In Praise of Doubt: Accounting as a Maieutic Machine

Accounting

Speaker:Prof Paolo Quattrone, EBS, Madrid
Date: Wednesday 6 February 2013
Time: 14:00 - 15:30
Location: Building One: Bateman Lecture Theatre

Further details

Accounting research in the last thirty years or so has ventured into new realms which have moved away from conventional views of accounting as a functional, economic-driven, and representationalist practice. The present paper intends to reflect on this move and possibly take this speculative attempt further. It aims at exploring the possibility of developing alternative forms of accounting which draw upon the constructivist turn which accounting research has experienced.
 
The pretext for seeking to address these issues and seeking to speculate on different forms of accounting, which draw upon and are underpinned by non representationalist epistemologies, is given by the analysis of how the role played by the actors in the Parmalat scandal simply do not fit with those assumed to be played by stakeholders as depicted by the accounting framework. This scandal seems a particularly interesting theoretical space for reflection and experimentation given that what accounting is and should do is now largely taken for granted in the world of practice (and in some research traditions in accounting), and, I will argue, this very fact creates the conditions of accounting scandals.
 
The paper begins from the realisation that, as has been noted, if things were representable they would not need to be represented: there is no need for representing what is visible, a fact (even if this fact is considered as a construction, as its etymology, from the Latin facere, factum, i.e. made, suggests). Rather one needs to re-present things for they are constantly absent and thus one needs to make them present again: a sign always re-present the world in its absence (Latour) and accounting is full of things which are never visible (e.g. a cost) and thus in need of being made present. Assuming the impossibility of representation (of the testimony, Levi, 1986) is the only form through which a representation is thinkable, possible, and indeed sought and needed. Assuming that representation is impossible makes accounting necessary, not the other way round.
 
The paper is (will be!) organised as such. The first section describes briefly the main tenets of the Parmalat scandal and sets the theoretical scene for further theoretical development, which will happen in the final and concluding section. In this section the idea of maieutics, i.e. a form of gaining knowledge which draws on continuous questioning, is used to overcome some of the principles utilised to design the current accounting framework. This notion is then utilised to expand Burchell et al.’s framework where accounting is described as a machine playing various roles in organisations, economies and societies. The paper adds a further role accounting may play and describes it as a maieutic machine, a machine which, opposite to the notion of answering machine assumed to guide current processes of accounting, auditing and governance standardization, makes of the doubt rather than of certainties the principle for its functioning.