Centres of calculation: a study of accounting and local government in England and Wales, 1800-1995

Jones, Geoffrey (1998). Centres of calculation: a study of accounting and local government in England and Wales, 1800-1995. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000e160

Abstract

Perceptions of the nature and scope of accounting in modern societies have changed dramatically in the last twenty years. From being seen as an essential but minor component of productive enterprise, representing economic facts to shareholders, managers and governments to allow optimal economic decision-making, accounting has come to be widely regarded as a social and institutional practice that plays a leading role in the construction of the languages, ideas, processes, relationships and institutions which constitute our images of society itself and its government. Accounting has transcended the organisational frame of reference and the functionalist epistemologies which previously characterised it as a field of study, and now embraces a wide and prolix range of research agendas, approaches and theoretical frameworks.

Given its newly perceived significance, researchers have seen the need to study the relationship between accounting as a social, institutional and primarily calculative practice and other practices of management and organization. To understand these practices and relationships fully, their conditions of emergence in particular localised historical settings must be analysed. Accounting is a practice constructed out of a wide and diverse range of other techniques and practices, and over time its boundaries have varied greatly in extent, scope and permeability. Analyses of this process of emergence and construction have been termed 'genealogies of calculation' (Miller and Napier, 1993).

This study is concerned with one such genealogy: the emergence and construction of a set of calculative practices now constituted as accounting in local government in England and Wales. These practices have repeatedly proved highly influential in shaping our ideas of what constitutes good government as well as good management of the urban and rural localities in which we live. Borrowing from a wide range of other calculative practices - notably but only partially from those used in profit-seeking enterprises - local government accounting practice has been constructed and deployed within and alongside changing rationales, programmes and technologies of government with the result that we now find it difficult even to conceive of a notion of government which does not involve accounting calculation and its associated rationales of accountability and efficiency (Hopwood, 1984).

This study examines how this situation has come about, beginning with an examination of the calculative practices of local government before some of them became to be seen as accounting, through the period of widespread professionalization of occupations (including accountancy) in the nineteenth century, into an analysis of the recent introduction of accrual accounting for capital assets in local government. Contrasting with conventional accounting histories which tend to see changes in accounting as progressively improving responses to changing environmental imperatives, the study draws attention to historical discontinuities and the arbitrariness of the inclusion and application of many of the elements of what counts as local government accounting practice, leading to a reconsideration of their effect on our notions of government and experience of governmentality and a discussion of how they might be constructed differently.

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