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Accounting as Social Science

January 13, 2010

(Yeah, to my regular readers, this has nothing to do with religion at all. So, yeah.)

I have this strange feeling that many subjects are truly not as boring as people commonly think of them as being…but rather, they (…if subjects were animate) are terrible at marketing. I mean, consider school. Introductory classes to many classes are sometimes REALLY boring. Usually, the teacher or textbook or whatever says, “You just have to learn all the vocabulary terms first,” as a kind of lamentation and awareness of the bland nature of the material.

The problem is that if someone takes a boring intro class, there’s only so far he can go before he will have the first impression of the field. So, he’ll conclude, “I’m not a math person,” or “Biology is boring,” or whatever else.

I wonder if education must be like this. Must introductory material be taught in such a bland way to get the basics “out of the way”? I don’t think so. I think accounting suffers acutely from this marketing hell, but I think I’ve had plenty of good teachers (…but…on the other hand, some who…let’s just say I will have to spend more time learning to appreciate whatever they taught me.) And so, I’ve gotten quite a few impressions of accounting, but I don’t know if I’m far off or not:

1) Accounting is about communication. It’s not really about math (except in the sense that math is also about communication). It’s about categorization, setting things apart into their proper place.

Learning about accounting as communication was the first “paradigm” I had, and it made things more interesting. I realized that even though whatever I was learning seemed difficult or perhaps even arbitrary, it had a basis in real economic events. Difficulty and arbitrariness represent not the devious nature of accounting professors who want to make tougher tests…but actually the difficulty and arbitrariness within economic transactions and within human behavior.

So, I found value in being a “linguist” of the language, and I saw it as learning to become an interpreter and translator for various parties: businesses and their shareholders, individuals or business and governments, individuals within business to other individuals. Each subfield in accounting (e.g., financial reporting, managerial accounting, tax, internal audit, external/financial audit, etc.,) seems to relate to communication.

Unfortunately, I had (and still have) some lingering doubts. It’s easy for me to see conceptually that this is how accounting works, and it’s easy to agree with my International Accounting professor when he reiterates that the rules we must learn represent the complexity of the overarching business environment.

BUT…I still must ask…why does accounting have such a bad reputation? Why do so many people think it overvalued, unimportant, boring, grueling? Is it just bad marketing or is it possible that there is something lost in translation between the concepts and the application. As someone who hasn’t yet worked in accounting, I fear that my internship will actually confirm the worst. Heck, even though I loved my auditing class and my auditing professor, doing a group project simulation of PART of an audit made me cringe…making me wonder if everything people said and believed was true. (But I’m a tax person, so nyeh!)

Nevertheless, I have actually come to develop a second paradigm for accounting. This relates well to the first paradigm of accounting as communication, but it differs a bit as well.

2) Accounting is an applied social science. Not only is accounting about reporting economic transactions in a transparent and fair way, but it is also a window into sociology and social psychology. (I always feel like social science majors are going to throw tomatoes at me when I say this…after all, it seems pretty unlikely and unintuitive that accounting could be a social science. [Funny story; in an interview, some professors asked me why I felt top universities did not have undergraduate accounting or finance programs, but instead most students went into economics for undergraduate study…they really didn’t like my suggestion that economics, regardless of wherever it is placed, is a business major at heart.])

Yet, I have a kind of internal reasoning (that may be naive and flawed, but oh well.) Accounting, as communication, captures the language of business. But language itself and business itself are social constructs (which goes a lot to explain *why* they seem arbitrary. Social constructs *are* arbitrary to a certain degree [e.g., although Roger Bacon and, much more recently, Noam Chomsky, held an idea of a “universal grammar,” they certainly didn’t “determine” a reason why we say “I” and the Chinese say “我,” or why we use “subject verb object” and the Japanese use “subject object verb.”])

If this is the case, we should be able to empirically investigate and critically analyze the differences, in the same way we do so for languages. Even more intriguingly (at least, in my opinion), is that we should be able to determine the way that accounting languages “shape” and “determine” (or are shaped and determined by) economic transactions. We take a Sapir-Whorf concept of language determinism and language relativity and its impact on societies almost for granted — for example, when we read 1984, we accept that if English could be corrupted into Newspeak, this would quite readily change people’s capacity to even experience certain concepts.

But if this is the case (or even if it’s the reverse…that people’s capacities to experience certain concepts instead defines and changes the language), then shouldn’t we expect this just the same in business and accounting?

Oh, but little did I realize until recently, this *does* happen! Because there are different standards for accounting, financial reporting, taxation, and so on in different nations, we can actually see that this reflects on different social and business milieus.

The fun part comes in that although we (or at least I) usually think of language as a wild and uncontrolled social beast (notwithstanding countries like France with national language boards, or the efforts of English teachers to prevent all of us from splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions…), accounting is oriented in a markedly different way. People *expect* accounting rules to be standardized and changed decisively and deliberately with situations. People would be aghast if accounting norms were fluid with the whims of businesses and other economic agents. So, I’ve seen the potential for accounting not only as a social science, but as an *applied* social science tool that feeds *back* to society.

But as with the first paradigm, I still have reservations. This is *not* the kind of stuff we talk about in the accounting classes. The textbooks barely allude to these kinds of issues, much less dive into them. I don’t even see a TRAJECTORY in the future for trying to find out more about these issues. And particularly as to the work environment, it seems a forbidden subject. Public accountants can’t be social mad scientists! How silly! They have to follow the rules set by standard setters, not try to influence and change those rules for social goals. Tax accountants try to learn what Congress and the IRS is cooking up next so that they can help their clients reach their goals within these frameworks…but they don’t try to help Congress develop the most effective tax policies to achieve social goals.

In the end, I think I would ultimately find it pretty interesting to pursue the latter. Social mad scientist sounds like a good job description, and I feel that there is a niche for accounting within this, but I have no idea if I’m just being naive or silly.


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  1. Well Written Article on Accounting. Good work.

  2. K.Raines permalink

    I concur.

  3. I think I would ultimately find it pretty interesting to pursue the latter. Social mad scientist sounds like a good job description,

  4. Good thoughts!
    Being an educator, I’m especially interested in your comments about introductory courses being boring and people deciding they aren’t “a science person” or a “math person”. I’ll continue to consider these ideas, thanks!

  5. Jordan,

    Thanks for commenting.

    My main thought here is that many introductory courses are taught in a way that just dumps megatons of vocabulary on people without context or without the sense of urgency or sensibility. In fact, on your site, someone (I don’t know whether or not you are the “admin”) wrote about the issue SPOT ON — many times, I think introductory classes teach FACTS instead of SKILLS or CONCEPTS.

    I think that when classes are taught like this, there are some people who will be able to intuit the concepts behind the facts and they will like the subject regardless. However, I don’t think that everyone will…so without understanding of the concepts, they won’t have anything to grasp, will simply be overwhelmed, and will probably decide they aren’t a “math person” or a “science person.”

    What I like about the social science is that, although there are plenty of introductory vocabulary terms that must be learned (and so, I understand that many people view the various social sciences as either boring or inapplicable), at the core is ALWAYS a conversation about human activity and human decisionmaking.

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