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`Accounting as a discipline has no theory`. Critically evaluate this statement and provide examples to illustrate your arguments.

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`Accounting as a discipline has no theory`. Critically evaluate this statement and provide examples to illustrate your arguments.

Accounting is said to be a form of financial language, which is used to communicate a message. Accounting can be many things to many different people. Society is made up of individuals who are interested in accounting they may be shareholders, stakeholders, employees or the government. Accounting can be produced according to the rules and regulations but can be manipulated to look favourable to users as in the case of NCB. Conceptual framework comes from accounting concepts and conventions. It is used as a knowledge base. Other professions such as medical and teachers had theoretical knowledge backing them up such as science and technology. Whereas accounting originally had no knowledge base and has evolved over time.  

Accounting theory can be defined as the hypothesis to explain accounting. “theories are tools which enable us to see particular problems from different perspectives”. (Lecture notes 1, page 6).

I m going to argue against this statement that `Accounting as a discipline has no theory. In order to evaluate this statement I am first going to write about the background of accounting theory, to understand where and why it was introduced. Then I am going to discuss some of the main theories, which have been introduced to accounting in order to prove my arguments and to see whether accounting as a discipline has theory or no theory.

Accounting has been around “at least since C16”. Accounting as a profession has “been around for over 100 years”. Accounting came around the time of other professions such as the medical profession and teachers, these professions were backed by “theoretical knowledge” which was used in decision making and to reduce uncertainty. (Lecture notes 2, page 4). Accountants at the time were just trained to produce accounts and to keep the general maintenance of books. This was ok for the first 100 years but society has changed due to the fact that a steep growth in population, business and complex organisations with complex transactions. Accounting had no theoretical framework during the early years, which meant there where loopholes and companies could take advantage. David Solomon page 1 states “accountants are like journalists they should report the news and not make it”. The accountants had no theoretical backing.

Accounting had evolved over time with few written and was in effect a collection of traditions, which were not necessarily understood. The development of conceptual framework was originally rejected by the UK but eventually more and more countries followed the idea of the USA. The conceptual framework first arose in the mid 1970s in the USA by the FASB which is the US equivalent of the accounting standards board (ASB, UK). In 1989 the international accounting standard committee (IASC) published an abbreviated conceptual framework entitled framework for the preparation and presentation of financial statements. In 1991 the UK began their own project and eventually a statement of principle was published and rejected. But then in 1999 a definitive document was published.

The true and fair view in accounting is produced in all published accounts. The true and fair view appears to be an opinion in which accountants are supposed to follow the true and fair view. The true and fair is difficult to define but can be considered as presentation of accounts which are produced ethically, free from bias and within the accounting standards. The true and fair view is produced to make information true and fair but has many problems in interpreting it.

Epistemology regards the theory of knowledge. “Knowledge is used to construct reality” so it is important to see where knowledge is derived from. (Lecture notes 4, page 2). “Knowledge is acquired through reason and experience”. (Knowledge, page 50). The establishment of truth has to be considered in the discussion of knowledge. “Truth is tense less, truth is independent of our knowledge of it”. (Lecture notes 4, page 4). The different sources of knowledge are highly problematic. Science can be regarded as providing status to knowledge. “Science is special because it is based on facts, the facts established in this way will constitute a secure, objective basis”. “The resulting knowledge can itself be taken to be securely established and objective”. (Science as knowledge, page 1. Morgan page 307 states that “scientists and social scientists shape knowledge through means of constructs which help them organize and make sense of the complex and ambiguous experiences they encounter”.

Knowledge is used in theory, but knowledge is problematic. The factors used to derive knowledge are not always reliable. Something being right must be “track able to evidence”. People may believe something is true but it may not be linked to ‘perceptions’. (Lecture notes 4, page 6). There are many problems with knowledge based on the same lines of truth but if knowledge is properly derived it is reliable and objective.

The Conceptual Framework can be defined as:  “a coherent system of inter-related objectives and fundamentals that should lead to consistent standards that prescribe the nature, function and limits of financial accounting and financial statements.” (www.accaglobal.com page1)

A conceptual framework provides accountants and users of accounting information with a set of rules, principles and procedures. We can see the overall picture of accounting and accounting information. Accountants are able to satisfy the needs of all user groups. Conceptual framework sets out guidelines and procedures, which make processes more certain. The framework provides standards setters with both a foundation for setting standards and concepts to use as tools for resolving accounting and reporting questions. “Horngren (1981) and Dopuch and Sunder (1980)” argue that a conceptual framework should increase standard setters ability to enact standards they feel are consistent with accounting theory. (www.pitt.edu/, page 1). It adds to greater efficiency in standard setting processes by narrowing the range of alternatives. The framework contributes to greater efficiency in communications. It reduces political pressures in making accounting judgements. Neutral information enables users of information to make informed investment and credit decisions. Neutral information serves the public interest by helping to promote the efficient allocation of scarce resources in the economy and society. The use of an agreed framework reduces the influence of personal biases. The credibility of financial reporting is enhanced when objectives and concepts are used to provide direction and structure to financial accounting and reporting. The framework helps users of financial reporting information to better understand the information and its limitations. “A conceptual framework is useful for organising and formulating normative accounting research and for defining the terms of debate with respect to various standard setting proposals”. (Mozes 1992, pitt.edu/).  

The structure of the conceptual frameworks produced to date comprise of the following:

  1. The objective of financial reporting, including the users of financial statements and their information needs.
  2. Qualitative characteristics of accounting information that enable financial statements to fulfil their objective, determine what is useful information, and provide criteria for choosing among alternative accounting methods.
  3. Definitions of the elements of financial statements such as nature of gains, losses, assets, liabilities and ownership interest.
  4. A set of criteria for deciding when the elements are to be recognized in financial statements.
  5. A set of measurement rules for determining the monetary amounts at which the elements of financial statements are to be recognized and carried in the accounts.
  6. Guidelines for the presentation and disclosure of the elements in financial statements.

Conceptual framework may have its advantages, but it also has disadvantages. One of the main issues is “whether the cost of preparing a conceptual framework is justified in terms of it s benefits, including whether it is possible to develop a set of consistent fundamentals and whether these will lead to improvements in accounting standard setting”. (Thomas, page 496). Another issue is that whether accounting standards just make published accounts more consistent rather than comparable. More meaningful comparisons would result from allowing companies to choose those accounting policies which are appropriate to their individual circumstances. Standardization forces companies to use the same accounting policies, but it does not necessarily mean that they are the most appropriate accounting policies for each company and thus comparisons may be misleading. In some occasions conflict will arise on the qualitative characteristics for e.g. sometimes the information that is the most relevant is not the most reliable. However, the main draw-back of a conceptual framework is that it can be too general in nature and the principles may not help when actually producing the financial statements. Also there may be further disagreement as to the content of the framework and the contents of standards.

The Statement of Principles defines the objective of financial statements as:

“to provide information about the reporting entity’s financial performance and financial position that is useful to a wide range of users for assessing the stewardship of management and for making economic decisions.”

(www.accaglobal.com)

The Statement comprises the following eight chapters:

1 The Objective of Financial Statements.
2 The Reporting Entity.
3 The Qualitative Characteristics of Financial Information.
4 The Elements of Financial Statements.
5 Recognition in Financial Statements.
6 Measurement in Financial Statements.
7 Presentation of Financial Information.
8 Accounting for Interests in Other Entities.

Ssap2 (statement of standard accounting principles) was drawn up in 1971 which was before the conceptual framework and it was designed to provide “guidance on the disclosure of accounting principles”. Ssap2 saw 4 main traditional conventions as ‘underpinning’ accounting, these were going concern, accruals, prudence and consistency. The going concern convention is defined as the accounting convention that holds that the business will continue operations for the foreseeable future. The accruals concept is defined as expenses that are outstanding at the end of the accounting period. The prudence convention is defined as a cautious view taken for future problems. The consistency convention is defined as the accounting convention that holds that when a particular method of accounting is selected to deal with a transaction, this method should be applied consistently over time. Fred21 came out just before FRS18 as an update for ssap2. Fred21 stated that going concern and accruals were still important and that consistency and prudence should be considered as qualities. Ssap2 was superseded in 1999 by the statement of principles. Ssap2 was then replaced by the ASB financial reporting standard 18 (FRS18) in 2000. FRS18 identifies two accounting concepts that it describes as being part of the bedrock of accounting and playing a pervasive role in financial statements. These comprise of the going concern assumption and the accruals concept.

SSAP2 was valuable because it was the first real “step forward to providing a knowledge base for accounting”. (Lecture notes 2, page 5). It was the first “opportunity to try and give meaning to practices which had evolved”. (Lecture notes 2, page 5). After ssap2 there other SSAP’s and FRS’s introduced in order to provide more judgement in accounting. Some of the standards introduced are SSAP9 which outlines stock and long term contracts, SSAP13 accounting for research and development, and FRS15 defines tangible fixed assets. These SSAP’s and FRS’s as well as all the others introduced provide accounting with set rules and regulations, which in turn made it more consistent and reliable.

Solomon argues that “accounting is held to be akin to journalism in that we are presumed able to find and extract pure, uncorrupted, neutral facts”. (Tinker, page 298). But tinker argues that Solomon’s theories are problematic. The true and fair view is very hard to understand and interpret and therefore can be very problematic. Morgan states that accountants are subjective constructors of reality presenting and representing the situations in limited and one sided ways.

Accounting theory is not concrete in any sense but you can see that it does make accounting more consistent, reliable and makes more sense of it. I have concluded that accounting as a discipline has theory. In my opinion the benefits of accounting theory outweigh the drawbacks. The development of conceptual framework is helpful in some ways but unhelpful in other ways. It is helpful in reducing scandals and protecting the users of accounts. It is probably unhelpful to managers who have to follow the strict guidelines i.e some managers may be unhappy with the disclosure of inefficient areas. Professor Mcvae says “ that it was impossible to obtain a conceptual framework but that attempt to do so would help us to organise and understand what we do”.  Accounting has accomplished its purpose, which was to deal with the change in society and to undertake the loopholes and scandals that were taking place in accounting.


Bibliography

Web addresses

http://www.pitt.edu/matz/

www.google.co.uk

www.accaglobal.com

Articles

Thomas “introduction to financial accounting” 4th edition.

Tony Tinker 1991 “the accountant as partisman”.

Davis Solomons 1991 “accounting and social change: a neutralist view”.

A.F. Chalmers chapter 1 : “inductivism: science as knowledge derived from the facts of experience”.

Stanley W. Davis, Krishnagopal Menon and Gareth Morgan 1982 “the images that have

shaped accounting theory”.

Alexander and Britton “financial reporting”7th edition.

Handouts

Lecture notes 1 “exploring the role of accounting in society”

Lecture notes 2 “exploring the development of accounting theory”

Lecture notes 4 “perception, truth, reality construction and the scientific method”.

Lecture notes 6 “the true and fair view”.

Others

“The English dictionary”

“The Thesaurus”

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