leading edge reporting by “values-based” organisations like
Traidcraft and Landcare; the experiments in accounting for sustainability in Landcare
and BP; the engagement and support of SRI and its community; work with trades
unions; work with social accounting in third sector organisations; the policy
developments of GRI, ISEA and, especially, the ACCA (and now worldwide) reporting
awards; the EMAN project and so on. These (and other such examples) are not trivial
achievements in any sense. However, the community has really (of course) failed to
transform capitalism (!?) and whilst it has supported the growth in increasingly
substantive social and environmental reporting, it has not managed to encourage
mainstream organisations to adopt full social and environmental accountability.
Perhaps most telling, social accounting academics – and practitioners have had
mixed success in burrowing into policy, government, regulation with some successes
reported in Australia and Denmark and less obvious impacts in (say) the UK and

It seems inevitable that our exploration must take us into a brief examination of the
social accounting “community” itself.

4. A Social Accounting Community?

If there is such a thing as a social accounting “community” it is a somewhat
amorphous and shifting one: whether considered by reference to its personnel or by
reference to its interests22. In the early years the range of interests that were initially
We will maintain an heroic and potentially improper assumption that there is a social
accounting project and that such a project can be conflated with CSEAR and its network. Of
course this is facile and some major actors have (it seems) actively disavowed involvement
with the CSEAR network, (such as, for example, Everett, Neu, Friedman and Miles, Gallhofer
and Haslam). Other work, most obviously that appearing in the North American positivist
Social Accounting and Postalgia

considered with the ambit of social accounting was extremely diverse and seemed to
encourage anything which was not hard, mainstream accounting: issues in lesser
developed countries, behavioural aspects of accounting, accounting for employees
and value added statements all appeared in the pages the Social Accounting Monitor
(SAM). SAM, however, probably served a more important role than encouraging the
parameters of a field to develop: its existence from the late 1970s until 1992 (when it
was transmuted by CSEAR into the Social and Environmental Accounting Journal)
provided the first hints of an emergent community that wanted to talk to others of
vaguely similar interests23. This desire manifested itself in the formation of CSEAR in
1991 and has remained a fairly dominant characteristic of the community since. It is
as though through some sense of being marginalised, a range of individuals (mostly
but by no means all accounting academics) have felt a need for community and so a
the community is formed.

We suspect it is more than this though. At the heart of social accounting one does
not find some coherent notion of intellectual structure (despite the attempts by some
of us to make it so). A serious interrogation would probably suggest that a collective
sense of beleaguerment and marginalization contribute more to group cohesion than
does intellectual coherence or shared political vision. However, central to the heart
of the social accounting movement is a set of shared values – in effect, an epistemic
community. These values are not necessarily consciously about being marginalised
but are almost certainly about wanting something which is not the traditional
(accounting) academic and practitioner experience and, at least tacitly, are grounded
in a commitment to democracy. There is a shared notion that we must move back
from the compartmentalisation of life and that life lived without a reflective notion of
the good life at its heart, is no life at all.

This brings us to two speculations of potential interest. First, it may actually be that
for most members of the social accounting community, the social accounting project
is either relatively unimportant or not a matter on which a collective view is needed.
journals would probably not be any part of a social accounting project – except as a straw
person for the purposes of occasional illustration. In 2006, CSEAR undertook a self-
evaluation exercise designed to ensure an inclusive ambience rather than a clique-y or
exclusive attitude. In addition, personnel are not consistent: for example, key characters such
as Ralph Estes, Marc Epstein and Trevor Gambling made many substantive contributions to
the field and then moved off to consultancy and activism and retirement (although Epstein
returning more recently, see, for example, Epstein and Freedman, 1994; Epstein, 2008).
The role of Reg Mathews in this construction of a community is celebrated in Gray and
Guthrie (2007)
Social Accounting and Postalgia

That is, it maybe that the social accounting community is the project and it is the
existence of a place where individuals can think and talk freely, supported (in perhaps
warm but vague and un-critical ways) that makes the community. There is little doubt
that new accountings are going to need places where the noise of individualist clutter
does not drown out the silence and poetry of community. Therefore, it might be that
any attempt to articulate the project (as opposed to articulation of a project around
which a community may assemble) could be seriously counter-productive. Such
articulations could expose differences which could destroy community, (as, indeed,
many examples of research into the calculable and explicit have shown - see, for
example, Dey et al 1995). Maybe attempts to articulate the social accounting project
are actually very personal, almost solipsistic articulations and of no formal community
value – except that each acknowledge the right – perhaps even duty – of each to
make such an articulation24.

If this is the case, then it may be worth speculating upon the possibility that “social
accounting” is an empty – or at least a floating – signifier (Laclau1990; 1996; 2005;
Laclau and Mouffe, 1985). The term has no fixed meaning – nor should it. It is a
label under which people of incoherent desire and dissatisfaction meet to exchange
poetry in arena which explicitly eschew the aggressive testosterone of other
academic displays. And maybe this is all it is? But from this ill-formed empty signifier
has emerged a community and substantial body of research that, having achieved a
good deal, now (we think) needs to be re-energised.

The social accounting `community’ has used its networks, its communications, its
journals, and its conferences to tease out new and innovative ideas; they are places
where (albeit a limited expression of) the speculative, the personal and the spiritual
can sit alongside the conventionally rigorous, the engaged and the publishable. Any
sense of a/the project stalling is wrong then. There is no “project” as such. Repetition
and mundane research are the manifestations of the apprenticeship that new
academics have to pass through; to demand only novelty in an increasingly busy
area maybe foolish. `Normal science’ is also the currency of the realm of the
academy – the bedrock of traditional scholarship. No discipline, as we currently
conceive them, can exist without it. And maybe what we are facing is now a period of
recharging and renewal grounded in a broader and deeper base. If imagination is
important, then the social accounting community needs to provide a context whereby

“Hello, my name is Social Accounting and I am a paradigm”.
Social Accounting and Postalgia

innovation can germinate – is, perhaps, even demanded. But we also need to find a
way to apply these imaginings in ways which are both communicable and rigorous: a
need for innovation is no excuse for indulgence and triviality.

5. Imagination, Social Accounts and the Future

As a response to Lehman’s (2006; 2007) exhortations to abandon the epistemology
of economic modernity and to escape its “economic terms of reference” (2006, p767)
and Shenkin and Coulson’s (2007) counsel to move from the “corpo-centrism” of
most social accounting, we would wish re-empower a sort of Brechtian adherence to
doubt and imagination and a seeking out of a greater authenticity as Sartre would
have it. And, at its heart, we would wish to maintain a key notion of guilt about
injustice that acts as an imperative to ensure that our awesome privilege to engage
with these issues is as close (in a Rawlsian sense) to the issues of concern as we
can make them. This is scholarship as a path to redemption and wisdom not as a
career option or the trappings of a life of leisure (or “academic labour”)25.

Whilst we may continue to struggle with the ways to energise imagination and
produce a literature of imagination and engagement (Gray, 2002; Adams and
Larrinaga, 2007) we have already seen that much important work takes place in
social accounting. In addition to the success with experimentation and, in particular,
the qualified success with accounting for (un) sustainability (see, for example,
Bebbington, 2007; Spence and Gray, 2008). The innovative use of a social account
by Cooper et al., (2005) offers a remarkably powerful way to switch the accounting
entity and engage directly with issues of policy. The early work on both social audits
and empowering “stakeholder” groups has a long and noble history (see, for
example, Harte and Owen , 1987; Geddes, 1991; and see especially Owen, 2007a)
and this has gained a new lease of life in recent years with initiatives such as the
CSEAR silent and shadow accounts; what Adams calls the reporting portrayal gap
and what Gallhofer et al. rediscover as counter-accounting, (Gibson et al., 2001a;
2001b; Adams 2004; Gallhofer et al., 2006). There is likely to be a very considerable
series of opportunities to offer alternative accountings in a variety of settings.

See Bebbington and Dillard (2007) for a robust development of this suggestion.

Social Accounting and Postalgia

Such recognitions can encourage us to cast our net yet wider26. For example,
Collison et al (2007) and Gray (2006) offer ways in which global or national level data
may be employed to change the focus of how we conceive of the accounting entity
and thereby challenge much empty rhetoric in corporate modernity whilst the dialogic
accounting suggested by Thomson and Bebbington (2005) offers a new de-centred
approach to accounts. What we have here, in all probability, are the emergent
threads of new conceptions of what a social account might become.

But it may well be in the public and the third sectors where the most vibrant examples
of and opportunities for new accountings reside. Whilst for many such organisations
the drivers for social accountability may be broadly economic in nature, the values
which underpin the purpose of the organisation and its activities are more likely to be
in tune with the anxieties of the social accounting community. Seeking out the
contours of values-based organisations – whether social enterprise or NGO, for
example - and seeking to actively work with their creation offers considerable
promise, (see, for example, Spreckley, 1997; Quarter et al, 2003; Capron and Gray,
2000;Young and Tilley, 2006 ).

Beyond this lies the even more tantalising prospect of seeking the transformation of
conventional organisations to “new models” whatever that might be. Many of the
ingredients will lie in values based organisations and in NGOs and community
businesses and their social audits can become the seed of these processes perhaps.
(See, for interest, Ball, 2007)27.

What we are driving towards here are accountability regimes that are more actively
normative and that start to look more like, and may indeed act in partnership with, the
better forms of journalism. To summarize, we propose three interrelated strata of
activity for those who comprise the social accounting project. The first is the
conceptualization of new things through innovation in imagination. The second is to
identify and describe new modes of accountability being contemplated or used by
practitioners and third sector organizations. Third, develop new accounts of new or

We would acknowledge a suggestion from Alan Lowe at this point in which he notes that the
pragmatic approach to change which has often informed the social accounting community
bears a more than passing resemblance to the arguments of Bruno Latour and Actor Network
Theory – a matter deserving of further exploration, (see, for example, Latour, 2005).
Perhaps worthy of note are the efforts of a colleague at St Andrews University, Nick Barter,
whose PhD is intended to articulate just such an idea.
Social Accounting and Postalgia

different entities in different units with different notions of usefulness and

accountability. For this to happen, we speculate that the social accounting community
may need to make a number of conscious decisions.

Perhaps the most obvious of these decisions would be to learn how to escape the
dead hand of business hegemony on the thoughts actions and self-disciplined
imaginations of social accounting. We suspect that, without necessarily embracing
the often intellectually lazy kant of remote revolution, we must learn to treat any
notion that the economic power of the business world necessarily provides any sort
of morally or intellectually valid warranty to intellectual endeavour as entirely absurd.
We must learn a language that makes this absurdity evident and find empirical
domains whose engagement is not subject to the conservative reluctance of capital.
This is not to suggest that all associated with business must be held in contempt;
quite the opposite. It is, however, to ensure that the business of business is not
thinking and researching; that is the business of academe. If the social accounting
community is to the develop, getting out from under business hegemony may be an
essential step. Abandoning accounting for organisations – at least commercial
organisations - may, it seems, also prove an inevitable further step.

Equally obvious, and following from the foregoing, is the need to embrace more
actively the excellent and diverse work that takes place in the third and public
sectors. For those who have laboured in this field both within (see, for example,
Burritt and Welch, 1997; Cotton et al, 1997; Spedding, 1997; Lewis, 2000; Quarter et
al., 2003; Ball and Grubnic, 2007;) and without (see, for example, Zadek and Evans,
1992; Raynard, 1995; Spreckley, 1997; Pearce, 2003; Pearce and Kay, 2005;)
academe, such a suggestion must seem galling in its presumption. And yet here, as
with the social enterprise and values-based organisation sectors (see, for example,
De Leeuw, 1995; Capron and Gray, 2000; Gray et al., 1997; Dey, 2007), there is
relatively little that has systematically found its way into the academic literature (as
far as we know, that is). There is more important work to be done here in
systematically refining and evaluating this work and laying foundations for more
developed academic study. (See, especially, Ball and Grubnic, 2007; O’Dwyer, 2007;
Unerman and O’Dwyer, 2006 for important initiatives in this area.)

So, let us finish with a call to arms. Let us replace theory and normal science with dirt
under the fingernails. Let us be explicitly and daily conscious of our privilege and

Social Accounting and Postalgia

seek an empathy with a mother who cannot provide a drink of water for her son or a
father who cannot protect his daughter. Let us maintain a watchful eye on a planet
which will threaten our children’s existence. Let us only ever account for these things.
Maybe we can learn how nature accounts – if at all. Maybe we must learn how we
account, person to person, how market alien values (Thiellemann, 2000) are the stuff
of human existence; and how commerce is valuable but dangerous. Maybe we are
stretching towards a new empowerment of accountability and accounting as
language – a re-examination of, for example, Cooper (1995); Hanninen (1995);
Mouck (1994); Simmons and Neu (1997); Harney (2006) and looking beyond the
imagination suggested there to a place where we study social accountability as the
very glue that binds persons together and which separates persons from their nature.
We need to learn new ways to authentically grant warranty in debate and deny all
suppression from others. We should abandon that which cannot be seen as
commensurate with a good life, and expose our taken for granted assumptions more
explicitly – despite the discomfort that will bring.

We may learn to transform old organisations or to build a “new model” of entity. We

may very well enjoin an abandonment of organisations as entities altogether.
Perhaps we can respond to the analysis of Albrow and Glasius (2008) and focus on a
new global civil society embedded in new and better understood forms of
communication and democracy. Maybe then we will face the conflicts and decide who
will suffer in the transition to a less unjust world. We suggest that closeness and
authenticity will become our criteria and a recognition of absurdity our chief weapon.

Social Accounting and Postalgia


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