Critical Realism and accounting research workshop series

Dr Stewart Smyth
University of Sheffield
SMALL GROUP PROJECT: SEPTEMBER 2015 – JUNE 2016

The Research Idea

To create a space for those with an interest in critical realism and accounting research to collaborate, develop ideas and prepare research papers for publication. There is an emerging strand of accounting research that seeks to utilise critical realist ideas (Modell, 2014). To date these researchers have come to critical realism (CR) on an individual and isolated basis. Further, there is a wider recognition in the accounting research community of the role that critical realist ideas have had in informing interdisciplinary research in other fields.
This research project will hold a series of workshops that seeks to bring this embryonic research community together for the first time. Further, it is anticipated that the workshops will attract other accounting researchers who may not have published work using CR but are attracted to its ideas.
Each workshop will have a keynote address delivered by a leading academic who writes using CR ideas in other disciplines (e.g. sociology, politics and organisation and management studies), where CR is an already established research perspective. This will be followed by sessions where individual papers will be presented and discussed using a discussant model with, the aim of developing the papers to publishable standard.
The output of these workshops will be a collection of papers that are ready for publication either as an edited book of essays or a special issue of leading accounting or management journal. In this respect, discussions have already taken place with Routledge about publishing such a book (please contact Jacqueline Courthoys).

Background

The financial and economic crisis of 2007/08 has created significant and continuing implications for actually existing accounting (Hopwood, 2009), with some arguing that accounting was a causal factor in the crisis (for a discussion on this see Laux and Luez, 2009). The crisis has also raised questions about the work of accounting academics with some arguing that ‘our theories provide insufficient bases’ to understand the developments in the international political economy over recent decades (Arnold, 2009).
At the same time, alternative ideas of what accounting could be (e.g. social accounting) have not gained traction in practice, leading to calls for the abandonment of accounting as the foundational discipline of social accounting, and to look for alternatives in conceptions of accountability (Gray et al., 2014).
In this context, it is necessary to look outside of accounting for ideas that could address some of the fundamental problems within the discipline. This is where critical realist ideas can play an under-labouring (Bhaskar, 2008) role with an emphasis of setting interdisciplinary accounting research on a firm philosophical footing.
It is posited that accounting can benefit (and learn) from the role that critical realism has played in other disciplines, such as International Relations (Joseph, 2014) and related business disciplines such as Organisation and Management Studies (OMS) (Ackroyd, 2009; Fleetwood, 2004) or Economics (Lawson, 1994, 1997).

The Focus

Critical realism recognises the limitations in positivist- and interpretivist-influenced research schools (the dominant research schools in accounting) and seeks an alternative way forward. In accounting research, CR ideas have in the main been used to bolster individual points made as part of other arguments (e.g. structure and agency, theorizing or emancipation). There are a limited number of papers that seek to utilise more than one critical realist idea at a time.
The benefits of developing critical realist ideas in accounting research are multiple. Bhaskar sets out three pre-suppositions of CR research – an under-labouring task, the development of actionable research and the need to critique ‘from within’ existing modes of thought (Bhaskar, 2008). All these tasks, if successfully established in interdisciplinary accounting research, would allow for a set of coherent foundations on which to build the next generation of research in the Interdisciplinary and Critical Perspectives on Accounting (ICPA) project (Broadbent and Laughlin, 2013).
One example that shows the greater potential of CR-inspired accounting research is Modell (in press) where the arguments move beyond the realm of abstract research perspectives to a focus on the role of institutional accounting research in the debate about democratic relations between organisations and society. The potential can also be seen in papers using critical realism that focus on public policy and accounting research (Burrowes et al., 2004; Smyth, 2012).

Theoretical Novelty

Important research questions regarding ontology and epistemology are rarely discussed in accounting research. Accounting is recognised as a discipline that does not have an underpinning, indigenous theoretical foundation. It is here that critical realism as a theory of science can play an under-labouring role and allow for the development of rigorous interdisciplinary and critical accounting research (Broadbent and Laughlin, 2013).
One of the strengths of CR is the combination of strong realist ontology with a weak relativist epistemology allowing for the utilisation of different theoretical framings by groups of academics. Through a process of engagement with the empirical and iterative refinement theoretical understanding can be advanced. As outlined above the need for this contribution is relevant and pressing as recent years have seen a re-appraisal (which could be described as soul-searching) of the aims and impacts of both social and interdisciplinary accounting projects (Gray et al., 2014; Modell, in press).
Some examples of where this work has already started in accounting research include, Modell’s (2009, 2010) papers on mixed methods accounting research and triangulation. Critical realist ideas have also been utilised in an attempt to bolster or move beyond Giddens’ structuration theory (Kilfoyle and Richardson, 2011); Manicas’ (1993) exposition of accounting as a human science, relies upon Bhaskar’s early work on transcendental realism; Gallhofer and Haslam’s (2011) reference to Bhaskar’s writings on emancipation; or, Llewellyn (2003) who combines and applies a range of CR ideas to understanding theory development in accounting research.

Methodology

The workshops will be organised with a leading critical realist academic from a discipline outside of accounting delivering keynote address. It is envisaged that these addresses will reflect on how critical realism has been adopted and developed in a particular discipline and what lessons could be learnt for the development of critical realist-inspired accounting research. These addresses will come from related management disciplines (e.g. economics) and the broader social science community (e.g. politics). In this way it anticipated that the widest possible innovative perspectives can be engaged with.
The focus of this research project is on the development of new research perspectives; as such some of the expected outputs will address mainly methodological issues (such as Llewellyn, 2003; Modell, 2009) . However, empirical based papers will be positively encouraged through the call for papers and the discussant review process. To date empirical accounting studies utilising critical realist ideas have been limited to two areas – accounting change and public policy (Modell, 2014). This means there is ample scope for empirical work using critical realism into traditional areas of accounting research, as well as potentially breaking new ground.
For example, Hopwood (2009) identifies significant limitations in existing research on financial accounting, auditing and regulatory institutions arising from the 2007/08 crisis. He also identifies areas that have so far had little attention from accounting researchers such as profit-shifting and financialisation.

Work Plan

The work plan revolves around three workshops in 2015/16. The first of these will be held in September 2015 at Sheffield University Management School and supported by the Centre for Research in Accounting and Finance in Context (CRAFiC). This centre is the latest organisational form of the “Sheffield School” of accounting which is credited with originating the Interdisciplinary and Critical Perspectives on Accounting (ICPA) project (Laughlin, 2014; Roslender and Dillard, 2003). The PI is co-director of CRAFiC.
Each workshop will be composed of two parts. First, there will be a keynote address from an academic known for working with critical realist ideas in another discipline. Professors Steve Vincent (Newcastle University) and Jonathan Joseph (University of Sheffield) have been approached to fulfil this role. Both have written extensively on CR ideas within OMS and Politics respectively.
The second part will be devoted to developing papers to a stage suitable for publication. The papers will be presented using the discussant system where each submission will have input from an academic (not the author). Papers may be re-presented at subsequent workshops allowing the authors time to develop their paper.
There are two major outputs expected; first, will be a publication of a book of collected essays. As an alternative output an internationally recognised, interdisciplinary accounting journal (e.g. Accounting, Organizations and Society) will be approached with a proposal for a special issue. Second, it is anticipated that the workshops will bring together a community of accounting scholars that will collaborate further in the future.

Outcome

The project will significantly aid the emergence of a new community of interdisciplinary accounting researchers seeking to explore and develop critical realist informed accounting research. This community could have a significant impact on the development of social accounting and interdisciplinary accounting projects, at a time when there is soul-searching in both research streams. In the process the work completed at these workshops can lay the foundations for engagement with the boarder debates about the nature of actual existing accounting.
The immediate step will be to secure publication of the papers developed at the workshops as outlined above. Further steps and longer-term outcomes in part depend upon the position of the principal investigator (PI) within the academic community. The PI is chairperson of the British Accounting and Finance Association (BAFA), Interdisciplinary Perspectives Special Interest Group (IPSIG), and is also co-director of the Centre for Research in Accounting and Finance in Context (CRAFiC) at Sheffield University Management School. In line with the aims of the “Sheffield School” of accounting research, CRAFiC and the Management School seek to develop research that adopts innovative and interdisciplinary research methods.
Through these connections it is envisaged that the newly established network of researchers will have a number of conduits to disseminate their research to the broader accounting research community. Practically this will be achieved by feeding into the plenary session organised by the IPSIG at the BAFA annual conference in 2016.