The image of accountants: from bean counters to extreme accountants Gudrun Baldvinsdottir Gothenburg University, Göteborg, Sweden - PDF

The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at AAAJ 858 Received February 2008 Revised November 2008 Accepted February 2009 The image of :

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The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at AAAJ 858 Received February 2008 Revised November 2008 Accepted February 2009 The image of : from bean counters to extreme Gudrun Baldvinsdottir Gothenburg University, Göteborg, Sweden John Burns University of Dundee, Dundee, UK Hanne Nørreklit Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark, and Robert W. Scapens University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands and Manchester Business School, Manchester, UK Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal Vol. 22 No. 6, 2009 pp q Emerald Group Publishing Limited DOI / Abstract Purpose The aim of this paper is to investigate the extent to which a profound change in the image of can be seen in the discourse used in accounting software adverts that have appeared in the professional publications of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants over the last four decades. Design/methodology/approach Methodologically, the paper draws from Barthes work on the rhetoric of images and Giddens work on modernity. By looking at accounting software adverts, an attempt is made to investigate the image of the accountant produced by the discourse of the adverts, and whether the image produced reflects a wide social change in society. Findings It was found that in the 1970s and the 1980s the accountant was constructed as a responsible and rational person. In the 1990s, the accountant was presented as an instructed action man. However, in a recent advert the accountant appeared as a more hedonistic person. Overall, the changes observed reflect changes in wider social practice from modernity, through high modernity, to hyper-modernity. Research limitations/implications The image of the has implications for the development of the accounting profession. In particular, the move towards hyper-modernity, where empathy towards others and the virtues of self-discipline and fairness are not at stake, has implications for the trustworthiness of the accounting profession. Originality/value Although there has been some research into the image of, particularly in the media and popular movies, extant works have mostly investigated how others perceive and how are generally portrayed. The paper however, places more stress on the construction of the image of the when appealing to the. Keywords Accountants, Advertising, Advertising media Paper type Research paper The authors are grateful to the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) for funding the research project that informs this paper Management accounting fads: can we better understand them? Introduction The role of the accountant is traditionally characterised by objectivity, emotional detachment, soberness and attention to fine detail. Accordingly, the stereotypical image of accounting as boring and as uninteresting and dull seems to have become commonly held. However, more recently the accounting profession seems to have been promoting a rather different image of accounting and the accountant. For example, humorous websites have been established, including Extreme-Accounting, which is sponsored by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)[1]. We have also witnessed searches for the funniest accountant in the Western world[2]. In this context, the reactions to an accounting software advert picturing a dominatrix, which appeared on the back cover of Financial Management in 2004/2005, is especially interesting. This advert has a very distinct image of a young woman in a red latex jump suit. She holds a black snakelike whip in her mouth, biting it hard; she wears black high-healed boots; and her outfit shows several O-shaped signs. However, not everyone found this advert as amusing; a number of letters to the Editor of Financial Management described it as offensive and denigrating[3]: I would like to express my concern about the Requisoft ads that are placed on the back cover of the magazine. I find their suggestive nature offensive. A professional organisation should not allow such material to denigrate its standing. Unfortunately, I have to tear off the back cover to avoid the embarrassment of having such images in my office (Financial Management, November 2004, p. 10). This letter could be said to express a desire to protect the conservative image of the accounting profession. Such a conservative image projects a person who is respectable, accountable and, in particular, non-seducible. In a sense, the writer, Mr Wentworth could be said to be disciplining the profession by stating that this is not the way to behave, and that the advert in question should not appeal to a profession that wishes to be taken seriously. However, reaction to the critics of the advert was swift: I would like to thank Jim Mirabel and Gary Wentworth (Letters, November) for perpetuating the dull, grey image that I have worked for years to shrug off. In future FM will take pride of place on my desk face down of course (Financial Management, December/January, 2004/2005, p. 13). This second letter does not necessarily imply that its writer disagrees about the competence required of the accounting profession. Mr Sheldon appears to suggest that such competence does not have to prevent from having a sense of humour. Nevertheless, from one perspective, the advert may be seen as a threat to the accountability and trustworthiness of : [...] it would be dangerous for suddenly to be seen as flamboyant risk-takers, since this would conflict with their prudent and conservative characteristics (Smith and Briggs, 1999, p. 30). But from another perspective, it may also be a problem if the image of remains too conservative: Without action there will be no heroes and accounting runs the risk of becoming regarded as a second class profession (Smith and Briggs, 1999, p. 30). The image of 859 AAAJ 860 The dominatrix advert seems to challenge the traditional image of the accountant as an accountable and trustworthy person, and suggests a change from being conservative to being ultra-modern. Researchers who have studied the portrayal of in the media have identified both positive and negative images. For example, Robert (1957), Stacy (1958) and Cory (1992) found images of in the printed media that characterised them as dull, sober and expressionless. Similarly, Beard (1994), Smith and Briggs (1999), and Dimnik and Felton (2006) also found the stereotype of the boring accountant in popular movies (e.g. the Dinner Game, 1998), but they also discovered a more diverse picture. Whilst movies generally portrayed as honest, disciplined and respectful of the law (e.g. the Moonstruck, 1987), on occasions they were also portrayed as persons who can be unprofessional and prone to criminal behaviour (e.g. the Circle of Friends, 1999). Furthermore, are sometimes characterised as being short-term oriented, single-mindedly concentrating on costs, and misunderstanding the purpose of business, all of which can lead to disaster for their companies (see Dimnik and Felton, 2006). However, in other instances, have more recently been portrayed as adventurous outdoor types who are interested in action sports (see Bougen, 1994; Friedman and Lyne, 2001; Ewing et al., 2001). These previous studies have mainly investigated how people, who are not involved with the accounting profession, perceive the accountant as a person; they are not usually concerned with the work of. Although the accounting software adverts analysed in this paper does not necessarily portray per se, they are directed at the (management) accounting profession. As the aim of the advert is to encourage to purchase the product, they have to reflect the role and values of. Consequently, if the argumentation in adverts changes, we can infer that it reflects changes in the image of the (management) accounting profession, as recognised by the themselves. This prompted us to investigate changes in the image of through the discourse used in accounting software adverts which are directed to the (management) accounting profession, as they appeared in the CIMA journal over the past four decades[4]. We then reflected on whether these changes are specific to, or reflect broader shifts in society. In particular, the following research questions are explored: RQ1. What is the image of management that is portrayed in the accounting software adverts appearing in the CIMA journal over the past four decades? RQ2. Does the image constructed by these adverts reflect a change in wider social practices of our society? In this paper, we are focusing on the social message contained in the text of the accounting software adverts, not their marketing effects. Whereas the mainstream marketing literature is generally concerned with how to communicate successfully with potential buyers (Rothschild, 1987), in focusing on the social message we are concerned with how the adverts shape the potential buyer, i.e. the accountant, as a consumer of accounting software. This is important since the social message (re)produces the image of the accountant and contributes to the construction of the social identity of the accounting profession (see Fairclough, 2003). However, it is beyond the scope of this paper to explore how and to what extent these images influence the social identity of the accounting profession Methodology Below, we first describe our method for investigating the first research question: the image of. We then outline the theoretical framework we use to address the second research question: whether the adverts reflect broader social practices. Finally, our selection of the adverts we analyse is explained. The image of 861 Exploring the images To investigate the image of in the accounting software adverts, we will explore the discourses used in these adverts. By discourse we mean a specific language use or way of communicating within a certain perspective; such as neo-liberalistic discourse, new age discourse, scientific discourse, etc. The discourse used in the adverts produces an image of the accountant through the specific way it provides representations of the character of both the accountant and his working environment (Barthes, 1964; Fairclough, 2003). For analyzing and understanding this discourse, and hence the meaning of the adverts, we were inspired by the work of Roland Barthes (1964), although we have adopted a more post-structuralist approach[5]. Barthes work involves an analysis of both the iconic and the linguistic parts of the text. Although for purposes of analysis, the two parts are explored separately, their meaning can only be interpreted by taking these two parts together. To analyse the iconic part of the advert, Barthes suggests that we should explore it at two different levels. The first level is the denotative level, which is the literal or non-coded message i.e. the what it is that we see. The second level is a connotative level, which is the symbolic or coded message. We retain the term non-coded for what it is, although we would argue that as such there is no denotative level with a non-coded message even the literal message is coded (Eco, 1968). The coded or symbolic iconic message requires an interpretation and an understanding (i.e. a reading) of the signs included in the photograph. Thus, there is a double articulation where signs are expressed in other signs[6]. By reading the possibly diverse signs as a coherent whole, the symbolic message can be interpreted; i.e. the meaning of a sign can be determined in the context of the other signs. For example, in the gain without pain advert (see later) there is a sign of a carrot, which can be the sign of different things, such as food, sex, reward, etc. Every icon is infused with meanings, and every reading of an icon will mobilise several genres and discourses, each corresponding to a discourse practice comprising a set of social practices and techniques. However, the linguistic message in the accompanying text can also constrain the interpretation of the iconic message. As such, the linguistic message is both anchored in, and anchors the iconic message; it directs the reader towards the intended meaning of the icon. The text can also impart its message though the image, making the image and text mutually complementary (Barthes, 1964). To analyse the discourse and hence the meaning of the linguistic part of the advert, we concentrate on the formal textual and rhetorical elements of the text[7]. In particular, we look at its composition and argumentation, its use of vocabulary and semantics, including metaphorical features, loaded vocabulary and words belonging AAAJ 862 to particular social domains, and the grammar and meaning relations between sentences, including such features as schemes of words, passive/active sentences, modality (commitment), grammatical mood (declarative, interrogative or imperative), etc. Together these forms of linguistic analyses construct the discourse and genre characteristics of the text, and provide the basis for characterising and interpreting the linguistic message of the advert. In seeking a more integrated interpretation, we are bringing together the iconic and textual parts of the advert to explore the types of discourse[8] on which the advert draws to represent the character of the accountant and his working environment. Here, our focal point is the interaction between the message of the advert and other discourses. This more macro level of analysis enables us to examine how and to what extent the message of the advert relates to specific discourses applied in the social domain of management accounting. Reading an advert requires an understanding of the practical, cultural, national and aesthetic knowledge invested in the advert (Barthes, 1964); i.e. the relation of the image to the network of discourse practices through which it is produced. Although we interpret the signs in the adverts in the context of other signs and discourses, other interpretations are possible. We do not claim that there is one and only one interpretation of any advert; the more open the text and iconic part of an advert, the greater the number of possible interpretations. As the adverts we analyzed changed over the years, from large chunks of texts to more iconic messages[9], the interpretation of the later adverts is more open. However, we do not see this as a methodological problem; rather this is a reflection of discourse practices that contributes to changes in the image of the accountant. The discourse of the accounting software adverts merges with the marketing discourse of the advertisers. As a discourse is (re)produced though the interaction between different actors within a social domain, this merging of discourses is an unavoidable condition for undertaking discourse analysis. However, the focus of our analysis is not on how the advert is designed from a marketing point-of-view, but on the following three interrelated dimensions of the adverts reproduction of the image of the accountant: (1) the text s construction of the social context; (2) the implied character of the accountant; and (3) the features of the accounting software. Methodologically, we are not too concerned with the influence of the marketing discourse. As the adverts appear in the CIMA journal, they will inevitably be affected by CIMA s discourse practice, and this forms a part of the discourse of accounting and, hence, of the image of the accountant. As the communicative context of adverts is unique, generalisations cannot be made from the discourse analysis. Hence, our aim is not to make quantitative judgements about the spread of new images, rather it is to explore the nature of the changes in these images. By relating each advert to wider discourse practices, we can explore whether the adverts are drawing on other discourses within the management accounting domain, and thereby gain knowledge about the wider acceptance of the discourse. Analysing the wider social practice of images To address the second research question, i.e. whether the changes in the image of the accountant reflects broader shifts in society, we explore the way in which wider social praxis interacts with the images (re)produced by the adverts. In general terms, the image of is embedded in the ideological underpinnings of how to create order and how to behave in the social domain (Barthes, 1964). Consequently, we need to reflect on the wider notions of social order which are implied in the advert. For this purpose, we will draw on the sociological theory of Giddens (1990, 1991), which describes the contours of three forms of wider social practices: pre-modernity, modernity and high-modernity. However, we found that the sociological theory of Giddens was not sufficient to explain the more recent developments seen in adverts. Therefore, we also draw on Lipovetsky and Charles (2005) to outline the contours of the social practices of hyper-modernity. The focal point of the sociological analysis of Giddens (1990, 1991) and Lipovetsky and Charles (2005) is changes in the Western society of structures and means to obtain social order and the implications for the individual s life and self-identity. These three dimensions of analytical focus are consistent with the focus of our analysis. That is, given the focus of our analysis, the adverts construction of the social context, the implied character of the accountant, and the features of the accounting software, we focus on the thoughts and ideas embedded in the following three dimensions of social praxis: (1) social structures; (2) the individual s life and self-identity; and (3) the assumption of obtaining control. The image of 863 Selecting the adverts The CIMA journal is produced for, and it discusses mainly accounting methods and other aspects of management accounting; i.e. the readers are mostly and the subject matter is management accounting. We analysed accounting software adverts in the CIMA journal over the period from 1975 to 2007, and so we have adverts from four different decades. In this paper we will discuss in detail one advert from each of these four decades. We started in the mid-1970s, as this was when accounting software was beginning to emerge. Initially, we had looked at the CIMA journal from 1965, but there were no adverts for accounting software before Furthermore, in five years from 1975 the CIMA journal had very few adverts of any type. But from around 1980 the number of adverts began to increase, including adverts for accounting software. Two members of the research team worked through each issue of the CIMA journal over the period studied, and 25 accounting software adverts were selected for closer examination by the entire team. This resulted in the selection of nine adverts for detailed analysis. These adverts were selected as they illustrated the broad themes of the articles, which were published in the journal at the particular time. From the late 1980s there was a massive increase in the number and variety of adverts in the CIMA journal. However, the general features and the discourse of these adverts were broadly similar. As mentioned above, we have selected four adverts to analyse in this paper one from each of the four decades; space restrictions prevent us from including more[10]. After completing the discourse analysis of the selected nine adverts, the CIMA journal was again reviewed over the period to identify if alternative adverts were more illustrative of the discourses in the four decades. This review gave no impression that selecting other adverts would have significantly affected our AAAJ 864 perceptions of the changes in the image of, as represented in our chosen accounting software adverts. The remainder of the paper is structured as follows: in the next section we present our analysis of four adverts selected from the CIMA journal over the period In the subsequent section, we review the results of the discourse analyses of the images of the accountant and reflec
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