Informing historical research in accounting and management: Traditions, philosophies, and opportunities

Informing historical research in accounting and management: Traditions, philosophies, and opportunities

Parker, Lee D

Abstract: Historical research in accounting and management, hitherto largely neglected as a field of inquiry by many management and accounting researchers, has experienced a resurgence of interest and activity in research conferences and journals over the past decade. The potential lessons of the past for contemporary issues have been rediscovered, but the way forward is littered with antiquarian narratives, methodologically naive analyses, ideologically driven interpretation and ignorance of the traditions, schools and philosophy of the craft by accounting and management researchers as well as traditional and critical historians themselves. This paper offers an introduction to contributions made to the philosophies and methods of history by significant historians in the past, a review of some of the influential schools of historical thought, insights into philosophies of historical knowledge and explanation and a brief introduction to oral and business history. On this basis the case is made for the philosophically and methodologically informed approach to the investigation of our past heritage in accounting and management

Accounting and management research has proliferated in both volume and variety in recent decades, yet much of it remains curiously ahistorical. Many contemporary research journal articles for instance contain all but the briefest allusions to prior practices and knowledge, often confining themselves to the almost obligatory but cursory review of the previous ten years’ literature. Not only do many contemporary accounting and management researchers risk leaving themselves without a sense of tradition, but they also risk revisiting earlier solved issues or making decisions about the future in isolation from the past. The problem does not end here. It is not difficult to locate in the extant accounting and management literature, examples of historical research that varies from theoretical naivete to doctrinaire predisposition, and from archival neglect to antiquarianism, or that simply appear to be methodologically uninformed. The value of such material to practitioners, policy-makers and researchers may therefore be doubtful or at least suspect.

This paper aims to address some of these issues by offering a selective overview of the theoretical and philosophical traditions that have informed historical research and writing generally. It therefore sets out to acquaint the accounting and management reader with theories and methodologies adopted and advocated by a sample of significant historians in human history. Also briefly reviewed are some of the most influential schools of historical methodology as well as historical philosophies of knowledge and explanation that have informed interpretive historical research. In addition, two particular areas of accounting history research extension, oral and business history, are highlighted. Finally some implications for future historical research in accounting and management will be discussed.


Why should we concern ourselves at all with undertaking studies of accounting and management history? One pragmatic answer can be offered by Alfred Chandler’s (1977) work. His are arguably the books on business history most often consulted by business executives and possibly the reason is that they have “explained the sea to the fish who swam within it” (Smoler, 1992).

In general, history offers a variety of potential uses. It may be employed to build a view of the past from which professional consciousness and cohesion can be manufactured. It can reveal and render visible parties, practices, and outcomes previously ignored. Alternatively it can challenge and overturn fallacious beliefs and unfounded traditions or offer some indicators of precedents and previous experiences that may affect future actions and policies (Tosh, 1991). Management and accounting policy and practice are often discussed and applied ahistorically. Historical research can offer a prologue to deliberations on contemporary issues and provide insights into not only precedents but also conditioning factors (economic, political, social, and institutional) and possible outcomes ( Previts et al, 1990a, b).

Identifying Benefits

Accounting and management history can help us identify within our particular nations and cultures, what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. It also helps us understand why we have had our successes and failures over long periods of time. It offers the prospect of accountants and managers learning from ignored or forgotten past experiences, both successful and unsuccessful. Chandler himself argues that our focus on quantitative tools and analyses have been the source of many of our present day difficulties in accounting and management, in that they have emphasised what is measurable but not necessarily what is important, and that they have lead to a short-term decision making focus rather than a long term decision making orientation. A better understanding of the histories of accounting, management and business may assist us to avoid these pitfalls.

The study of accounting and management history also offers the prospect of researchers operating in particular cultures (such as Asian versus Western cultures) being able to discover the unique features, impacts and potential advantages of the cultural contexts within which their organizations and professions operate. This may for example avoid the tendency towards wholesale adoption of Western management and accounting practices in Asian or Middle Eastern contexts and organizations within which they may prove to be inappropriate and therefore unsuccessful (Parker, 1994). So there are strong arguments to suggest that we should indeed bother with history. It helps us put our present into context and better informs and sensitises the accounting and management decisions we must make tomorrow.

Accounting and Management Directions

Napier’s (1989) overview of recent research directions in accounting history argues that examination of original accounting documents gives our contemporary theories and generalisations some empirical content. Despite invariable limitations in availability of historical evidence, historical analysis of accounting and business records can reveal much about techniques and processes as well as what has been accounted for in the past. Historical analysis can provide us with information as to accounting choices taken in the past and as to the interaction of accounting considerations and business decisions. Napier correctly points out that accounting records are not the only sources that are available to the historian. Further sources include publicly available documents such as legal cases, journalistic writings and also private documents such as minute books of directors meetings, correspondence between owners and managers, managers notebooks and so on. However he notes that much historical accounting research has been aimed at assembling primary and secondary historical evidence, which has been much needed but at times accused of antiquarianism. Further benefits from historical research in accounting include the contextualising of accounting history. This implies that the researcher studies the history of accounting not as a technique in itself but as one element of a social, institutional and organizational context over time. This can be provided by interpretive, critical or postmodern approaches.

Goodman and Kruger (1988) have provided an informative review of the potential contribution that historical research can make to the management literature. They recognise that historiography (the body of techniques, theories and principles associated with historical research) has been attacked for lacking objectivity but argue that as a research method, historiography is no more subjective than many other social science methods. Historiography has also been criticised for data dredging but generally, historiographic research examines sources with the intention of providing explanations and generating substantive theory. Goodman and Kruger argue that historical research has three major potential applications in management research:

1. Variable selection and evaluation.

2. Theory construction.

3. Hypothesis generation.

In all the above areas historical research has the strong potential to make major contributions through its evaluation of multiple sources, its addressing of questions such as “what happened?”, “what was?”, and “why?”, and through its emphasis upon multiple influences and multiple hypotheses that enables the researcher to set hypotheses within a broader context. An example of that broader context which management historiography offers can be found in Pindur et al’s (1995) global review of the history of management in which they argue that to understand and apply contemporary management principles and techniques effectively, an understanding of historical theories, models and processes is required. To that end they traverse the scientific management, administrative management, behavioural management, quantitative management, as well as systems, contingency, strategic and “Japanese” management movements.

The potential utility of a historical perspective in accounting research has already been argued by such writers as Baladouni (1979), Baxter (1981), and Parker (1981). Contributions to accounting historiography have also been gradually emerging in the research literature since the 1970s (Goldberg, 1974; Baladouni, 1979; Parker, 1981; Gaffikin, 1987, 1988a, 1988b). With the accumulation of such writings, particularly in the accounting literature, there has developed a growing appreciation that history in this discipline, as in others, is a cultural product reflecting social, economic, and political environments (Lister, 1983; Previts, 1984; Hopwood and Johnson, 1986). In addition has emerged the understandings gained from the perspectives offered by critical accounting history researchers that accounting is an influencing activity that creates its environment at least as much as it may reflect that environment. From such studies, our understandings of accounting have broken away from its previously assumed characteristics of neutrality, objectivity and technicist isolation (Gaffikin, 1987, 1988a). Recent Reflections

A number of historians have been more recently adding to the historiographic literature in the field of accounting research, expanding upon the themes of history’s nature, utility, methodologies and ongoing developments. Previts et al (1990a,b) produced two papers which commenced by distinguishing between narrative and interpretive history, and considering the relevance of extant accounting history research to accounting teaching, policy and practice as well as outlining some of the limitations of historical research. Their review included some of the major areas of accounting history inquiry, including biography, institutional history, development of accounting thought, general history, critical history, data base development and critical history. Their consideration of historical method extended to general methodological issues, cliometrics, empirical and statistical studies, content analysis, and case studies.

Even more recently, Carnegie and Napier (1996) provided a significant analysis of the state of the art with respect to critical and interpretive history research in accounting in which they addressed the roles of accounting history in conferring status upon the discipline of accounting, serving functionalist policy informing purposes, and providing bases for critiques of past and present practice. As Previts et al (1990b) had done, but with differing selections, they highlighted a variety of areas of ongoing accounting history research including studies of surviving firm records, accounting records in business history, biography, prosopography, institutional history, public sector accounting and comparative international accounting history.

From a more strictly methodological “primer” viewpoint, Fleischman, Mills and Tyson (1996) revisit the concept and definition of history, and discuss issues of subjectivity, evidence types, historical construction, and historical versus social science perspectives. They also briefly outline some significant accounting historians of the 20th century as well as research journals currently publishing accounting history and comment on the emerging critical history research perspectives as opposed to interpretive and narrative, archival traditions.

This paper builds further upon these foregoing historiographic works by returning to a somewhat broader canvass in providing an introduction to the work, philosophies and methodological perspectives adopted by some of the leading historical writers of the past. The intention is to illustrate the wealth and variety of theoretical and methodological sources available for accounting and management historians to consult. This also provides a backdrop to some of the pervasive schools of thought that have been influencing historical scholarship in the 20th century. Some of these foundation philosophies are reflected in methodological elements such as historian’s attitude, objectivity, events, facts, ideas, causation, interpretation, explanation and discovery through writing. Indeed even in such growing areas of historical research innovation as oral history, faint but perceptible traces of the work and approaches of very early historians can be detected.


In some respects accounting and management historians could be accused of deficits in their appreciation of the predecessors in their own historical writing craft. Yet there is much to be learned and appreciated in terms of perspective, theory, and methodology from the work of significant historians from the past. What follows is a very brief and admittedly selective review of the contributions to methodological thought made by some of these historians (Barker, 1982; Gooch, 1952; Thomson, 1969; Tosh, 1991; Goetz, 1986). These brief overviews provide an insight into the methodological foundations and debates in historical thinking and offer the management and accounting historian a variety of issues to consider and a range of potential research approaches that might be adopted.

Herodotus was born in approximately 484BC and wrote the first great narrative history of the ancient world, the history of the GrecoPersian wars. He is considered to be the first historian in that he recorded what happened and tried to show how the two peoples involved, came into that conflict. His work brought a new principle of critical enquiry in asking why the war had occurred. His histories were designed to be read aloud and included features still common to the discipline of history, namely critical enquiry, prose narrative, popular presentation and cultural significance. Herodotus employed a then new method of historical enquiry that first asked a question, looked for information relevant to that question and then drew a conclusion from the data collected.

Thucydides was born around 455BC and wrote the history of the Peloponnesian War. He wrote a contemporary history of events through which he lived and attempted to explain impartially the intricacies and complexities of the events that he observed. Like Herodotus, Thucydides wanted to enquire into the origins of the war and to distinguish precipitating from underlying causes. He was also concerned to answer the question “what actually happened?” and grappled with the questions of “what is the nature of power?” and “what lessons can history teach?”. His methods included cross checking between witnesses’ accounts before recording and establishing a reliable chronology. His work had three definable stages:

1. Notes he made of events as they took place.

2. The arrangement and rewriting of those notes into a chronicle (consecutive narrative).

3. The construction of a final elaborated narrative.

Pan Ku was bom in China in approximately 32 AD. He was one of China’s most notable historians. He was an official and scholar of the Eastern (later Han) dynasty and his Han Shu (History of the Former Han Dynasty) became the approach most frequently employed by later Chinese historians. Carrying on work commenced by his father, he spent over 16 years compiling and editing the history. Pan Ku attempted to represent the Han dynasty and empire as factually as possible through an organised compendium of existing documents. He founded the socalled Han style of prose – simple, lucid, not particularly vivid and avoiding elaborateness. His work has been admired for its thoroughness and apparent objectivity.

Voltaire was born in Paris in 1694. His historical works ranged over the whole field of culture and society. His approach to history had four major characteristics:

1. A scientific methodology which included a critical appraisal of evidence.

2. Treatment of the past on a universal scale.

3. A view of the Reformation as a social and political as well as religious phenomenon.

4. A concentration on the history of the human mind.

Voltaire hoped to establish a fundamental historical law – to explain the historical process and benefit the human race. He developed a law that humanity had never progressed without guidance of strong enlightened persons in positions of authority.

Gibbon (Edward) was born in Surrey, England in 1737 and was regarded as a rationalist, historian and scholar. He broke from the 18th century belief in God’s will being the primary explanator of past patterns. His historical writing was characterised by rational argument and the employment of irony. Gibbon adopted an analytical, secular attitude favoured by most historians today. The influences upon events he chose to investigate were not divine or miraculous, but the interplay of personality, ideas, conditions and events. His History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), a continuous narrative from the 2nd century AD to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, is regarded as a masterpiece of philosophical historiography. It realised his ideal of writing history that was related to and explained by the social institutions in which it is contained. He was motivated to write it by his worry about the possible collapse of Western civilization. He sought to unravel the causes of the Roman empire’s collapse so as to argue that Western civilization had reached a superior state of development and was, therefore, immune from similar collapse. Gibbon, untiringly industrious and accurate in consulting his sources, demonstrated a sense of fairness and probity, and employed a literary writing style that exhibited both flair and acumen.

Ranke (Leopold von) was born in Saxony, Germany in 1795. Ranke is considered to have founded modern historical professionalism. He introduced the critical approach to sources into mainstream historiography and founded a new breed of historians trained in the critical evaluation of primary sources. He attempted, by applying his skills of textual criticism to history (working on original documentary sources) to “show the actual past”. He perceived history as drawn solely from original documents, critically examined and authenticated. The facts were to speak for themselves. Ranke’s concern to portray, as objectively as possible, the past as it really was, represented a protest against the moralising history commonly being written in the early 1800s. Indeed a Rankean scholar exhaustively explores the small area of the past in which he or she is an expert, asking limited questions and then producing a reliable report for other historians to use (so that there will be no need for the evidence to be inspected again). Ranke believed that history evolves in the development of the individual, peoples and states which together constitute the process of culture. For him, continuity was a prerequisite for the development of a culture and its underlying historical reality. His approach to historical research also emphasised the role of contemplation and intuition required for addressing the variety and unpredictability of individual human behaviour. Ranke is regarded as the founder of Historicism and has exercised a major influence over Western historiography.

Karl Marx was born in Germany in 1818. He developed his ideas starting from the classical economists, believing he had discovered a science of human society in which politics, economics, philosophy and literature as well as history, interacted to create the social structure from which it sprang. He learned from the German Idealist philosopher G.W.F. Engel that the past could exhibit a pattern and a destination. Marx chose to envision these as a class war between those who own the means of production and those who are limited to selling their labour. In his view, humanity’s beliefs reflected primary physical needs and everything in the human world had grown from humanity’s attempts to satisfy those needs. His concept of history is called historical materialism or economic determinism. His work accelerated the trend of history away from memoirs and letters towards documentation provided by public records, charters, parish registers and the like.

Marx saw history as being about the growth in human productive power. Once humanity had satisfied its basic needs, then it could pursue self-fulfillment and achieve its potential in all other spheres. Thus he contended that the only true, objective view of the historical process is rooted in the material conditions of life. He therefore chose to reject nationalism, freedom and religion as major defining themes of history. Instead he believed that people are the victims of material forces, but under the right conditions can be the agents of historical change. Classes were not defined by him in terms of wealth, status or education, but in terms of their role in the productive process. Thus each mode of production was seen to result in the emergence of classes with antagonistic interests, each successive stage producing its own dominant class.

In proposing his theory as a guide to the study of history, Marx rejected the historical methods employed by the leading historians of his day, considering Ranke and others to be captives of the dominant ideology of the age being studied by them. That dominant ideology (of each period being researched) was in Marx’s view, a cover for the material interests of the dominant class. The dialectic between the forces and participants in production was for him, the principal driver of long term historical change. However it is arguable that Marx never developed his own clearly specified methodology of historical research.

Trevelyan (George Macaulay) was born in Warwickshire, England in 1876. He was Master of Trinity College Cambridge 1940-51; liberal by training and temperament, he demonstrated an appreciation of the Whig tradition in English politics and thought. Trevelyan wrote history for the general reader as well as for the history student and campaigned for the revival of a literary style of history – elegantly presented and able to interest a wider public readership. He spearheaded a reaction in England against scientific approaches to history that had almost stifled the reading of history. For example he wrote English Social History (1942) which portrayed the life and pursuits of society via a powerful literary style. Trevelyan was not so concerned with explanatory history, preferring to argue that the appeal of history is, in the final analysis, poetic. He did make the telling observation that for the historian it will always be difficult to tell the story as it really was because inevitably the historian has to select from all the available facts in compiling his or her account.

Collingwood (R.G.) was born in Lancashire, England, in 1889. He was an English historian and philosopher who attempted to reconcile philosophy and history. He was a tutor in philosophy at Oxford University from 1912 till 1941 and was regarded as the leading authority of his day on Roman Britain. In his last work, the posthumously published The Idea of History (1946), he argued that all history is essentially the history of thought and that the role of the historian is one of re-enacting in his/her own mind the thoughts and intentions of individuals in the past. According to Collingwood, only by immersing oneself in historical events participants ‘ mental processes and rethinking the past in the context of one’s own experiences, can the historian discover the significant patterns and dynamics of cultures and civilizations. As the most sophisticated exponent of the Idealist position Collingwood made a contribution to setting history on a new path, eschewing the desire to provide a synoptic vision of the entire historical process and the idea of proposing universal laws to explain historical occurrences. Instead he advocated an analytical approach to historical research, focussing upon concepts, methods of classification, justification of interpretations and the logic of explanations proffered.

Toynbee (Arnold Joseph) was born in London in 1889. His monumental 12 volume work, A Study of History (1934-61), proposed a philosophy of history based on the analysis of the cyclical development and decline of civilizations, demonstrating an awareness of the relativity of historical thought. He also produced volumes on world religions, western civilization and world travel. He was a traveller and observer of international affairs and asked the broadest of questions (often those asked by laypersons). Toynbee was obsessed with humanity’s necessary choice between self-subordination and self-extinction. He was preoccupied with the task of explaining historical change (e.g. how did the laws of civilised warfare become overthrown in the 20th century?). He was a historian of the Thucydidean kind – scientific in his methods, thorough in his investigations and detached in his conclusions. Unlike Marx, Toynbee saw history as governed by spiritual forces subject to the law of God. His A Study of History is essentially a 206 century condemnation of the idea of progress and of the historians who produced that idea. It is a personalised, holistic and subjective interpretation of history which argues that under the leadership of creative minorities, civilizations grow by responding successfully to challenges and decline when leaders fail to react creatively. He is considered therefore to be a historical system-maker, repudiating the idea that history is chaotic and fortuitous, revealing no discernible pattern or rhythm Toynbee encouraged a recognition that large scale patterns of behaviour have always been with humanity and are enshrined in myth and legend. While his work has been criticised for its ambiguous definitions, its assumptions, its large scale system building and its according to myths and metaphors, equality of status with facts, his work has also been praised as a stimulating response to the specialising tendency of modern historical research.

Carr (Edward Hallett) was a British political scientist and historian, born in London in 1892. He was assistant editor of The Times from 1941 to 1946 and was subsequently a tutor and fellow of Balliol College, Oxford and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. His major contribution to historical thought came from his book What is History (1961). He argued for a distinction between the facts of the past (limitless and unknowable in their entirety) and the facts of history (a selection made by historians in order to reconstruct and explain history). He regarded any attempt to reconstruct the past from the inside as misconceived, preferring to apply a standard of significance to the past based upon a sense of the direction of history including the trajectory of contemporary events, thereby approaching an understanding of the future. Carr argued that all historians reflect to some degree the outlook of their own age but advocated that historians should read and write simultaneously in order to better understand the significance and relevance of what they find. For him, facts without explanation and interpretation leave history that is unappealing to the reader and of limited use. Facts and explanation should be in constant interaction in the process of historical research and writing.

Drawing Lessons For Today

While the above historical writers by no means constitute an exhaustive list of major contributors to the field of historical scholarship, they give us a brief insight into both the commonality and variety of their approaches to historical research. There is much from which we can select to inform the conduct of our own historical research projects. Both narratives and interpretations of past events and circumstances have been of vital concern to historians and continue to offer alternatives for investigating periods and practices in the accounting and management past. In studying history, many historians have been drawn to the search for patterns of events and behaviour as well as relationships between institutions, people, events and general contexts. We are invited to first discern what are significant (rather than trivial) questions that researchers in this field should be addressing and then to impose rigorous standards of critical enquiry in our investigation of evidence, depth of interpretation and logic of argument.

Since historians are inevitably faced with the task of dealing with the complexity and sheer volume of data involved in past events, thoroughness and detail should not be sacrificed in pursuit of interpretation and explanation. Both have an essential part to play in the telling of the story and the revealing of its undercurrents. We are called on to search for the dynamics of change and its conditioning influences, being alert to the potential discovery of direction and destination in historical events and seeking to portray the interplay of people, ideas, conditions and events. One important challenge to accounting and management historians is to immerse themselves in the literature of the period they select to investigate so that they can gain a broader and deeper appreciation of the perceptions, behaviour and context of the historical participants of that period themselves. Finally, as historians we are challenged to rediscover the value and power of more adventurous and engaging styles of writing history in accounting and management so that readers will be attracted and drawn into investigation and debate of the issues historians seek to raise and contribute to the enhancement of knowledge and practice in the accounting and management disciplines.

The above albeit brief insights demonstrate the opportunities for informing the theoretical “lenses”, methodological approaches, interpretive approaches and styles of presentation that contemporary accounting and management historians have available for their selection. Revisiting the works and critiques of leading historians from the past offers a rich and hitherto inadequately tapped resource for this purpose. Some of this resourcing of contemporary historians’ theoretical and methodological approaches to their research has been provided via particular methodological schools of thought that have gained support and adherence from groups of historians this century. For example Ranke’s work provided the underpinning impetus for the historicist school of thought, while Marx provided the basis for the school of historical materialism. By way of contrast however, we must also recognise the contemporary popularity of the Foucaultian school of thought in historical research which is based upon the work of the French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault, who would not have considered himself to be a major historian and has not primarily been recognised as such. Others such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Gibbon, Collingwood and Carr provided the methodological foundations for the more general interpretive historiographic tradition represented in this paper’s discussion of philosophies of historical knowledge and explanation. These complex linkages cannot be explored in any detail here, but they lend further support to the argument that our historical research in accounting and management would be well served by a revisiting and appreciation of the perspectives and methodologies of leading historians of the past. For now, we turn to a brief review of some historical schools of thought that are pervasive amongst contemporary historians.


Considerable debate continues between various schools of historical thought as to the relative merits of their philosophies of and assumptions about historical knowledge and methodology. What they do offer is an increasingly rich array of historical perspectives, each offering potentially new insights into or critiques of our past. For a detailed assessment of the debates between three particular schools in relation to interpretations of industrial revolution firms’ cost management practices, Fleischman et al (1996) provide a useful case in point. What follows here is a brief outline and summary of critical aspects of five particular schools that have been influential amongst contemporary historians – historicism, the Annales school, historical materialism, the Foucaultian school and postmodernism. As the works of leading individual historians from the past offer contemporary historical researchers a useful theoretical and methodological resource, so do these following schools of thought.


As already pointed out earlier in this paper, Leopold von Ranke was pre-eminent in establishing historicism as the dominant mode of contemporary historical research beginning early in the 19thcentury in Germany. Historicism started as a conservative reaction to the excesses witnessed in the French revolution. Their observations of what happened when radical elements turned their backs on their country’s past led to their rejection of previous beliefs in history as progress. The fundamental premise of historicism is that each age is a unique manifestation of the human spirit, having its own culture and values. Thus present-day values must be set aside and an earlier age seen from the inside (that is from the standpoint of its own time-bound context and beliefs). Accordingly historicism argues that the culture and institutions of a particular period can only be understood from the standpoint of that period itself (Tholfsen, 1967).

Historicism does not simply aim to reconstruct the events of the past but to also reconstruct the atmosphere and mentality of the past trying to ascertain why people acted as they did by stepping into their shoes and attempting to see the world of their day through their eyes and hence gaining a better understanding of their perceptions and judgements. Thus historicism tries to elucidate what is durable and what is transient or contingent upon our present condition or unique situation at a particular point in time. This recreating of the past in context or from the inside is regarded as a necessary precursor to explaining the past. Explanation requires the identification of trends, influencing and conditioning factors, consequences and an understanding of history as a process. In these respects historicism lays claim to a legitimate facilitating role (Goetz, 1986; Tosh, 1991).

There are qualifications and criticisms that have been levelled at historicism. If historians try to examine a social grouping from their own perspective, whose standards of judgement should be adopted? – manager or employee, accountants or marketers, regulators or shareholders? It is certainly arguable that the historian can be subject to the influence of the priorities or assumptions of those who created the sources of evidence and by his or her own values (consciously or subconsciously). So objectivity for the historicist remains an elusive ideal. It is also argued that we can never recapture the complete impression of a historical moment as it was experienced by people at the time, because with the benefit of hindsight, we know what happened next and therefore our interpretations of the events and the significance we ascribe to them are unavoidably conditioned by that knowledge. However that same hindsight offers the historian an opportunity in two particular respects. It assists in identifying conditioning factors of which the historical participants were unaware and it enables the comparison of actual with originally intended consequences (Tosh, 1991).

Annales School

It is important for accounting and management historians to be aware of the work of the Annales School of historical research which was founded in 1929. Its founders were Marc Bloch (a mediaevalist) and Lucien Febvre (a 16′ century specialist) who established a historical journal known as Annales d’Histoire Sociale et Economique. Febvre called for a “historical psychology” to be developed by historians and psychologists working together in order to avoid psychological anachronisms (the assumption that the mental framework by which people of earlier periods interpreted their world was the same as our own contemporary mental framework). This school demanded that historians learn from other social sciences such as economics, sociology, social psychology and geography in order to make them aware of the full range of questions that they could ask of their sources of evidence. They attacked l ‘histoire evenementielle which was a narrative approach to history that sought to identify grand causes of events and situations. Instead the Annales School argued for more detailed and specific analyses of events, their interrelationships and influencing factors.

Annales historians called for an end to compartmentalisation in history. They aimed to write “total history” (histoire totale or histoire integrale) which would recapture the great variety of human life and events (Stanford, 1987). This aim also oriented them towards the ideal of integrating physical and human geography, economic and social life, and political structures. Such an ideal remains difficult to achieve without some degree of compartmentalisation. The Annales School considered that historians who specialise in one branch of history risk attributing too much to one kind of factor in their explanations of historical change. Hence their advocacy of interdisciplinary considerations in historical study and their affinity for the methodologies of the social sciences. Historians of this school have continued to refine and broaden historical content and methodology and new directions in history over recent decades owe much to their influence ( Stanford, 1986; Tosh, 1991).

Historical Materialism

As referred to earlier, this historical school of thought emanated from the writings of Karl Marx (Goetz, 1986; Tosh, 1991). From this perspective, events and structure are central to the understanding of historical process and action and structure of society are reciprocally related. The tensions between classes in a class ridden society are therefore a focal point of concern for historians of this school. Historical materialism contends that people engaging in social production enter into relations of production that are independent of their will and that the sum total of these relations of production constitute the economic structure of society. On that foundation, the legal and political superstructure are built. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and intellectual processes of life. Thus political, legal and social structures and relationships are all based upon and dependent upon material production.

In this conceptualisation, society is conceived of as comprising three levels:

1. Underlying the other levels are the forces of production (tools, techniques, raw materials, labour).

2. The relations of production (the economic structure of society, being the division of labour and forms of co-operation /subordination sustaining production).

3. The superstructure (the legal and political institutions and their supporting ideology).

The interplay of these and certain long term structural factors are considered to make some historical events inevitable in the long term and constitute defining limits to the actions of groups and individuals.

Over time, Marx’s materialist concept of history has been applied, expounded and extended by many subsequent authors who have sought to refine and elaborate his approach to the past. The growth of Marxist historiography in recent decades has been diverse in nature although the bankruptcy and fall of some communist governments, the rise of renewed forces of conservatism in western societies, and a postmodern reaction against Marxism and other grand theories has produced a more acute appreciation of the limitations of historical materialism. Nevertheless, while subjecting history to such a doctrinaire theory risks producing interpretations of historical events that ignore or distort the complexities of the historical processes involved, this approach can produce challenging and illuminating hypotheses that raise important questions not previously considered by scholars bring some of the big questions of history more insistently to the centre of the arena (Tosh, 1991 ).

Foucaultian History

Another emerging tradition of historical scholarship in more recent times has been informed by the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. In studying the history of asylums, prisons and other closed institutions, he developed a theory of power and knowledge that has been taken up as an approach to historical investigations and analysis by historians concerned to discern these factors as underlying explanators of events and patterns of behaviour (Stewart, 1992). From the perspective adopted by this school of thought, power and knowledge are closely interconnected, power being viewed as a network of relationships that operates from below as well as from above, being both potentially repressive and productive. Historians of this persuasion consider that from the late eighteenth century onwards, industrialists developed economic surveillance systems that constituted a new form of disciplinary power (Fleischman et al, 1995). Thus from the Foucaultian perspective, management and accounting systems are not simply rational economically driven mechanisms designed to facilitate economic efficiency and market competitiveness, but are systems of surveillance that render human activity subject to measurement and control. The Foucaultian historian is not particularly concerned with the origins of practices or events under study, nor with their patterns of development over time. Instead, the focus is upon the exercising of power and control within the historical situation being investigated.

Arguably then, for Foucaultian historians, the central question is one of diagnosing the present by asking “How did we reach the present position?”. They reject notions of evolutionary progress, of continuity in history (although Foucault became uncomfortable with being characterised as advocating the discontinuity of history), of the primacy of origins and economic forces (Fleischman et al, 1995; Stewart, 1992).

Marxist historians have been the most vocal critics of the Foucaultian school, accusing them of ignoring power at the level of the State and being averse to economic and class structure variables in their analysis and explanations. They point to the Foucaultians’ concern with language as diverting attention from materialist concerns and to the problematical nature of a universalist view (at the micro level) of power being allegedly common to all disciplinary regimes regardless of organizational differences. At the general level, the Foucaultian school has been criticised for undertheorising material, economic and political realities (Neimark, 1990, 1994; Armstrong, 1994).


Foucault reflects a trend in some more recently constructed historical methodologies to reject the notion of grand theories and long term patterns of development in favour of diverse and eclectic approaches to and reinterpretations of historical events and practices (Tosh, 1991). Postmodernism seeks to problematise conventional explanations of history and to break away from an alleged unidimensional picture of historical development (Stewart, 1992). Such theorists as Foucault and Derrida have been identified with the movement towards discourse analysis which attempts to overturn any notion of a privileged reading of history, instead choosing to reappraise discourses such as philosophy, politics, linguistics and history (Tosh, 1991; Jenkins, 1991; Francis, 1990).

So a growing number of historians of the postmodernist school reject what they see as the privileging of various centres (eg. Eurocentric, ethnocentric) and metanarratives. They represent a group that is postliberal, post-Marxist, post-western, post-industrial, but do not represent some cohesive, unified alternative group of scholars. They operate from a variety of perspectives but have reached a common view that neither their own positions nor anyone else’s have an identifiable foundation. Instead they see history as “willed” and historical interpretations as entirely contingent upon the varying mix of epistemological, methodological and ideological assumptions adopted by the historian or reader. Thus instead of allowing “professional histories” to exercise hegemony, a whole range of distinctive histories are being constructed, including black histories, feminist histories, revolutionary histories, oral histories etc. Thus the postmodernists see history not as aiming at a real knowledge of the past but as a discursive practice that allows contemporary people to investigate the past and to reorganise it and reinterpret it according to their contemporary interests. The intention is one of making the previously invisible (eg. activities of women and previously ignored ethnic groups) become visible and developing fresh insights into the past that can be utilised to emancipate the present (Jenkins, 1991).

A Rich Tapestry

The above schools exhibit an array of widely varying philosophies of and approaches to the study of history. Together, they offer the contemporary historian a rich tapestry of divergent images and colours. Depending upon their particular research subject and objectives, historians acquainted with such schools have the opportunity to select from their theoretical perspectives, focal issues of concern, and preferred methodological and interpretive schemes in designing and executing their research. While research conducted upon the same archival material from perspectives of differing schools may yield alternative and at times conflicting historical stories and interpretations, such diversity in approach and outcomes should be celebrated rather than feared. This argument has recently been made by Fleischman et al (1996) in the form of advocating the potential advancement to knowledge through dialogue between historians of different schools concerning their variant findings. The revisiting of archives from these differing perspectives affords us the opportunity to accumulate incremental knowledge concerning different dimensions of particular historical events, situations and periods. Some may be additive and complementary and others may conflict and thereby challenge previously held views that may have previously been uncritically accepted.

While the various schools do differ in their philosophical, theoretical and methodological assumptions and underpinnings, it is arguable that accounting and management historians should have due regard for fundamental elements of historical knowledge and explanation. While there are divergent views concerning these elements, it is incumbent upon historical researchers to be familiar with the fundamental approaches to such matters as researcher beliefs and attitudes, the question of objectivity, the conceptual nature of historical events, facts and ideas, the attribution of causation, the process of interpretation and explanation, and the discovery role of historical writing. Without familiarity with these elements, historical researchers risk making methodological assumptions and/or selections that are inappropriate to the subject of study and incompatible with the school of thought to which they wish to adhere. What is being advocated here is not a slavish subservience to a set of methodological principles, but an awareness of some of the fundamental methodological choices which researchers should consciously consider and decide upon before embarking upon each project.


As a rich and distinctive field of research, history, like other disciplines, searches for events, relationships, values, significance, causation, and explanation. Philosophers of history have been primarily concerned with examining the significance and truth of historical statements, the plausibility of objectivity, and the process of interpretation and explanation (Atkinson, 1978). What follows is a selective excursion into approaches to the creation of historical knowledge that have informed traditional interpretive historical methodology. The approaches are reflective of “traditional historiographic” understandings which nonetheless have exhibited a great degree of variance between historiographers and philosophers of history over time. Nevertheless both in their commonalities and diversity, they offer a fertile source of methodological approaches to investigation and analysis from which accounting and management historians can draw. That drawing may occur in a variety of ways. For example, a historian of the labour process school may not consider the question of researcher objectivity to be as desirable or achievable as might a historian of the historicist school, but can still benefit from an understanding of the traditional historiographic concern for the pursuit of objectivity. The benefit takes the form of making an informed choice about the degree of prior theorisation admitted to evidence interpretation and the clarification of the grounds upon which that variance from the pursuit of objectivity is to be justified. The traditional interpretive historian benefits from exposure to methodological choices which can facilitate greater rigour in the accessing and interpretation of primary sources and can lift the ensuing analysis above the level of naive antiquarian narrative. What follows does not represent a set of uncontroversial general principles but rather, key areas of historical understanding and explanation that have concerned historiographers over time and about which they have debated and advocated a variety of views and arguments.

The Historian ‘s Mental Attitude

The mental attitude of the historian is both conditioned and disciplined by a number of elements and factors. They influence the historian’s “angle of vision”, define the approach, questions posed and avenues of inquiry utilised (Tholfsen, 1967, p.258). Arguably, the attitudinal characteristic most vital to the historian is historical understanding. This is produced by a combination of accumulated knowledge of the field and era, maturity of judgement and sufficient experience for the tasks of assessing probability, determining influences and consequences and assessing the relative significance of immeasurable forces (Thomson, 1969). Historical understanding is particularly assisted by the historian’s general knowledge of the age within which his or her particular study is situated. This is essential if the historian is to identify and understand the governing presuppositions, assumptions, values and characteristics of people, institutions and organizations in the period under study ( Stanford, 1987).

The historian is of course subject to a variety of influences that affect his or her investigation, analysis, interpretation and conclusions. This has been well recognised by those interpretive historians well versed in their philosophical underpinnings and methodological craft (and well before critical historians voiced their concerns in this area). The historian’s own psychological makeup, personal life experiences, areas of education, and contemporary social environment all influence his or her work. Further influences include the informal relationships and interchanges with colleagues and the current dominating philosophies and methodologies of relevant academic and professional disciplines (Stanford, 1987). These influences cannot all be recognised by the historian, but as far as possible the historian should aim to be self-aware, identifying and declaring any particularly significant potentially hidden assumptions or sources of bias (Barzun and Graff, 1985).

While searching for relationships, patterns and trends, the historian should be alert to the risks of unjustified system building and simplistic generalisations. Diversity in time and place, change and continuity and discontinuity over time are all possibilities for discovery. Individuality, situational uniqueness and change are all elements of any age and their discovery and assessment requires the tracing of their relationships (whether continuous or discontinuous ) with prior and subsequent periods and the appropriation of knowledge and insights from other disciplines such as literature, philosophy, politics and other areas of the social sciences. In this way both the uniqueness and the evolution of events, practices and beliefs can be more fully penetrated (Tholfsen, 1967; Thomson, 1969).

For both the historian and the reader, history is a vicarious experience – a “second life extended indefinitely into the dark backward and abysm of time” (Barzun and Graff, 1985, p. 40). The practice of the craft requires imagination in determining the types of desirable sources before seeking and finding them, and in the reconstruction of a past world. The documents and artifacts of themselves have no life and never did have. What gave them life was the part they played in the activities and interchanges of people, so that to give meaning to these dead things, the historian must utilise imagination as well as judgement and argument in reconstructing the personal, organizational, social, economic and/or political world in which they were utilised (Barzun and Graff, 1985; Stanford, 1987).

Still, essential disciplines of historical investigation and writing include the continual striving for accuracy in recording, order in assembling supporting notes and documentation, logic in tracing and making sense of sources, and intellectual honesty in confronting evidence and declaring its implications, regardless of whether they support or shatter one’s hypotheses. Traditional interpretive historiography calls for independence of attitude from creed, regime or orthodoxy so that the historian remains focussed upon the pursuit of truth, to the extent that it can be determined (Barzun and Graff, 1985; Thomson, 1969). As Thomson (1969, p. 104) has said; a vigorous and flourishing historiography is a symptom, and evidence, of a free society and a free culture. To fear the truth even about the past is a mark of true despotism.

The Quest For Objectivity

The past can never be seen or experienced “as it was” because historians can only access it via documents, artifacts and other people’s recollections. Even then, objective knowledge of the past can only be approached via the subjective “experiencing” of these sources by the historian (Stanford, 1987). Historians in turn, are influenced in their selection and interpretation judgements by their contemporary social culture, interpretive framework and world-views (Weltanschauungen) (Tholfsen, 1967; Stanford, 1985).

Atkinson (1978) points out that concerns about historical objectivity do not all arise at the same level. First, there is the issue of selection, for it is impossible to write down all valid statements about even the most narrowly defined past period or topic – such an exercise would fill untold volumes and never be read ! Further up the scale is the issue of interpretation and explanation. How is this informed and upon what questions (eg. conscious intent versus unconscious class interests) is it focussed ? Yet selection and interpretation need not be automatically condemned as incompatible with objectivity. Different selections or interpretations of elements of a situation or event may prove to be complementary or supplementary, providing a greater composite picture of a complex “whole”.

What positivist researchers in the scientific tradition often fail to recognise is that the concept of objectivity is subject to multiple interpretations. For example it may be referred to as corresponding to fact or external reality, or alternatively it may be referred to as capable in principle of being agreed upon by any rational person. These two meanings may be divergent. Mathematical or scientific statements may be objective in the latter rather than the former sense because they are too abstract and idealised to correspond with reality in any external, independent sense. Biographical statements drawn from oral histories may be objective more in terms of the former than the latter sense. When two or more historical accounts of the same event diverge, they may differ in terms of only one of the above meanings of objectivity and not always both. Historical objectivity might be asserted as increasing when the inevitably subjective judgements of a number of historians about a particular train of events or circumstances are found to be in agreement. This is characteristic of the social sciences where we seek to understand and explain people’s thinking and behaviour by observing what they do across cumulative cases or repeated observations ( Atkinson, 1978; Stanford, 1987).

In both scientific and historical research domains, the terms “subjective” and “objective” are at times used quite loosely to imply “opinion” versus “fact”. This is a serious mistake. Barzun and Graff (1985) argue that every living person is automatically subjective in all his or her sensations, whether experiencing sensations of objects or his or her feelings relating to those objects. Objects are no more real than the sensations attached to them because objects can only be known by persons who subjectively experience them. Therefore they contend that:

An objective judgement is one made by testing in all ways possible one’s subjective impressions, so as to arrive at a knowledge of objects. (Barzun and Graff, 1985, p.175)

For the historian then, the quest for objectivity is not the impossible challenge that scientific researchers might assume. Values and experiences of historians and historical subjects are not automatically obstacles to be overcome, but are useful tools in the rendering of historical accounts and explanations. To at least some degree, the determined historian can step outside his or her own time and its influences to study and empathise with the past, utilising inherited language, concepts and techniques of that period. At the same time, historians must recognise that they cannot entirely avoid the influence of their contemporary environment upon their selection and interpretation of facts.. Objectivity for the historian assumes a different meaning to that of the scientist or positivist. It represents the desire and continuing attempt to see things as they really were, striving to remove as far as possible the colouring of understanding by personally held intellectual presuppositions, political persuasions, and moral or philosophical principles. This requires self-criticism and declaration of the possible personal predispositions by the historian. Thus objectivity, variously defined, and admittedly difficult to attain (or even closely approach) nonethless represents a challenge that can be addressed by critical and traditional historian alike-even if in different ways. Both can pursue historical objectivity via self-awareness, commitment to truth, and capacity for critical thinking and analysis (Tholfsen, 1967; Atkinson, 1978; Stanford, 1987).

Events, Facts and Ideas

Stanford (1987, p.30) has argued that “What men and women do and suffer, make up the events of history.” In turn, a selection of these events “make history” in their own right or in the judgement of a historian. Events can be variously conceived from the historian’s perspective. They can be conceived as being the effects of causes and the portents of events to come (Oakeshott, 1983), patterns of experience that are brought into focus by individuals, groups, institutions and ideas involved in the event’s organization (Porter, 1981), and happenings that do not survive but which are judged by observers to be important occurrences (Stanford, 1987). Events are divisible into smaller parts which may range in duration from a split second to a period of years. Thus the notion of time is derived from events. It is not an absolute but is comprised of the interaction between events (Stanford, 1987; Porter, 1981). Thus the historian reconstructs the past from an assemblage and interpretation of events. History-as-account (the historian’s reconstruction) emerges from history-as-event (events preserved in verbal and written forms) via the process of selection, analysis, creative imagination, interpretation and argument (Stanford, 1987; Oakeshott, 1983).

In selecting and assembling facts about events, we face another issue of conceptual specification. Facts are connected both to the world of things and the world of words, being neither wholly one or the other but always part of both. They are formulated only when a human mind judges that the world part and the word part of a fact fit one another. That is to say, the existence of facts depends upon human judgement about events and states of affairs and the words to appropriately represent them (Stanford, 1987). Any tendency to assume that facts speak for themselves must be studiously avoided. As Thomson ( 1969, p. 39) puts it, “They speak only when spoken to and when asked the right questions”. Facts very rarely can be found to occur independently of ideas or interpretation and even if they could, their assemblage would amount to no more than an unintelligible chronicle of little interest or intellectual merit (Barzun and Graff, 1985; Thomson, 1969). Indeed Stanford (1987) argues that the term “fact” is best left unmentioned, given its “slippery” conceptual nature. Causes and Conditions In the most simple historical narrative there can be found embedded causal inferences or assumptions even when the authors were not ostensibly concerned with explaining what they were describing. What the writer may have intended as a factual observation, may prove to be an implication concerning causation to a reader (Atkinson, 1978). So for historians and their readers, the question of ascertaining causation is unavoidable and its nature and manner of approach is therefore crucial to the historian.

When dealing in human affairs, it is almost impossible to uncover the cause of any particular event or circumstance. We can only hope to identify some of the conditions that lead to the emergence of the observed event or circumstance. Formalising causal analysis or assigning a dominant cause implies a capacity to model and measure which history rarely affords (Barzun and Graff, 1985). Thus multiple causes or preconditions are the likely background to any event, though the historian may be able to ascertain and justify some hierarchy among those conditions (Carr, 1987). These attendant conditions are the interaction of ideas, personality, environment, and events that yield some explanation of historical change (Thomson, 1969). Historians then, tend to offer a variety of conditioning historical factors, including states of affairs, events, actions and reasons for actions. Such conditioning factors tend to be offered in specific terms rather than as general causes although there is a willingness to attempt to identify more important conditions, as just stated. In addition, the historian may elect to distinguish between longer term fundamental conditioning factors that may have rendered an event more likely than more immediate factors (Atkinson, 1978).

Thus historians are faced with the task of selecting conditioning factors of significance, just as they do when selecting from the sea of facts available to them. Carr (1987) argues that the standard of historical significance is whether the selected conditions can be fitted into a pattern of rational explanation and interpretation. That selection and determination is of course influenced by a variety of elements such as the historian’s primary discipline (eg. economics, politics, accounting, management, sociology), or the focus of the overall study of which a particular event being explained forms part. Even the length of time between the event and when the historian studies it may influence this selection, given comparisons with subsequent events (Atkinson, 1978). Thus it is a virtual dictum that historical assertions about factors that have conditioned events must be made not in terms of possibility, nor in terms of plausibility, but only in terms of probability. The probability of conditions leading to a particular event must be weighed up and critically judged by the historian. Those that are judged to have been significant must pass the test of having had a significant and highly probable influence upon the event under study and capable of having a logical and rational case made for their probable influence (Barzun and Graff, 1985).

Once again, the notion of causation in history can be said to differ from the natural sciences. The field of study and multiplicity of events, environments, conditioning factors and outcomes with which the historian must inevitably deal, is far too complex and variable for containment in any scientifically testable model requiring “necessary and sufficient under all circumstances” conditions to be met before any causal inference can be made. Intuitive but disciplined causal judgement is a necessary part of the historian’s world. Partly this is also the result of evidence rarely being available in appropriate or sufficient form for a scientific approach to theory testing. Attempts to replicate the scientific approach in this regard may lead the historian to draw conclusions about conditioning factors well beyond the scope and justification of the data available. Thus judgement regarding conditioning factors is to be improved through a disciplined understanding and application of the concepts and tools of the historian’s craft and by recourse to as much reliable evidence as can be located and analysed (Atkinson, 1978). Interpretation and Explanation

Interpretation and explanation are closely related historical activities. Interpretation attempts to render an account of what really happened rather than what appears to have happened, thereby penetrating the manifest history of the conscious and stated intentions to reveal a latent history of underlying values, economic, social, cultural and political influences of which participants at the time were unaware (or only partly aware). The role of explanation is to clarify the minds and intentions of the historical participants and to elucidate the linkages between conditioning factors, events and outcomes ( Stanford, 1987; Tosh, 1991). Historical explanation, Atkinson (1978, p. 138) argues, has “achieved the highest level of sophistication and professionalism, without becoming theoretical; without to any significant extent developing a technical vocabulary of its own. . .” Historical thinking, with its precise and subtle content, stands in contrast to the relative simplicity of its forms of expression. In Atkinson’s (1978, p. 139) view then, history has developed into “an impressive exemplification of what can be achieved by the careful use of very ordinary intellectual tools”.

Explanation in history operates along a gradient, from implied explanations that underpin a purely narrative historical account to studies that focus upon rational evidence-based explanations of observed events. Some historians concentrate their efforts upon presenting a seamless narrative, pruned of methodological scaffolding and posing questions or relationships by implication. Others present the narrative as part of a broader canvass that clearly paints the questions left unanswered from prior studies or new questions raised by the discovery of new evidence. The latter choose to tackle historical questions directly by way of detailing processes involved in the events portrayed in the narrative, making them intelligible to the reader, and accounting for the reasons why the process appears to have occurred, taken its observed shape and produced its observed outcomes (Atkinson, 1978).

Historical interpretation and explanation have their limitations. For example, readers often expect historians to explain how and why events occurred as they did. So explanations may be in part conditioned by the focus of the study and the historian’s own background and perspectives but also by the historian’s perceptions of the readers’ own expectations (Stanford, 1987). The standing of historical explanations is somewhat more limited than those to be found in the sciences. Scientifically derived and tested hypotheses may be subject to change as new evidence emerges, but at any one point in time, they can be found to attract a wide range of support and agreement among scientists. Consensus can be rather more difficult to find among historians in relation to some historical events and their associated explanations. Diverse explanations can be brought about by the number and complexities of factors to be considered and assessed, the multiple elements involved in historical change, and the variety of overlapping environments that may have been at work. Each historical situation is unique in that it represents a confluence of environmental variables, people, situations, circumstances and events that will never be exactly repeated. Thus each historical situation must be investigated anew, with the attendant possibility of different findings, all subject to the already discussed limitations of being able only to ascribe probable conditioning factors and their relative importance (Tosh, 1991).

That no historical explanation can be valid or reliable because it is always capable of being rewritten ten or twenty years on, misses the point and value of historical explanation. That explanations can and do change offers clear evidence of the usefulness of the exercise. History should and does respond to the demands that society makes upon it. Successive revisions of past explanations do not necessarily negate former explanations but are potentially additive, revealing more and more about our past, gradually eliminating those views that are clearly untenable and offering us a richly textured picture of a complex past (Barzun and Graff, 1985). Revelation Through Writing

The discipline of writing is probably nowhere more important than in the course of historical research. History is a way of using language and language has many different functions including recalling the past, conveying information, enabling imagination, stimulating emotion, provoking action, and giving form to life. History addresses and represents the world almost completely by means of language, in both linguistic and literary senses. Thus history has the capacity at the one time to be descriptive, analytical, philosophical and poetic (Stanford, 1987). Historians therefore can enhance their analysis and final product greatly by attention to the organizing of sections, chapters etc.; the words and idioms employed; the emphasis, tone and rhythm of their sentence construction; the art of quoting and citing; and the modes of presentation employed (Barzun and Graff, 1985).

But the task of writing history of itself offers the prospect of revelation. Sources and the complexity of conditioning factors and interrelated events may prove so difficult to penetrate at the stage of primary analysis that only through the discipline of writing historical prose does the researcher begin to more clearly identify and more fully comprehend the interconnections between different elements and experiences. Thus for the historian, the task of writing is a creative one. This stands in marked contrast to the scientific or positivist researcher whose research and analysis has usually yielded its findings and conclusions before writing commences. For the latter, writing is a task of clearly expressing and summarising what the researcher has already discovered before commencing the writing up process. Quite a different experience awaits the historian who commences writing with a partial understanding of the sources of evidence and their possible implications, but who travels further on a voyage of discovery that invariably yields new insights and understandings progressively as the composition of the prose proceeds (Tosh, 1991).

In addition, for the historian, writing represents a crucial tool for conveying a mental reconstruction of the past to the readers. The historian’s construction of the past stands between the past events and the present book or article and the book or article stands between the historian’s construction and the reader’s construction. Thus the writing of history is a disciplined and demanding art, attempting to meet the challenge of conveying the intended meanings of the historian’s construction of the past intact to the reader, thereby achieving a similar construction in the readers’ minds. It is a task of securing the readers’ intellectual and imaginative co-operation (Stanford, 1987). Thus history emerges as hybrid discipline that requires the simultaneous application of disciplined technical and analytical procedures with imaginative and stylistic skills, implying a composite application of scientific, critical and artistic methods (Tosh, 1991).

Historical Discipline

The above excursion into elements of traditional interpretive historiography offer the intending accounting and management history researcher a set of disciplinary philosophies, reference points and tools which can be considered, selectively employed and modified according to the school of thought or particular methodological perspective adopted by the researcher. Regardless of the school of thought or perspective adopted, they offer a disciplined starting point that can enhance the rigour and credibility of the investigation and its resulting findings. That such methodoligical discipline is facilitative and adaptive is best demonstrated by the emerging extensions of accounting history into interdisciplinary areas such as oral and business history (oral history being sociologically oriented and business history being economics oriented). Once again methodological issues common to traditional interpretive historiography and unique to the characteristics of these other fields of study are apparent. As is depicted in the following brief outlines of these two fields, they present both challenges and opportunities.


Oral History

Oral history provides us with first-hand recollections of participants in events or situations being studied. Their recollections are obtained by interviews (normally taped) which are archived in electronic form or written up in print form (Tosh, 1991). Early historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides utilised oral sources as major primary sources of evidence for their work, as did historians and chroniclers in the Middle Ages. From the Renaissance to the 19t century, while written sources grew in importance, oral sources were still regarded as a valuable supplement. In the 19th century, oral sources were largely abandoned, until they regained a measure of popularity in the late 1960s, particularly among social historians. That resurgence has been further stimulated by historians’ investigations of groups such as women, the working class, immigrants and ethnic minorities who have been omitted from recorded history ( and until more recent times, thereby silenced).

Oral history interview techniques generally follow social science field research interview techniques (Collins and Bloom, 1991; Thompson, 1988). Background literature requires consulting for familiarising the researcher with context, issues, terminology and to assist the formulating of interview questions. Decisions must be made regarding the degree of structuring of the interview (versus unstructured) and some pilot interviews may assist in testing, determining and refining the appropriate approach. Even when a structured set of interview questions have been developed, the interviewer may find it necessary to allow the interview to digress into unplanned matters due to unexpected observations being made by the interviewee. Generally, questions should be framed in as simple, straightforward and neutral a style as possible. Complex issues should be tackled via a hierarchy of questions. The language employed in questioning should be familiar to the interviewee and leading questions must be avoided at all costs. The interview is generally located in a place where the interviewee feels at ease and generally the person is interviewed alone (to help avoid any peer pressure for socially acceptable answers). Interviewer comments are restricted to questions, prompts, acknowledgements and encouragement. Oral history can be assembled as a single informant’s narrative story, a collection of stories or as a cross sectional or longitudinal analysis.

Oral history allows us to penetrate how events, structures and contexts were experienced. Indeed, it allows us to penetrate perceptions, motivations and beliefs. In explaining past actions, what participants believe happened can be just as important a contribution to our understanding as the “facts” of what happened (Thomson, 1969). Impressions, symbols and even myths are all inextricably mixed in individual and collective human perception and can shed light on change processes, past decisions, attitudes and relationships. In this way, oral history offers the historian the prospect of getting a little closer to entering into the experience of people in the past, penetrating the deeper structures and processes at work in the activities of participants in historical events and their environments (Tosh, 1991). Of course oral history carries its own limitations. The interviewer may have unintentionally (eg. even by relative social status to the interviewee) affected interviewee responses. The interviewee in a sense shares in the creating of new evidence. Interviewees’ recollections may be contaminated by information they have absorbed from other sources, nostalgia for times past or some sense of past grievance. The researcher’s topic may not be of great interest to the interviewee or they may not be willing to tell the truth about certain events. Assertions may be made with less care than if they had been written and recollections may be a combination of past memories and contemporary reinterpretations in the mind of the interviewee (Thompson, 1988; Collins and Bloom, 1991). As Tosh (1991) puts it, the notion of an absolutely direct encounter with the past is an illusion, since the voice of the past is the voice of the present too. Nevertheless, oral history provides us with history that is more personal, more socially oriented and more immediate than traditional written sources. It has the potential to add significant new dimensions to published history.

Relatively recent examples of oral history research in the field of accounting include Spacek (1985), Mumford (1991), Hammond and Streeter (1994), and Parker (1994). Most recently, a critical appraisal of methodological issues in oral accounting history has been provided by Hammond and Sikka (1996). They challenge the notion of apolitical and objective histories and focus their attention upon oral history’s potential for giving a voice to individuals and groups who have been underrepresented in the accounting literature and hence effectively silenced. Their methodological discussion extends our understandings of the unique potential, methodological characteristics and interpretive challenges of oral history research.

Business History

The foregoing methodological dimensions apply equally to the research and writing of accounting, management and business histories. While critical and postmodernist historians would debate the applicability of some dimensions to their particular approaches, the perception, rigour, and defensibility of all historians’ work stands to gain from greater attention to such dimensions. Duke and Coffman (1993) have provided a detailed methodological guide to the writing of business histories and their observations are equally applicable to accounting and management historians who may be contemplating or engaged in such a task. They address important practical issues such as the contract of access and work between the company and the researchers, defining the scope of the project, interviewing and transcribing, writing and rewriting, and the employment of photographs and images. The role and methodologies of business history are critically reviewed by Gourvish (1995) who addresses the problems of developing theory, the relationship between business history and the social sciences, and argues for the retention of case study method.

Armstrong (1990) has provided a comprehensive discussion of approaches to dealing with archival materials in the writing of business histories (with specific reference to British archives).. These offer a foundation for accounting and management historians dealing with any research topic involving the investigation of archival sources. The premier examples of business history research can be accessed in the journals Business History (UK) and Business History Review (USA). The potential uses and problems in business history have been discussed and critiqued by Coleman (1987). He summarises the problems as those histories which are manifestly anecdotal, unreadable, purely narrative (lacking any analysis), and public relations exercises. The potential he ascribes to scholarly business histories are a more profound understanding of the most important unit of organization in our contemporary economies, ascribing equal importance to the business and political past, and rendering assistance to the process of contemporary economic change. In the business history domain, researchers are beginning to appreciate the potential for cross fertilisation between the work, foci and concerns of business and accounting historians. This is evidenced in the accounting research being published in business history journals (eg. Edwards and Newell, 1990; Parker, 1991). This potential relationship between business and accounting history is more explicitly discussed by Mathias (1993) who argues that synergy exists between them with potential advantages accruing to both.


The foregoing discussion has painted a broad canvass that offers a “grand tour” view of the foundations of historical research. It reiterates the case for the importance of historical research in the fields of accounting and management, introduces some of the significant historical writing traditions in the history of humanity, outlines some of the schools of thought that have governed historical research and writing in the past, and identifies dimensions of historical philosophy that inform historical investigation and writing. While each of these areas of discussion have generated and warrant whole fields of literature in their own right, they have been assembled here to give the reader an outline of the overall context within which accounting and management history studies must find their place.

Historians’ purposes include the identification of patterns, the analysis of causes and consequences, and the interpretation and explanation of historical events. They aim to make visible past situations, activities, groups, issues and contexts. Arguably, the analysies and interpretations offered by historical researchers of all philosophical and methodological persuasions will be better informed by an appreciation of the variety and wealth of philosophical traditions that to date have underpinned historical scholarship. Such familiarity should permit a selection of approach from among these traditions that is appropriate to the purpose of study and defensible. Similarly, a consciously articulated position on historiographic concepts such as objectivity, reconstruction of events, causation, interpretation and explanation, can better position and inform the construction of narrative, the explanation of events and the arguments concerning outcomes.

The responsibility of accounting and management historians is to provide a historical perspective that can bring new insights into our understanding of the past and inform debate rather than producing historical interpretations simply aimed at servicing or supporting a particular predetermined ideology or strategy. For accounting and management historians it is also important to remember that an excessively single-minded preoccupation with a narrow set of technical issues may lead to evidence being taken out of context and misinterpreted. Indeed we must be wary of the temptation to develop histories that are exclusively or narrowly technicist focussed. Accounting and management issues, concepts and practices may be equally effectively investigated in the broader context of organizational, social and political studies. Furthermore, the historian must be sufficiently flexible and broadly focussed to modify objectives in the light of questions generated by the sources themselves rather than imposing predetermined ideas on the evidence itself.

Nevertheless we must recognise and welcome the emerging contribution of critical and postmodernist historians. Through their particular theoretical lenses, they offer fresh perspectives and insights into “old” issues, and challenge previously accepted assumptions and interpretations. By the questions they raise, accounting and management researchers are forced to reconsider their taken-for-granted assumptions, to confront previously invisible or silenced constituents of accounting and management. Finally, critical and postmodernist historians compel us to grapple with contemporary questions of ethics and equity in the light of newly revealed historical understandings.

History is a craft that offers a voyage of discovery in the process of consulting sources of evidence and in analysing discourses. This also occurs in the very act of writing, when the historian is confronted by new understandings and insights that emerge from the process of detailing situations, events, relationships and their contexts. In their “scientific” pursuit of knowledge, the majority of contemporary accounting and management researchers have chosen to ignore the heritage of the past, failing to see its potential relevance to contemporary issues and avoiding the challenge of dealing with its investigation. Yet there are encouraging signs of an upsurge in accounting history, and more recently, management history papers and texts in the research literature. Researchers of various theoretical and philosophical persuasions are beginning to discover that historical reservoir of untapped knowledge. We have an opportunity to press ahead in that voyage into the past and a duty to equip ourselves adequately for the journey.


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Lee D. Parker


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