Social Accounting, Mega Accounting and Beyond: A Festschrift in Honour of M.R. Mathews

Carol A. Tilt (Flinders Business School, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia)

Pacific Accounting Review

ISSN: 0114-0582

Article publication date: 16 May 2008




Tilt, C.A. (2008), "Social Accounting, Mega Accounting and Beyond: A Festschrift in Honour of M.R. Mathews", Pacific Accounting Review, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 75-77.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This book will be a valuable resource particularly for emerging scholars in the field of Social and Environmental Accounting (SEA). It provides an interesting array of perspectives on the life's work of one of the founders of the SEA project, Professor Reg Mathews (recently retired from Charles Sturt University and previously Professor at Massey). Reg's inspiration to others comes through in the book as his peers relate how Reg has influenced them through his work, his encouragement and support, and even through debate and discussions with him. The book is organised into two sections: first a history and contextual overview of the SEA project is provided (in chapter one), along with essays from colleagues who outline various aspects of the SEA project, including past failures and future challenges. This is followed by a selection of publications by Professor Mathews himself. While the overall feeling one gets after reading the book is positive, the first three chapters present quite a dismal picture of the state of SEA in terms of coverage and acceptability in academe. Subsequent chapters are more optimistic, and the book demonstrates the range and complexity of issues related to SEA.

Craig Deegan, in chapter two, concludes that while the amount of SEA research published appears to be increasing and is perhaps becoming more mainstream, the work is actually only covered by a limited number of academics (at least in Australasia). In chapter three, Irene Gordon presents a similar analysis, concluding with a series of steps for SEA scholars to follow, including publishing in “A” journals, “taking on” mainstream accounting and demonstrating the folly of mathematical modelling. I suspect this route would not appeal to many SEA researchers however, as becoming mainstream might be seen as akin to “selling out”. The essay also indicates that only 25 articles appeared in the period 1980‐2005 (Table III) but there are actually many more: the problem is the databases used – Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal for example, is only included from 1992 in one database and 2003 in another so the figures are not really comparable. The message is unchanged however – the paradox being that the article complains that SEA journals are not included in the rankings or indexes, yet the paper uses these as the measure of quality research!

Glen Lehman's contribution in chapter four outlines how Mathews' work and SEA research “redefines accounting” using a communitarian perspective. This broadening of the concept of what it means to “account” for something is one of the most important elements of the SEA project and Lehman's paper gives an enlightening explication of the subversion of this interpretation by emphasis on the technical aspects of accounting. The conflict between economic growth and the intrinsic value of nature is explored with reference to Taylor. Lehman demonstrates the value and contribution of critical debate to the SEA literature and does a good job of explaining difficult concepts.

Another avenue for progressing the SEA project is through education and the inclusion of social and environmental issues in the accounting curriculum. Julie Lockhart provides an interesting reflection in her essay on the changes made to an SEA subject she teaches after reading Thomson and Bebbington's critique of Mathews' (2001) paper. This article gives a nice evolution of how Reg's work acted as a catalyst to introduce social and environmental issues into her teaching, but how further reading challenged her existing approach to teaching this material and led her to experiment with a different approach. This will hopefully encourage more of us to question our own approaches and materials in our classes.

In chapter six Markus Milne, as always, provides us with a thought‐provoking look at how we as individuals might think more about what we do and pricks the conscience of SEA academics whose air travel in particular is contributing to the very issues they are trying to deal with. He argues that we have not come as far as we perhaps like to think at times, and shows how much of the research agenda that Reg's early work established has been largely ignored (in fact three of the four areas identified by Mathews have not developed according to Milne). Particularly lacking is work on externalities and social indicators as they are often “judged as outside accounting”, and Milne notes the lack of inter‐ and trans‐disciplinary research. He points out the dominance of research on “reporting”, which does not address the cause of the problems and urges us to consider different ways of thinking, sharing his sources of inspiration for his own efforts at “downsizing”. It is a sobering read for anyone who thinks their own contribution might be making a difference.

In the next chapter David Owen provides a review of the fairly limited number of studies that have considered engagement with practice, either by directly engaging with businesses or as observations of engagement processes. While pointing out the difficulties for researchers in doing so, Owen calls for more engagement that “goes beyond critique”, citing some important publications that have done so. As well as engagement with business, he also addresses the important area of engagement with “non‐managerial interests” such as NGOs and future accountants (students), and suggests that Trade Unions are another “untapped … source of support”. He does not explicitly discuss engagement with government or politicians however (although he alludes to this), and I suggest this is another area largely untouched by SEA researchers to date, which also has relevance for some of the issues raised by Milne and others in this book in terms of changing the “thinking” of society.

Lee Parker provides an enlightening description of the role of editorial boards and editors, an occupation becoming more onerous, yet under‐recognised, in an increasingly commercialised University environment. While the essay paints a somewhat depressing picture of the potential for editorial roles to succumb to the temptation to commodify research output, it also highlights the importance of their role as “custodians of the stock of knowledge”. This is particularly relevant to SEA research, where a “community” of scholars is perhaps more obvious than in some other disciplines, and where the duty of editors and board members is paramount in shaping, challenging and nurturing the research agenda.

In Chapter eight, Hector Perera provides a broad, although at times dated, review of the development of SEA and some of the contextual factors that influence it, such as country, regulation and culture. This chapter provides a good starting point for new researchers in the area and demonstrates the range and complexity of issues about which researchers in this area need to be cognisant. Mary‐Ann Reynolds picks up the theme that corporate social responsibility (CSR), and hence SEA, is part of a complex system of processes. Like Lehman's chapter, this chapter provides an excellent synopsis of difficult material (on Habermas' theory in this case) that will aid those just beginning to read this literature. Her short piece is optimistic about the potential of SEA to lead to improved social justice, and she cites evidence of increased stakeholder dialogue in various reporting standards. Like Milne, she also points out the responsibility of the individual to contribute if such progress is to be made.

In the final chapter before Mathews' own papers appear, Lin Tozer and Fin Hamilton present a review of the literature on the social contract. They use the case of James Hardie Industries in Australia (asbestos related workers' compensation claims) to demonstrate how the social contract goes beyond traditional accounting frameworks and legal requirements. Their portrayal of the events underscores the role that accountants had to play in promoting the shareholder wealth maximisation view of corporate actions, and highlights the very reasons that SEA research is undertaken: as an attempt to demonstrate the role that accounting can play in ensuring a more just society.

Nine of Mathews' own publications appear in the book, covering a twenty year period and ranging from his early work classifying social accounting, to papers on culture, education and his outstanding reviews of the SEA literature. This book presents the reader with a taste of Mathews' work and a starting point from which to read the abundance of other papers he and others have published, and provides some interesting insights on the state of the SEA project from some leading scholars in the field.

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