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Jonsson, S. and N. B. Macintosh. 1997. CATS, RATS, and EARS: Making the case for ethnographic accounting research. Accounting, Organizations and Society 22(3-4): 367-386.

Summary by Rosalyn Mansour
Ph.D. Program in Accounting
University of South Florida, Spring 2004

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Motivation: The authors were troubled when they observed that UK Critical Accounting Theorists (CATS) rejected the findings of Ethnographic Accounting Studies (EARS) produced by Swedish researchers. The authors felt that the rejections were unsubstantiated. Both the EARS and CATS adherents reject the U.S.A.'s Rational Accounting Theory Studies (RATS).

Purpose: The authors state that the purpose of this paper is to "explore some sort of reapproachment between CATS, RATS, and EARS (p. 368)." In the context of researching trust, the paper's main focus is on EARS and justifying its ability to make a contribution. They do, however, provide a balanced discussion of both the advantages and drawbacks inherent in the CATS and EARS methodologies. Not much is discussed about RATS, but since this RATS use the theory building method used by those known as “functionalist” or “positivist,” little needs to be said.

Summary: I use the paper's headings and subheadings to organize a brief summary of its contents.

Motivation (Sten)

As mentioned, ethnographic research was being rejected in the UK, Swedish companies are much more "communal" than the UK's market-based "hierarchical" organizations. It stands to reason that findings from a Swedish ethnography were literally unrecognizable to UK researchers and rejected as "naive".

Trust (Sten)

Since trust is used in the paper as a research topic justifying the use of EARS, some amount of detail is used to explain why "objective, scientific measurement seems hardly possible (p. 369)." The context used is the desire to design a study "to understand how trust is created in and betrayed in the use of a lean production control system (p. 369)."

Ethnographic Research Norman

Ethnographic research would involve immersion into the culture of an organization for a long period of time in order to understand how trust/distrust works. The researcher interacts with the object of research. The purpose is to create a narrative of "the behavior and idea systems of the actors in a particular culture, organization, profession, or community of some sort including their conceptions, discursive practices, and interrelationships with each other (p. 370)." The authors further explain that ethnographies are representational, interpretive, and rhetorical. Silverman 1985 categorizes ethnographies into three categories: cognitive anthropology, interaction, and ethnomethodology. Table 1 gives an overview of these categories.

Table 1: Categories of Ethnographies
Main Concern How actors communicate What actors are thinking - how they make their actions meaningful How actors choose to do what they do
Particular focus What counts as communicative competence The concepts and symbols actors use to conduct their social life The orderly patterned character of actors' every day social practices
Describe in Detail The natives' speaking and listening habits The actors' inter-subjective or shared symbolic world The form of the actors' sense assembly equipment
Example of "trust" research Dent's 1991 narrated how British Rail "evolved from a social service 'engineering and logistics' culture" to a culture with the bottom line at its core. Managers trusted the accounting system and accounting talk became the norm. Preston 1986 study of a plastic container division of a firm found that managers preferred "water cooler" communication for staying current rather than using (trusting) the formal management accounting system. They did use the MAS for performance evaluation. This is because, to be successful, managers needed to get informed as well as be seen as a reliable and accurate source of information. Johnson & Kaplan 1980 found that programmers managed to keep an upper hand with disgruntled users by speaking technical jargon so as to appear superior to the users. The users, by not being willing to show their ignorance, were dependent upon the programmers and poorly written applications were perpetuated. Jonsson 1982 also found trust issues when observing the process of budgeting over 3 cycles for a city government.


Like EARS, CATS also use subjective methods of study, but CATS focus is on ‘the power acts of constructing and interpreting meaning in organizations and institutions by means of accounting and control systems (p. 375).” As described, CATS would appear to be a combination of the Radical Structuralist and the Radical Humanist paradigms described by Gioia & Pitre, 1990. They tend to be more objective than the Radical Structuralist. However, both radical structuralists and CATS would posit that there are objectively real structural mechanisms in organizations (such as accounting systems) that are used by the status quo elite to dominate and therefore must be ousted. Because of CATS extreme opinion of accounting systems, EARS say they’re not in a position to objectively study them from a “trust” perspective.


Areas of disagreement between EARS and CATs, from the EARS viewpoint include:

1. CATS assume people are ignorant to the power structures that they are involved in.

2. CATS’ research is not done in the field, whereas EARS is.

3. CATS start with a priori belief that workers and owners distrust each other.

4. CATS believe capitalism works the same way in every country.

5. According to the author, CATS research “starts with the same story, ends with the same result, and so comes across more like a prepackaged ideology than a theory (p. 376).”

CATS come-back

CATS also take issue with EARS. A few of those would include:

1. EARS research tools (language and conversation) are the very objects they study. You can’t separate the researcher from the results, as the researcher influences the outcome.

2. EARS have a “hermeneutic circle” problem. By relying upon the hermeneutic method, their narratives are “little more than flotsam and jetsam on a circling sea of subjectivity (p. 378).

3. Because of human nature, the interpretation process that occurs in an EARS is biased by the researcher’s own values and biases.

4. EARS don’t acknowledge the power inherent in communication and therefore won’t find it because they don’t look for it.


In regard to studying “trust”, the main problem EARS have with RATS is the RATS start with a theory on trust – agency theory. Agency theory works because “each party trusts that the other party will not trust them (p. 379).”

CATS, RATS, and EARS: Where to? (Norman and Sten)

The authors do point out some common ground – basically CATS and EARS agree about what they disagree with RATS. Both CATS and EARS disagree with RATS’ presupposition of agency theory and the belief that accounting information systems are neutral and used rationally by management. CATS and EARS have some research methods in common. Both CATS and EARS are focused on deep structure. At the end of the day, it’s all about ontology and epistemology.

In sum, all 3 have their good points and bad points. Probably the best use of EARS is for novel theory generation and for finding relevant problems that can be then used by CATS and RATS. At the end of the article, the authors present an “utopian” research plan for a study on trust that would incorporate all three viewpoints (RATS, CATS, and EARS).


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Foster, G. and S. M. Young. 1997. Frontiers of management accounting research. Journal of Management Accounting Research (9): 63-77. (Summary).

Ittner, C. D. and D. F. Larcker. 2001. Assessing empirical research in managerial accounting: A value-based management perspective. Journal of Accounting and Economics (December): 349-410. (Summary).

Jonsson, S. 1998. Relate management accounting research to managerial work! Accounting, Organizations and Society 23(4): 411-434. (Summary).

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Shields, M. D. 1997. Research in management accounting by North Americans in the 1990s. Journal of Management Accounting Research (9): 3-61. (Summary).

Zimmerman, J. L. 2001. Conjectures regarding empirical managerial accounting research. Journal of Accounting and Economics (December): 411-427. (Summary).