Management accounting

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Title: Management accounting
practices and assemblages
Author: Miller, Peter
Abstract: The roles of accounting in shaping the economy are currently being rediscovered by sociologists (Callon, 1998; Fligstein, 1990; Granovetter, 1985). This recent revival of interest in accounting marks a further stage in a curious pattern of alternate attention and neglect on the part of sociologists towards the practices that make the economy visible and measurable qua economy. This paper reviews the different ways in which accounting has been given a wider sociological significance across the twentieth century. It argues for a focus on how new calculative practices emerge within historically specific assemblages, and how they alter the capacities of agents and organisations, and the interrelations among them. Investment appraisal practices are used to illustrate. The paper is in five sections. Section one introduces the paper. Section two considers briefly the work of Max Weber in the early 20th century, and the link established in his writings between accounting and rationalisation. Section three considers a subsequent stage, with a markedly different focus, namely the emergence in the 1950s and 1960s of a substantial literature on budgeting. Heavily influenced by theories of group dynamics, this literature focussed primarily on management accounting in an intra-organisational setting. Section four examines a further stage, characterised by the elaboration of a range of methodologies from approximately 1980 onwards that had as their concern to analyse the social and organisational aspects of accounting. The methodologies developed and applied here included those that focus on the institutional environments of accounting, the political economy of accounting, ethnographic approaches, and a concern with the networks within which accounting is embedded. Section five considers one particular strand of the recent economic sociology literature, that which concerns the calculative capacities of agents and their embeddedness in social networks. While endorsing the revival of interest in economic sociology, this paper argues that rather than focus on the enduring and transhistorical attributes of agents and networks, emphasis be placed on the roles of accounting within historically localised and temporarily stabilised assemblages of practices. Also, in place of an emphasis on the role of economics and economic theory in formatting the real economy, attention is directed to the more prosaic practices of management accounting which make it possible to act upon persons and processes within and between organisations. These arguments in favour of focussing on the calculative practices of accounting are illustrated briefly through consideration of a relatively neglected topic in management accounting - investment appraisal. The practice of "investment bundling" as elaborated at Caterpillar Inc in the early 1990s is considered. An investment bundle was defined there as a multi-period capital spending program based on the diverse yet mutually reinforcing assets needed to manufacture a core product module in a specified area on the factory floor. It is argued that the practice of investment bundling as developed at Caterpillar helped operationalise a world-wide transformation of production regimes within a particular corporate setting, and in a manner compatible with the broader problematising of the competitiveness of North American industry which can be termed a "politics of the product". Investment bundling provided a device for intervening within the firm, and in consonance with a broader transformation of concepts of competitiveness and economic citizenship.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10398/6319
Date: 2003-11-13

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