Critical Perspective In Accounting

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Critical Perspectives on Accounting 20 (2009) 875–883

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Understanding accounting through conceptual metaphor:
Joel Amernic a,∗ , Russell Craig b a b

Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario M5S 3E6, Canada
Department of Accounting and Information Systems, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8140, New Zealand

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history:
Received 2 November 2008
Received in revised form 17 June 2009
Accepted 26 June 2009

a b s t r a c t
This paper extends the conversation about metaphors in accounting that were presented in this journal by McGoun et al. [McGoun EG, Bettner MS, Coyne MP. Pedagogic metaphors and the nature of accounting signification. Critical Perspectives on Accounting 2007a;18:213–30; McGoun EG, Bettner MS, Coyne MP. Money n’ motion—born to be wild. Critical Perspectives on Accounting;2007b;18:343–61.]. Our aim is to promote further critical conversations about how metaphor is implicated in accounting. We assemble and review some of the empirical evidence we have gathered from close readings of discourse about accounting over the past decade. Based on this empirical grounding, we propose that the fundamental conceptual metaphor, ACCOUNTING IS AN INSTRUMENT, has been deployed commonly to describe the essence of accounting. We contend that such deployment has insidious, distortive and confounding outcomes because it encourages belief that accounting is incapable of reporting other than with representational faithfulness; and that it confounds the (alleged) primary qualitative characteristics of accounting information
(relevance and reliability) outlined in the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s SFAC 2
Qualitative Characteristics of Accounting.
© 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Aims, scope, motivation
We respond to a lament by Cornelissen (2005, p. 751) that “works on metaphor . . . are still falling short in offering an informed and grounded account of metaphor’s workings” [italics applied]. As with McGoun et al. (2007a), our objective is to improve understanding of the way metaphors are implicated in accounting. However, we differ from McGoun et al. (2007a) in two important ways. First, we focus on the workings of metaphor in accounting, as revealed by empirical evidence. Second, we conceive the ACCOUNTING IS A LENS metaphor as an element of a broader, more encompassing conceptual metaphor:
We adopt the view that accounting is a language-like discipline involving figurative expressions and other elusive and perplexing modes of communication. As such, it is ideological, and an important means of persuasion—it is a form of “writing” which yields “no access to reality other than through structures of representation” (Robson, 1992, p. 690). One such “structure of representation” is metaphor. Critical examination of accounting knowledge should involve “not only the employment of literary, rhetorical and discursive analyses, but require[s] interpretation of the . . . consequences that flow from the operation of . . . metaphors” (Robson, 1992, pp. 703–4).

∗ Corresponding author.
E-mail address: (J. Amernic).
1045-2354/$ – see front matter © 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/ 876

J. Amernic, R. Craig / Critical Perspectives on Accounting 20 (2009) 875–883

We draw on a widely accepted theory of metaphor (Lakoff, 1993) and the cognitive semantics paradigm (Lakoff and
Johnson, 1980, 1999; Gibbs, 1994, 1996) to contend that the “metaphors accounting lives by” are worthy of further investigation. We maintain that awareness of the metaphorical structure of