Accounting and power: evidence from the fourteenth century

Accounting and power: evidence from the fourteenth century

Angelo Riccaboni, Elena Giovannoni, Andrea Giorgi, and Stefano Moscadelli

Accounting History,  Vol.11:1 (2006)

Abstract: During the past few years research on cultural, behavioural and social aspects of organizational activities and interactions have proliferated considerably in the accounting literature, thereby emphasizing the role played by accounting practices in shaping and/or balancing power relations in modern organizations. A relevant contribution to understanding the origins of the power of accounting can be found in accounting history. The present article examines a fourteenth-century case, that of the Opera della Metropolitana di Siena, an institution in charge of the construction and maintenance of the cathedral of the city of Siena, Italy, to explore the potential role played by accounting systems in influencing power relations. By analysing institutional and organizational change as well as the evolution of accounting practices within theOpera,this article shows that, since the medieval age, accounting data has played an important role not only in recording operational activities but also in managing power relationships.

Introduction: The significant role played by accounting in documenting different aspects of organizational activities and interactions has been widely addressed by the literature. Accounting systems are often portrayed as being able to provide firms with a common language, translating everyday operations into financial measurements. Such measures allow organizations to communicate through time and space, by recording past events and documenting the overall history of the firm and of its members. Accounting systems provide not only quantitative information but they also have the potential to document the economic, social, and institutional context in which they have occurred.

medieval mag 36During the past few years, several researchers have highlighted the role of accounting systems in managing internal and external interdependencies. These studies have drawn from material beyond the technical aspects in order to interpret the way in which accounting systems are involved in the construction of organizational order, and how they interact within the wider social context in which the organization operates. Significant attention has also been given to possible links between accounting and power relations within organizations. Accounting has been interpreted as part of the framework of meaning used to set values and ideals about what ought to count, what ought to happen, and what is thought to be important; moreover, it has the potential for providing the moral underpinnings for power structures and relationships of dependence and autonomy within organization, as well as for facilitating the exercise of power by some groups over others, while giving legitimacy to the actions and interactions of managers throughout the organization.

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