Apr ’15: What is Accounting?

slider1Accounting? To some extent yes, but this is not the whole truth…

What is Accounting?
by Hannele Mäkelä

The question concerning the core nature of the “dull and unimaginative” field of accounting never stops to fascinate (at least some of) us. Accounting scholars go so far as to find the workings of accounting embedded in several passionate aspects of life, such as punk rock music, football and God. Be it as it may, I often hear people wondering what accounting precisely is and what an accountant does.

It seems that many people perceive accounting as double-entry bookkeeping and as a purely technical, calculative matter in line with rationality. For a long time, this was also the perception of the academic field itself: “accounting is what accountant does” was a pragmatic way of saying that we should hardly be interested in further analyses of the craft of accounting. The sociological analysis drawing on Weber and others on the broader significance of accounting, moreover, was missing from the academic accounting arena.

However, the calculative practices and reports of financial accounting are only a part of the workings of accounting, as well as are the management accounting approaches of budgeting and control persistent in present-day workplaces. Since 1980s, accounting scholars have dealt with the broader roles of accounting in organisations and society and searched for the nature and rationale of accounting. It has been suggested that there is no single all-encompassing logic of accounting, but rather “the very idea of accounting is fluid, historically contingent, and constantly shifting” (Miller & Power 2013). Accounting is “a complex” that includes not only the functions of financial management and reporting, budgeting, auditing etc. but also the elements of standards, information systems, ideas and human agents.

The overarching rationales of efficiency, accountability and sustainability stimulate the production of accounting calculations and are often operationalized through the technique of accounting. But accounting also has more profound roles to play in the institutional fields in which it operates, in part because of its ability to produce calculations to be used in the decision-making processes, and in part because it also constitutes and shapes the domain of economic operation. To put it briefly (following an admirable article by Miller & Power 2014 that you can find here for reading!), accounting renders entities and individuals calculable and comparable, and audited for “a proper performance”. Often presented in the form of figures and numbers that are proven to have universal appeal, accounting presents plural organizational realities as stabilized facts.

These complex workings of accounting(s) are indeed embedded in our everyday lives and have multidisciplinary potential. Thinking of the world of Monty Python, it is perhaps the lion tamer -accountants that are needed nowadays to tackle the implications of accounting intertwined in the societal and organisational processes of politics and power.

For further reading, here’s the background inspiration once more: Miller, P & Power, M. (2013), “Accounting, Organizing, and Economizing: Connecting Accounting Research and Organization Theory”, The Academy of Management Annals, 7:1, 557-605.

CSR-banner_1Accounting? Things such as corporate responsibility belong to the field as well…

Eternity and a Day (1998)

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Famous writer Alexander is very ill and has little time left to live. He meets a little boy on the street, who is an illegal immigrant from Albania, and goes on a journey with him to take the boy home (from a synopsis in IMDb)… On one of the special sessions of the weekly IASR seminar, we got together to watch the film Eternity and a Day (1998) by the Greek director Theodoros Angelopoulos. The idea was to provide a platform, on the one hand, for some reflections on Greece, and on the other hand, for interdisciplinary discussion on whichever universal themes come to the fore in the film.

Theodoros Angelopoulos’s Cannes winner Eternity and a Day (1998) is a film allowing us to revisit Greece, its myths, beauty and the complicated present — or the present such as it was experienced in the 1990s. Absorbing streams of illegal immigrants from the Balkans, fighting a depression to have been but one among many to have struck Greece, Angelopoulos’s enigmatic work depicts a country right before the turn of the Millennium, searching for its identity through poetic means, with some help from classical Greek literature. At the same time, this is a meditative and minimalistic addition to the tradition of European art films, whereby Eternity and a Day can be seen to engage universal themes of human existence.

On a shared viewing, we found that Eternity and a Day is a film about being an outsider, not only in relation to others but also within one’s own life and one’s own vocation. The protagonist of the film is an aging poet, Alexander (Bruno Ganz) who seems to struggle to find meaning in his own poetry, which for the most remains unfinished. He’s working on a poem “The Free Besieged” by a Greek poet from the 19th century, which suggests an allusion to Dionysios Solomos (1798–1857), the Greek national poet. Alexander, indeed, turns out to be a doppelgänger of Dionysios, since he mourns— in line with the historical fate of Solomos — having been estranged in his own language. (Dionysios spent large parts of his life in Italy and also wrpte poetry in Italian, alongside Greek, and he never finished his key poems, including “The Free Besieged”, which deals with the Greek War of Independence.)

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In a minimalistic movie such as Eternity and a Day everything happens slowly and gradually, so little details and nuances are of foremost importance. Take, for example, the two scenes where (illegal) immigrants climb on high fences; the first one takes place at the border between Greece and Albania; the second one occurs when Alexander’s daughter is celebrating her wedding. On both occasions, groups of immigrants climb on the fences, in order to see better to the other side. But on neither occasion do the climbers reach across the fence; the foreigners are barred, as it were, from full participation in what’s taking place on the other side.

Speaking of doublings, it may be noted how mirroring relationships in the film are not confined to doppelgängers or reoccurring scenes, but extend themselves into dialogue and dramaturgic detail. As one of our fellows, Jukka Tyrkkö eruditely observed, Alexander gains initial contact with the unnamed immigrant boy by offering him a sandwich, after what seems like the boy’s desperate attempt to run away following his unwillingness to return for Albania. Following this scene, it is the boy, in turn, who asks whether Alexander has had anything to eat — and the doubling becomes a tripling, when Alexander, a couple of scenes later leaves his dog to the housemaid Urania saying that the dog is hungry. Thus are chains of reciprocal recognition created…

On a psychological level, Eternity and Day is a film about dreaming and remembering: its memories are woven from the fabric of Alexander’s life, while its dreams reach to the imagination of the Albanian boy. In the beginning of the film, the little boy has no past to recall — at least he has hardly any expression on his face. As his relationship with Alexander deepens, however, both of them regain the ability to mourn, and the Albanian grieves the death of his friend Selim. Moreover, when the unlikely friends separate from each other at the end of the film, a ship sails away from the port — carrying onboard the boy who’s been taught by Alexander to dream of seeing seaports on his journey.

Following Theodor W. Adorno, it is memory that is needed for us — both as human beings and as a nation — to come to ourselves, and without memory, indeed, we fall to melancholia and never begin the proper grieving work. This idea seems to fit the texture of Eternity and a Day as well, for it is the memories that bring both the protagonist and his juvenile friend to life. With the film’s tint of melancholic existentialism, however, is mixed a Mediterranean element of joy and friendship (as Risto Heiskala noted in good spirit), without which Alexander’s and the Albanian boy’s intimate relationship would perhaps never come into being.

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Facets of Wellbeing


Our first internal seminar in Athens 2015 was dedicated to the different dimensions of wellbeing. The original idea was to avoid ready-made interdisciplinary presentations and try and have us bring, instead, certain themes of shared interest into the open afresh. This aim was broached through the help of two short films, Richard (2013, by Matt Hopkins) and Everything is Incredible (2012, by Tyler Bastian), both of which may be found in Vimeo and which provided a platform for a common discussion.

Above all, we sought to gain some insights into how we define wellbeing, which other concepts or phenomena it is commonly seen as related to, and what we might then think of the prospects of attaining wellbeing. The people involved in the discussion provided different characterizations of wellbeing, linking the term, say, with attaining balance (which needs to be done over and over again), with ultimate freedom, with the ability to dream and the ability to control your own body, and with finding something valuable to do, creating meaning for one’s life. These “definitions”, to be sure, were provided in the context of the two films, which were quite different.

The first film, Richard, shows a relatively well-off piano tuner from London who’s decided to give away virtually all of his belongings, choosing to live outdoors while practicing his profession. While Richard certainly epitomizes a Western example of ultimate freedom, his behavior also makes us wonder whether such a lifestyle could be adopted without certain material preconditions. (A few of us quipped that he, at least, seems to have a fancy bike!) Some discussants among the group questioned his motivesor at least the permanence of the chosen lifestyle. In any event, one can raise the question as to whether Richard’s life without much material propoerty represents a genuine way of life or whether he’s fallen prey, in a sense, to the contemporary trend of converting lifestyles (such as downshifting) into swiftly exchangeable brands virtually anyone can live by.

In the second film, Everything is Incredible, we see an oldish, disabled man from Honduras sitting in a wheelchair spending his days constructing a hand-made helicopter made of spare parts of versatile gadgets and devices, even pieces of trash. While the helicopter will probably never fly, we witness the man finding genuine meaningfulness in his life through this utopian activity. Compared to Richard, the helicopter man comes from a country stricken with poverty, and yet we the Westerns can recognize various interculturally shared elements in his striving for meaningfulness. Indeed, as one of the discussants noted, building the helicopter is an activity that structures the man’s life in the sense of Aleksei Leontiev’s Activity theory.

A couple of important observations ensue from the film Everything is Incredible. Admittedly utopian and even somewhat outlandish, the disabled man’s passion in building the helicopter moves us, and we are touched by the ways in which he touches the helicopter parts using his body and his senses. This is a passion in which the man surrenders himself to something larger than himself, and thereby gains meaning for his life. What is perhaps most interesting to note, finally, is that to be such an exemplar for other human beings one need not attain any special social standing or accomplish anything particularly excellent as such. A severely disabled person from Honduras—indeed, through the medium of the filmcan serve as an example for anybody of how we can and should strive after high hopes, even if they be, in some ultimate sense, unattainable.