The "Sheffield School" of Accounting Research

Professor Anthony LoweThe idea of a “Sheffield School” of Accounting Research owes its history to the group of scholars that were gathered together by the University of Sheffield’s first Professor of Accounting and Financial Management, Tony Lowe, from the early nineteen-seventies. Both the practice and the academic discipline of accounting had been based on economic principles historically. Accounting could be seen as a tool to help organisations express their activities in markets. Accounting’s origins in economics helped to create an illusion that the markets from which the economic principles were derived were neutral and benefited everyone and such events had only financial consequences.

Tony Lowe had already started to challenge some of the underlying assumptions of accounting in his main research area of management accounting and control before he joined the University of Sheffield. The dominant idea in the field theorised that resources are obtained and used effectively and efficiently in the accomplishment of an organisation’s objectives. However, Tony Lowe’s work in the area included a systemic understanding of organisations in which decisions were studied in their actual context to provide a recognition of different interests, biases and counter biases that influenced actual use of resources in ways different to that suggested by dominant ideas. This opened up new avenues of academic research and led to the establishment of the Management Control Association. This organisation continues to thrive today and organises regular meetings and conferences.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, groups of younger academic accountants were also growing dissatisfied with the underlying assumptions of conventional accounting and turned instead to social and organisational theories to help explain the purpose, practice and consequences of accounting and used a wider range of methods to research those issues. When Tony Lowe joined Sheffield in 1971, he gathered together many of these younger academics including Wai Fong Chua, Trevor Hopper, Richard Laughlin, Peter Miller, Tony Tinker and Dick Wilson, all of whom rose to prominence in the academic accounting community and subsequently held chairs elsewhere. The interdisciplinary and critical approach to accounting practiced by Tony Lowe and his contemporaries at Sheffield came to be known as the “Sheffield School”. Their research and publications extended beyond management accounting and control to public sector accounting, auditing, the role of the profession and accounting education amongst others and addressed major problems of the time including offering alternative critical analyses of such issues as the year-long 1984-1985 miners’ strike.

As the original Sheffield School moved on to other institutions, their influence spread and coalesced with those with similar interests elsewhere. The alliance of such interests led to the development of an alternative accounting academic superstructure of conferences and journals that are considered of at least equal standing to the conventional ones. These include the Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Accounting Conference, the Asia-Pacific Interdisciplinary Research in Accounting Conference and the Critical Perspectives on Accounting Conference that are each held triennially in Europe, Australasia and North America respectively to provide a rolling series of an annual alternative conference and the establishment of internationally leading journals, such as Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal and Critical Perspectives on Accounting.

The work of the original Sheffield School in offering critical appraisals of accounting with the intention of bringing about change to the role that it plays in organisations and society has been carried on through several generations of academics who have since passed through Sheffield and includes the work of: Jane Broadbent, Mary Bowerman, David Heald and Ron Hodges on public sector accounting; Christopher Humphrey on auditing; Peter Armstrong on the accounting profession; Stuart Ogden on governance issues; and David Owen, Linda Lewis and Jeffery Unerman on Social and Environmental Accounting. This work is being carried on and extended by the current members of the Centre for Research into Accounting and Finance in Context (CRAFiC).

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