ANT use in the accounting literature

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CHAPTER TWO – ACTOR NETWORK THEORY

Introduction

In this chapter I present the central and critical concepts from Actor-network theory (ANT) that I use to pursue the research in this thesis. ANT is only one of the approaches amongst many that I could select for this research, albeit with its own unique ―[…] emphases, ambitions, and means of analysis which differ from those of the alternatives‖ (Mouritsen, Mahama & Chua, 2010, p293). Here, however, the rationale for adopting it as the theoretical lens is that its use allows us to move beyond the legal and accounting view of the organisation. Instead the aim is to understand the organisation as a network of human and non-human actors held together through a series of associations that are constantly made and remade as actors are enrolled into and leave the network.
Further, ANT enables the researcher to focus on the role of the research objects within these networks. While the research objects for this thesis, as I outline in chapter one, are management control systems (MCS) and sustainability, I demonstrate this with reference to Justesen and Mouritsen (2011) who focus on a research object of accounting inscriptions. They note that ANT considers research objects as non-human actors. In specifically referring to the inscriptions made in accounting they note that the use of ANT:
―[…] has brought back the role of calculations as central objects in the study of accounting phenomena after a period of time in which sociologically based accounting inquiry has been concerned primarily with either the role of the macro-context or of the personal sensemaking and meaning construction related to accounting phenomena. ANT has repositioned calculations to a central place in accounting research instead of being marginalised and subordinated to material, ideological, professional and political conditions or personal interpretations of accounting.‖ (Justesen & Mouritsen, 2011, p161)
Thus, with reference to this quote, the use of ANT allows for the placing of MCS and sustainability at the centre of the research that I conduct in this thesis. This, given the research aims and related questions that I outline in chapter three, makes ANT the most appropriate approach, which I select from the many available, for conducting the research within this thesis.
Returning to Justesen and Mouritsen (2011) I note that they show that the use of ANT has made a substantial contribution to the accounting literature. In doing so they demonstrate that the work of Latour, and specifically Science in Action (Latour, 1987), has been predominate in shaping the use of ANT within this literature. Further they note that due to the large body of writings that collectively make up the ANT literature that various forms of ANT are possible. As a result they advocate the use of the wider ANT literature, and specifically Latour‘s later writings, as a potential way to open further opportunities for increasing our understandings around the practice of accounting. This is the approach that I adopt within this thesis given that I draw from the accounting literature that utilises ANT and also extend its use into the area of accounting for sustainability, which, as I note in section two below, does not have the same established tradition of using ANT.
Thus, in line with the suggestions of Justesen and Mouritsen (2011), I draw from the wider ANT literature in the construction of a version of ANT that is suitable for the task of assisting with investigating my research aims and questions. While I still draw some concepts from Science in Action (Latour, 1987) I also utilise concepts from Latour‘s other publications (Latour, 1986; 1991; 1999a; b; 2005; Latour & Woolgar, 1986) and also from other researchers that contribute to the extant ANT literature, most notably the work of Callon and Law (Çaliskan & Callon, 2009; 2010; Callon, 1986a; b; 1998; 1999; 2004; 2007a; b; 2009; 2010; Callon & Latour, 1981; Law, 1992; 1999).
Prior to outlining the understanding of ANT that I use, I first return to Justesen and Mouritsen‘s (2011, p161) suggestion that ANT enables the researcher to place the research objects at the centre of the research. In this thesis placing MCS and sustainability at the centre of the research is critical to the success of being able to address my research aims. After all ―[…] almost all of our interactions with other people are mediated through objects of one kind or another‖ (Law, 1992, p381-382). However, as I outline in subsequent chapters, understanding what sustainability is proves to be problematic both in theory and in practice.
Through placing objects at the centre of the research agenda and then understanding the surrounding associations that bind these to other actors, it is possible to mistakenly interpret ANT as a relativist position. However, not holding a priori assumptions and allowing actors equal opportunity to act does not make ANT relativist. Rather ANT is ―[…] relationist: showing the relationship between the points of view held by mobilized and by mobilizing actors gives judgments as fine a degree of precision as one could wish for‖ (Latour, 1991, p128). As Law (1992, p390) notes:
―So it is that actor-network theory analyses and demystifies. It demystifies the power of the powerful. It says that, in the last instance, there is no difference in kind, no great divide, between the powerful and the wretched. But then it says that there is no such thing as the last instance. And since there is no last instance, in practice there are real differences between the powerful and the wretched, differences in the methods and materials that they deploy to generate themselves. Our task is to study these materials and methods, to understand how they realize themselves, and to note that it could and often should be otherwise.‖
Thus ANT can be seen as a means of avoiding the ‗realist/relativist debate‘ (Latour, 1999a, p22). Further it is a way of avoiding the ―[…] traditional sociological dichotomies, such as micro/macro, subject/object, structure/agency and technical/social‖ (Justesen & Mouritsen, 2011, p177). This means that ANT often attracts the label of a constructivist approach with its use within the accounting literature aiming to understand the role of these practices in the construction of society (Justesen & Mouritsen, 2011). Therefore the underlying assumption is that ―[…] society is not what holds us together, it is what is held together‖ (Latour, 1986, p276). This implies that, as Law (1992, p390) notes, this construction is an endless process and therefore ―[…] in order to stabilize society everyone
If we understand the economy to be a sub-system of society, a point that I further outline in the next chapter, then ANT, as I discuss above, ―[…] implies that the economy is an achievement rather than a starting point or a pre-existing reality that can be revealed and acted upon‖ (Çaliskan & Callon, 2009, p370). As Mackenzie (2009, p441) notes this equates to a performative understanding, which I further outline in section six below, where economic practices, including those of academics theorising with regard to economics (Callon, 2007b), take an active role in the very construction of the economy. This implies that ―[o]rganizations do not have to be placed into a ‗wider social frame‘ since they themselves give a very practical meaning to what it means to be nested into a ‗wider‘ set of affairs.‖ (Latour, 2005, p7)
The underlying assumption of the continual construction of society, and the sub-system that is the economy, has profound implications for approaching research. Most importantly is the need to follow the actors in order to understand their practices (Latour, 1987). But in doing so it is important to keep in mind that ―[…] instead of taking a reasonable position and imposing some order beforehand, ANT claims to be able to find order much better after having let the actors deploy the full range of controversies in which they are immersed‖ (Latour, 2005, p23, emphasis in original). Law (1992, p380, emphasis in original) makes this point succinctly by noting that ―[i]f we want to understand the mechanics of power and organization it is important not to start out assuming whatever we wish to explain.‖
These underlying assumptions, therefore, require that the researcher not aim to generalise a result to the population (Ahrens & Chapman, 2006). Rather ―ANT helps us to become surprised. This surprise is interesting and relevant not because it describes all cases, but because it offers new candidates to explain how management accounting becomes powerful‖ (Mouritsen et al., 2010, p312). Thus within organisations and economies there are many different and disparate actors, including many different forms of management controls, all with ―[…] their own expectations, conceptions, projects and interests‖ (Callon, 2009, p540) and thus we should, as researchers, have expectations of finding many different divergent and surprising ways of organising and structuring in practice.
However the implication of this is that in utilising ANT within this thesis I do so not as a theory (Callon, 1999). ―It was never a theory of what the social is made of [….] ANT was simply another way of being faithful to the insights of ethnomethodology: actors know what they do and we have to learn from them not only what they do, but how and why they do it‖ (Latour, 1999a, p19). Hence I utilise ANT as a lens through which to observe, organise and understand the situated practices (Garfinkel, 2002) of the actors within my case organisation. This is not to say that this thesis is devoid of theory. Rather I critically reflect (Flyvbjerg, 2001) the understandings of the practices I observe at the case organisation on theories of management control and sustainability in order to further our knowledge in these areas. Hence, through providing a lens through which to examine these other theories, ANT can best be thought of as a theoretical lens.
In closing this introduction section I note that Chua (1995) observes that as ANT has previously been used in the accounting literature (see for example Alcouffe, Berland & Levant, 2008; Briers & Chua, 2001; Cuganesan & Lee, 2006; Mouritsen, Hansen & Hansen, 2001a) it has been explained in depth and thus providing a full description is not necessary 13
since this has been done before. However given the implications of different versions of ANT being available (Justesen & Mouritsen, 2011) for the purposes of this thesis it is necessary to provide an overview of the central and critical concepts from ANT that I utilise in order that I can be clear about the assumptions being made. As a result, while the complexity of ANT makes providing a summary difficult (Mouritsen et al., 2010), this chapter includes a brief overview of the central concepts of ANT and details of specific concepts that I utilise in the analysis I perform in subsequent chapters.
The structure of the rest of the chapter is as follows. In the next section I outline some of the areas within the accounting literature that draw on ANT. This brief overview begins with a review of some of the earlier accounting literature which draws on ANT. I then review the broader contexts within the accounting literature that utilise ANT before focusing on the more narrow areas that draw on it within the MCS literature. These brief overviews provide context as to why ANT has also been useful for this research. After this brief overview, section three then introduces some of the underlying concepts that I require before moving on to a broader discussion of ANT. Section four starts this broader discussion through examining the central concept that underpins much of the discussion in ANT, namely translation. Sections five, six, and seven then focus on concepts from the ANT literature that are critical to the analysis I perform in chapter five to investigate MCS in a sustainability context. In section five I review Mouritsen, Hansen and Hansen‘s (2009) concepts of long and short translation. Then in section six I examine the difference between performative and ostensive understandings. I build on this discussion in section seven where I utilise the ANT literature to develop a performative understanding of management controls and MCS. In the next two sections, eight and nine, I examine concepts from the ANT literature that are critical, along with Callon‘s (1986b) four moments of translation that I discuss in section four, to the analysis I perform in chapter six to investigate sustainability within the MCS context. Section eight overviews what Latour (1987, p50-60) describes as ―writing texts that withstand the assault of a hostile environment‖. I follow this in section nine by specifically looking at Callon‘s (1998; 1999; 2007a) concepts of framing and overflowing. I present a summary and conclusion to this chapter in section ten.

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ANT use in the accounting literature

In this section I aim to situate ANT within the accounting literature and to highlight some of the contributions its use has made to our extant knowledge. However as the use of ANT is wide within the accounting literature this naturally limits the extent of the overview due to the space available within this thesis (see Justesen & Mouritsen, 2011 for a more comprehensive review). Therefore, in this brief review I only note some of the key issues.
One of the first examples of the use of ANT within the accounting literature is Miller (1990) who examines the interrelation between accounting and the state. Miller (1990) examines the historical period 1661-1683 during the reign of the French king Louis XIV to show how accounting and the state link and therefore have simultaneous construction. Building on this work, Miller (1991) examines the emergence of the discounted cash flow (DCF) innovation in the UK during the 1960s. He provides an alternative explanation to that given by Johnson and Kaplan (1987) who point to management accounting innovation being a result of practitioners experimenting within firms rather than academics striving for relevance. Through the use of concepts from ANT, Miller (1991) provides an alternative understanding of how the DCF innovation arose. That is, according to Miller (1991), the DCF arose out of the UK government‘s wish to promote economic growth through influencing the decisions of managers within organisations. The DCF was seen as a way to act at a distance, without the need for direct interference, in order to provide influence over the decisions being made.
Robson (1992) uses ANT to show how accounting can be understood as an inscription, with properties of mobility, stability and combinability allowing them to participate in the enablement of long-distance control. Robson (1994) builds on this through investigating inflation accounting in the 1970s, with the specific case of the Sandilands Report in the United Kingdom, to show how governments can act at a distance.
Following on from these early examples, it is important to note that ANT contributes to the research of accounting in its broadest sense. For instance Mouritsen and Flagstad (2005) utilise ANT to investigate the development of the Intellectual Capital Statement in Denmark. They show how these statements rather than stabilising the knowledge society contribute to destabilising it. In relation to this Mouritsen (2006) utilises the concepts of performative and ostensive understandings, which I discuss in section six below, to introduce a different conceptualisation of the types of research that are possible with regard to intellectual capital.
ANT also contributes in the more traditionally thought of areas of accounting, including that of auditing. For instance Skaerbaek (2009) utilises ANT to examine auditing in the public sector. Specifically he examines the process and related issues, therein, through which the National Audit Office of Denmark made the performance of the Danish military auditable through the implementation of a new accounting system. In another example from auditing, Gendron and Barrett (2004) utilise ANT to examine the process through which North American accounting institutes tried to exploit claims of professional expertise of their members to take advantage of opportunities to expand their assurance offerings through the means of e-commerce. A final example in the area of auditing is Mennicken (2008) who utilises ANT to investigate how international audit standards were translated into post-Soviet Russia and thereby illuminates the struggle for international harmonisation.
Of more interest for this thesis is the use of ANT in the management accounting literature. One common theme in this area is the implementation and diffusion of new accounting technologies with activity based costing (ABC) being of particular interest. Jones and Dugdale (2002) utilise ANT, along with Giddens‘ (1990) discussion on the dynamics of modernity, to explore the rise of ABC and how it came to be used as a response and contributor to the risks of the modern world. ANT also provides the theoretical lens for Briers and Chua (2001) to investigate how and why an ABC systems was implemented in an organisation to justify the abandonment of a product line and then in turn abandoned once this objective had been realised. In order to add to our understanding of why some accounting technologies are utilised and others are abandoned Alcouffe, Berland, and Levant (2008) use ANT as the theoretical lens for their investigation into why the diffusion of ABC was successful in France while the Georges Perrin Method was not.

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CHAPTER ONE – INTRODUCTION 
1.1 Introduction
1.2 Overview of sustainability
1.3 Overview of management control systems
1.4 Connecting the research objects
1.5 Research approach overview
1.6 Overview of thesis
CHAPTER TWO – ACTOR NETWORK THEORY 
2.1 Introduction
2.2 ANT use in the accounting literature
2.3 Defining underlying concepts
2.4 Translation
2.5 Short and long translation
2.6 Performative and ostensive understandings
2.7 An ANT understanding of management control
2.8 Tactics for making texts act
2.9 Framing and overflowing
2.10 Chapter summary
CHAPTER THREE – LITERATURE REVIEW 
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Sustainability
3.3 Motivating research aims one and two
3.4 Management control and management control systems
3.5 Accounting for sustainability and the SEA literature
3.6 Legitimacy theory
3.7 Issues of concern
3.8 Chapter summary
CHAPTER FOUR – CASE STUDY AND RESEACH METHOD OVERVIEW 
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Appropriateness of case study as the research method
4.3 Case organisation overview
4.4 Data collection and analysis
4.5 Overview of events at Kiwi
4.6 Chapter summary
CHAPTER FIVE – RESEARCHING MCS IN THE CONTEXT OF SUSTAINABILITY 
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Translation of a core value at Kiwi
5.3 Implications
5.4 Addressing the first research aim
5.5 Conclusion
CHAPTER SIX – USING MCS TO RESEARCH SUSTAINABILITY ISSUES 
6.1 Introduction
6.2 Overview of Kiwi’s Sustainability Reports
6.3 Understanding Kiwi’s Sustainability Reports through Latour’s (1987) tactics
6.4 The role of the sustainability report
6.5 The role of other management controls
6.6 The other management controls in relation to Lindbloms (1993) four strategies
6.7 Implications
6.8 Research aim two
6.9 Chapter conclusion
CHAPTER SEVEN – DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION 
7.1 Introduction 1
7.2 The process of developing a core value
7.3 The process of attaining legitimacy
7.4 Contributions
7.5 Addressing the research aims
7.6 Limitations
7.7 Future research
7.8 Conclusion
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