Accounting researchers meet Strong Structuration Theory

Accounting researchers meet Strong Structuration Theory

Lisa Jack, Professor of Accounting at University of Portsmouth and Danture Wickramasinghe, Professor in Accounting at the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, ran a workshop in Strong Structuration Theory recently. They explain the origins of the theory and why it still matters for accounting.

What is strong structuration theory?

Strong structuration theory flowed from British sociologist Anthony Gidden’s work since 1976. Giddens focused on social action and pointed out that all social action involves structure, and all structure involves social action. However, how this actually happens remained debatable and led to the development of a number of alternative interpretations, which inspired accounting researchers since the 1980s.

In 2005, the sociologist Rob Stones published what has been described as the most important development of structuration theory since Anthony Giddens himself turned to other matters.  Now widely called Strong Structuration Theory, it moves away from the relatively abstract ontology in which Giddens was interested, and encourages researchers to explore empirical case studies of particular agents and structures, where individual agents are situated in a web of position-practice relations.  Whilst the duality of structure remains its defining construct, Stones asserts that the duality is best understood through analysis of a quadripartite framework of interrelated components, comprising external structures, internal structures, active agency and outcomes. This framework represents an ontologically distinct version of structuration theory, where Stones gives greater prominence to spatial relations and how different actors interact with one another; and, by means of identifying a sliding scale of ontological abstraction, offers the potential for multi-layered studies of sociological phenomena. Stones also strengthens structuration theory by paying much more explicit attention than Giddens to issues of epistemology and methodology.

There has long been a niche area in accounting research, in which researchers have applied Giddens’ structuration theory to accounting. If we consider accounting as a system that contains rules and routines, and which, by its nature, finds ways of structuring time and space - think of a university budget – the appeal of structuration theory for accounting researchers is fairly clear. Furthermore, the theory leads researchers into the analysis of power structures and of the legitimations of certain bodies and practices that are reproduced as accounting practices that collect, manipulate, and communicate data and information. In a world of league tables and key performance indicators, the more complex analysis of structures and actions created and maintained with the help of accounting techniques lends itself to the theory. Around 70 papers have been written since the 1980s on the subject of accounting and structuration theory but more recently, projects have emerged using strong structuration theory. In particular, researchers are finding that the extent to which Stones has been able to make social theory easier to build into research design has led to very rich data collection that explores how an individual or group of individuals perceive their own positions and practices in relation to external structures and actions. Sites of interest include financial reporting standard setters, investment analysts, World Bank beneficiaries obliged to take on certain accounting practices as conditions of funding, new product development in manufacturing firms, financial directors in charities, management in hotels, entrepreneurs, agri-business and governmental bodies.

Workshop at the Adam Smith Business School

The University of Glasgow Adam Smith Business School hosted a one-day accounting workshop on the 27th of April 2015.  Researchers from around the globe, including Wollongong, Dublin, Paris and various cities in the UK, gathered with a common theoretical inspiration – strong structuration theory. They used this theory to achieve epistemological and methodological aims.  The presenters showed their analyses of how accounting is enacted by the construction of active agency within accompanying external and internal structures and how such practices produce intended and unintended outcomes.  The discussions inspired the participants to enhance their research at hand through further engagement with the theory, and through networking with this international assembly of researchers.

The workshop brought together researchers who were in Glasgow to attend the European Accounting Association Annual Congress. Hosted by Professor Danture Wickramasinghe of the Adam Smith Business School – with the administrative assistance of Christine Haley - the workshop was convened by Professor Lisa Jack (University of Portsmouth) and Dr Ahmed Kholeif (Edgehill University) ahead of a themed issue on strong structuration theory to be published by Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal in 2016-17, which they will be editing along with Professor Alan Coad (University of Nottingham). Professor Jack and Dr Kholeif were among the first to use the theory – both were introduced to the work of Rob Stones when mature PhD students at University of Essex in 2003-4 – and it was the first opportunity to bring the networks they had built up together.

The event was also supported by the Management Control Association, which encourages and nurtures work on strong structuration theory and management accounting.  The MCA has a long tradition of supporting early career researchers and a number of research students from Glasgow joined in the workshop. The organisers are very grateful to the University of Glasgow for enabling us to run this first workshop, which will hopefully be the first of many around the world. Rob Stones has expressed an interest in joining us for a workshop and this would consolidate one of the aims of the organisers, which is to facilitate more cross-disciplinary discussions that can lead to substantive developments in theory and empirical research.

What are the implications for the future? As we are moving into a more neoliberal world, accounting and consequential calculative practices are becoming much more significant in expanding economic rationalities.  Consequently, accounting practices, artefacts, language and communications are deeply and intrinsically embedded in everyday life, and shape society at global, national, organisational and individual levels. Those researchers using structuration theory believe that it provides a theory to understand how and why accounting is done in the way that it is, the affects that has on society and whether it can be used to change how things are done for the better, or whether accounting itself must always change to reflect wider changes in society. The Glasgow workshop reaffirmed these theoretical and practical inspirations with hope of appealing for further research around unasked questions.