Accounting, Foucault and debates about management and organizations

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Bowden, Bradley
Stevenson-Clarke, Peta
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Purpose Postmodernist ideas – most particularly those of Foucault but also those of Latour, Derrida and Barthes – have had a much longer presence in accounting research than in other business disciplines. However, in large part, the debates in accounting history and management history, have moved in parallel but separate universes. The purpose of this study is therefore one of exploring not only critical accounting understandings that are significant for management history but also one of highlighting conceptual flaws that are common to the postmodernist literature in both accounting and management history.

Design/methodology/approach Foucault has been seminal to the critical traditions that have emerged in both accounting research and management history. In exploring the usage of Foucault’s ideas, this paper argues that an over-reliance on a set of Foucauldian concepts – governmentality, “disciplinary society,” neo-liberalism – that were never conceived with an eye to the problems of accounting and management has resulted in not only in the drawing of some very longbows from Foucault’s formulations but also misrepresentations of the French philosophers’ ideas.

Findings Many, if not most, of the intellectual positions associated with the “Historic Turn” and ANTi-History – that knowledge is inherently subjective, that management involves exercising power at distance, that history is a social construct that is used to legitimate capitalism and management – were argued in the critical accounting literature long before Clark and Rowlinson’s (2004) oft cited call. Indeed, the “call” for a “New Accounting History” issued by Miller et al. (1991) played a remarkably similar role to that made by Clark and Rowlinson in management and organizational studies more than a decade later.

Originality/value This is the first study to explore the marked similarities between the critical accounting literature, most particularly that related to the “New Accounting History” and that associated with the “Historic Turn” and ANTi-History in management and organizational studies.

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Journal of Management History
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Accounting, auditing and accountability
History and philosophy of specific fields
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Historic Turn
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Bowden, B; Stevenson-Clarke, P, Accounting, Foucault and debates about management and organizations, Journal of Management History, 2020