Accounting research and the public interest
Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada, and
Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto, Canada
Purpose – This essay sets out to introduce the special issue.
Design/methodology/approach – The essay discusses a variety of approaches to exploring the
relationship between accounting and the public interest, and brieﬂy reviews the contribution of the
articles in the issue.
Findings – Not applicable.
Originality/value – The essay argues that accounting research can be opened up by problematizing
the notion of the public interest, and by considering not only how accounting constitutes the public
interest, but how various public interests constitute accounting.
Keywords Public interest, Accounting research, Social structure
Paper type General review
“The public interest” is a phrase that we, as accounting researchers, associate with
accounting almost by reﬂex. When we talk about accounting and society, the
normative imperative creeps in, and we ﬁnd it quite natural to insist that accounting
ought to serve the public interest. This predisposition is reinforced by the traditional
claims of the accounting profession to protect the public interest, and by the
neoclassical microeconomic theories that underpin so much accounting research,
which deem accounting to aid in social welfare maximization by providing
transparent, reliable information to investors. Accounting research that
problematizes the notion of the public interest is rare, however. Researchers seldom
directly address what is meant by “public interest”, or question how accounting is
connected to it. Mainstream researchers, by virtue of their microeconomic models, tend
to assume a unidirectional relationship between accounting and the public interest,
wherein “better” accounting (i.e. more representationally faithful, more reliable, more
timely, more comparable, and so forth) makes for greater social welfare. Even critical
researchers frequently accept this one-way relationship, albeit they usually contend
that the relationship is impaired.
To move beyond this consensus, and open up “public interest” research, it is helpful
to consider accounting and the public interest as being mutually constitutive (cf. Neu,
forthcoming). Accounting does not serve the public interest so much as generate a
peculiar and hyperreal version of it. And this peculiar “public interest” in turn
demands and generates the accounting that it requires. How this happens is an
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This manuscript has beneﬁted from the comments of Alan Richardson at the Schulich School of
Accounting, Auditing &
Vol. 18 No. 5, 2005
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited