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Avoiding Whig interpretations in historical research: an illustrative case study

Angélica Vasconcelos (University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil)
Alan Sangster (University of Aberdeen Business School, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK)
Lúcia Lima Rodrigues (University of Minho, Braga, Portugal)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 21 January 2022

Issue publication date: 3 August 2022




The main aim of this paper is to illustrate the importance of avoiding Whig interpretations in historical research. It does so by highlighting examples of what may occur when this is not done. The paper also aims to promote interdisciplinarity, in the form of working with those from other disciplines, as a means to avoid this occurring.


This paper includes an in-depth study of the bookkeeping and financial reporting of two 18th century Portuguese state-sponsored companies using archival sources. The companies were selected because of conflicting insights across disciplines concerning the quality of their bookkeeping and financial reporting – historians have been very critical, while accounting historians have seen little wrong. These differences of opinion have never previously been investigated. The authors demonstrate how information was distributed among the account books and other records of the two companies. The approach adopted enabled a reader to fully understand the recorded economic events. The authors also present and explain the procedures, criteria and accounting terminology used in their annual reports.


This paper demonstrates how easy is to inadvertently adopt a Whig interpretation of accounting history when the focus of interest is something of which the principal researcher has insufficient understanding or expertise. It also illustrates how important it is to embrace interdisciplinarity by working with those from other discipline to avoid doing so.

Research limitations/implications

The conclusions from the case study are company-specific and cannot be generalised beyond those companies. However, the implications of this study go beyond the companies in its illustration of the importance of fully understanding historical evidence within its own context.


This paper unveils primary archival sources never previously presented in the literature. It also contributes to the literature by providing an evidence-based justification for the calls previously made to accounting historians to study accounting in its social context and engage with historians from other disciplines.



The authors acknowledge the advice of Professor Virgínia Maria Almoêdo de Assis and the assistance of Levi Rodrigues, without whose palaeography lessons this paper would never have been beyond a dream.

Funding: The research is funded by CAPES - Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education within the Ministry of Education of Brazil (Award no: PSDE n. 7710/13-5)


Vasconcelos, A., Sangster, A. and Rodrigues, L.L. (2022), "Avoiding Whig interpretations in historical research: an illustrative case study", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 35 No. 6, pp. 1402-1430.



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