Management And Accounting Web

Ahrens, T. and J. F. Dent. 1998. Accounting and organizations: Realizing the richness of field research. Journal of Management Accounting Research (10): 1-39.

Summary by Antoinette Lynch
Ph.D. Program in Accounting
University of South Florida, Spring 2002

Field Studies Main Page | Research Methods Main Page

Ahrens and Dent set out to discuss how richness can be realized in field studies. Specifically, they discuss ways in which researchers can realize the potential of field research to provide rich accounts of the often very complex relationships between organizational contexts and the functioning of accounting.

Information and Decision Making

Researchers have different motives for conducting research. Some set out to describe technical practice, while other field researchers prefer to focus on the linkages between accounting and management or organizational processes. This distinction between the technical and organizational aspects is often less than clear cut, for many researchers recognize a degree of interaction between the two.

At one extreme, some researchers focus on single organizations or sites, while at the other extreme, some researchers focus on as many as 54 units or 17 companies.

Ahrens and Dent focus on small samples (i.e. one to two organizations). They believe that a smaller sample permits a closer engagement with the field than large samples. However, sample size is an ongoing debate. For example, when the sample size (number of organizations) is too large, one can place so much emphasis on constructs that they fail to communicate the rich background of each case. However, Eisenhardt argues that the more cases a researcher studies, the better for generating theory.

Due to the recent growth of field research in management accounting, several issues are of concern and have been addressed. These methodological and practical debates are ongoing:

How to cope with threats to validity and reliability in field studies (McKinnon 1988).

How such studies complement other research methods (Birnberg et al 1990).

How one can generalize from qualitative research as compared to quantitative research (Lukka and Kasanen 1995)

How field studies fit into the theory generating process overall (Keating 1995).

Three Issues that Researchers in Field Study should Consider

1. Deep Understanding

A theme drawn from Eisenhardt’s (1989, 1991) exchange with Dyer and Wilkins (1991) concerns sample size. With the broader notion of theory in mind (guess, speculation, proposition, hypothesis, etc.), the evidence of the classical studies suggests to us that rich stories can produce good theory. For example, Dalton’s (1959) Men Who Manage, using one organization, provides theoretical insights that are often more powerful and memorable than those generated from large sample field research, because these authors got as close as possible to the field and demonstrated theoretical constructs through their application in ongoing social settings.

2. The Process of Theorizing

A second theme drawn from Eisenhardt’s (1989, 1991) exchange with Dyer and Wilkins (1991) concerns the process of theorizing itself in field research and the relationship between theory and data.

Social science attempts to be faithful to observation of the real world, moving systematically from field material, through interpretation, to explanation. The field researcher searchers for a pattern, synthesizing observations into recurrent themes.

The researcher examines and re-examines existing observations and gathers more field material, to ensure that the patterns adequately represent the observed world and are not merely a product of his or her imagination.

The researcher is accountable to the reader for the integrity of his or her method, which includes representing material sufficient enough to link data to theory.

Diaries, charts, and records of interactions and observations-the documents of the field research- are critical in establishing the credibility of stories. But the researcher also needs, at a minimum, to distinguish informant’s literal, unedited statements from the researcher’s own opinion and to situate speech statements (who said? When? Why? To whom?)

Theoretical Constructs vs. Emergence

A third theme drawn from Eisenhardt’s (1989, 1991) exchange with Dyer and Wilkins (1991) relates to the extent that theoretical constructs should be used to filter contextual information in field research.

Ahrens and Dent believe that taken to the extremes, Eisenhardt's (1989) method forces theoretical constructs onto the data, rather than allowing constructs to emerge from the data. What concerns the authors is the danger of losing information by over-filtering rich field material through explicit theoretical concepts.

Field Studies

Next, the authors discuss 6 field studies in the accounting literature, showing how decisions on these three issues inform different styles of research.

Accounting and Culture
Ahrens (1996) – cross-cultural study of styles of accountability in Britain and Germany – the leaking roof. Dent’s (1991) – focuses on one organization in the process of change – a railway.
Used one event to build theory. Observation of leaking roof as the basis for his initial inquiries. Used several events, a longitudinal study, to build theory. Events took place over a period of time.
Both studies sought to get close to the field as possible.
Strategy, Accounting and Top Management Control
Roberts (1990) - U.K.-based financial conglomerate and its newly acquired subsidiary, ELB. Simons (1990) – Compares two companies use of planning and control systems to achieve organizational goals.
Draws us into the world experienced by managers in his organization. Offers less ground accounting of his organization.
His story is immediate and grounded in concrete events and interactions. Fieldwork is less grounded-provides less substantive evidence for his theory.
Theory is implicit. Theory is explicit.
Despite different modes of presentation, both studies are convincing, both show sensitivity to prior theoretical constructs.
New Technology and Accounting for Cost Improvement
Anderson (1995) studies the implementation of ABC at General Motors Jonnson and Gronlund (1988) address the issue of new technology by drawing a distinction between central (engineer designers) and local (shop floor) logics.
Advances a system perspective. Adopt a local perspective.
Shows how corporate demands for communization of disparate ABC initiatives led to disillusion at the local level. Argue that there are different logics in operation at central and local levels, and show how learning can be advanced on the shop floor thru temporary information systems.
Anderson’s story is very detail. Jonnson and Gronlund story is conceptual.
Case material laid out in chronological format, and brings it all together near the end. Use their knowledge of the organization to illustrate points throughout.
Imports a theoretical framework and uses this to structure her account of ABC implementation. Theory emerges in the field.

Next, they discuss the field research process, from start (entering the organization) to finish (the production of the paper). The Appendix list the Do’s and Don’ts of Field Research.

Do’s Don’ts
Activity 1: Ascertaining Detail
Record as much detail as you can. Do not mix observation with interpretation.
Concentrate your observations on opportunities with the potential for tensions. Do not jump to conclusions on what your observations mean.
Cast your net wide at the beginning. Do not increase the influence of your presence on observations by giving your opinion without being asked for it.
Be alert to new and interesting questions. Do not be discouraged if your observations initially seem mundane: there’s probably more to them than you think!
Adopt a modest attitude- you are there to learn from the field, not vice versa. Do not spend too much time trying to think up complex answers or explanations for your observations too early.
Be in regular contact with your informants in the organization to maintain access and keep in touch with the latest news. Do not be frustrated by the slow speed with which you negotiate access and gain understanding.
Be aware of your theoretical "lenses" and their limitations; try to develop multiple lenses. Do not let ambiguity make you impatient for "clearer" insights.
Try to see things through the eyes of different organizational members.
Be sensitive to shifting meanings.
Activity 2: Pattern Making
Find an illuminating kind of complexity reduction. Avoid premature closure of conceptual categories.
Use concrete events as open categories of inquiry. Do not treat exceptions as statistically insignificant outliers-learn from them to refine your analysis.
Seek to identify events which are key. Do not simply accept the explanations from informants – seek out the boundaries of their explanations.
Think of patterns as the bringing together of complex narratives-not simple causal links.
Activity 3: Writing
Seek out diverse audiences to test your ideas of how your field material fits the theory. Do not aim for too neat a story which seemingly effortlessly ties together all loose ends – it will smother your insights.
Use dramatic scenes and quotes to bring together observed detail with a sense of the actor’s skillful use of accounting. Do not generalize from single quotes or observations.
Select as central to the write-up those events which most clearly illuminate the progression of the story.


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Atkinson, A. A. and W. Shaffir. 1998. Standards for field research in management accounting. Journal of Management Accounting Research (10): 41-68. (Summary).

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Kaplan, R. S. 1983. Measuring manufacturing performance: A new challenge for managerial accounting research. The Accounting Review (October): 686-705. (JSTOR link). (Summary).

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Weisenfeld, L. W. and L. N. Killough. 1992. A review and extension of using performance reports: A field study based on path-goal theory. Journal of Management Accounting Research (4): 209-225. (Summary).

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