Accounting is the language of business, increasingly standardized across the world through powerful global corporations: a technical skill used to reach the correct, unquestionable answer. Yet, as recent corporate scandals have shown, a whole range of financial professionals (auditors, bankers, analysts, company directors) can collectively fail to question dubious actions. How can this be possible?
The new book by Matthew Gill (Washington University in St. Louis) Accountants’ Truth: Knowledge and Ethics in the Financial World is an excellent scholarly work in the sociology of economic knowledge and, what I would term, Sociology of Economic (Im)morality. It explores how accountants construct the technical knowledge they deem relevant to decision-making. In doing so, it not only offers a new way to understand deviance and scandals, but also suggests a reappraisal of accounting knowledge which has important implications for everyday commercial life.
The book reveals that although accounting decisions seem clear after they have been made, the process of making them is contested and opaque. Yet accountants nonetheless tend to describe their work as if it were straightforward and technical. Gill charts the social influence accountants have on each other and the deforming results of this mutual influence. He shows a great and perhaps tragic conundrum: that ethics are rendered fragile by collaboration and cooperation – among people who are not minded to commit crime.
Written in a very accessible and readable way, this thought-provoking book actually opens many “black boxes” and provides an informative and invaluable addition to the current literature on accounting ethics, sociology of knowledge and economic sociology.