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

Summary by James R. Martin, Ph.D., CMA
Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida

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The purpose of Zimmerman's paper is to criticize the progress made in the area of empirical managerial accounting research, and to offer some conjectures as to why so little has been accomplished in this area. His views are based on Ittner and Larcker's 2001 review of empirical management accounting literature (see below).

Ittner-Larcker's Organizing Framework

Ittner and Larcker use a Value-Based Management (VBM) Framework, that according to Zimmerman, was distilled from consulting practice (See the VBM Graphic). He contends that although it resembles various theories, it seems better suited for organizing a consulting engagement. Most of the studies address practices such as ABC, EVA and the balanced scorecard and not much has evolved beyond a description of practice. However, describing practice will not build a coherent literature and an understanding of managerial accounting practices. Managerial accounting empirical research needs to evolve into developing and testing theories suggested from practice.

Empirical Analysis of the Empirical Managerial Accounting Literature

In this section Zimmerman compares the references cited by Ittner and Larcker (IL) with those cited by eight other surveys. He provides two tables to support his argument that only 23% of the references in Ittner and Larcker's study are to mainstream North American journals. The mainstream, according to Zimmerman, includes The Accounting Review, Contemporary Accounting Research, Journal of Accounting and Economics, Journal of Accounting Research, and Review of Accounting Studies. Most of the papers cited by IL are in practitioner oriented journals outside the mainstream. This analysis supports his view that the empirical managerial accounting literature is long on describing practice and short on developing and testing hypotheses developed from economics and finance.

Role of Theory in Empirical Studies

The problem is that no economic-based theory has been developed to guide empirical research in managerial accounting. However, knowledge comes from testing hypotheses suggested by theories. Theories do not need to be stated in terms of mathematics, but do need to be based on rigorous logic. The empirical managerial accounting literature has failed because the objective has been to describe practice rather than to develop and test theories.

Six Conjectures Regarding the Empirical Managerial Accounting Literature

Zimmerman contends that there are six reasons (conjectures) why empirical managerial accounting literature has failed.

1. Lack of reliable, consistent data. There are no data bases such as Compustat, EDGAR, CRSP etc. for managerial accounting. Poor data is frequently used to justify weak theory, or no theory, and/or badly designed research methods.

2. The literature's atheoretical approach. It has been 15 years since Kaplan (e.g., 1983,1984) called for more field-based research. Although much field research has been published during this period, it has not led to the theory building and testing envisioned. Wandering the halls of corporations without tentative hypotheses has not been fruitful.

3. Changing incentives of researchers. It appears that incentives have changed to conduct more practical research and less theoretical research. For example, some research is conducted to test claims made by consultants.

4. The literature's failure to embrace economics. When empirical managerial studies do test theories, they are non-economics-based theories (e.g., expectancy theory and contingency theory). Reliance on non-economics-based theories retards the progress of empirical managerial accounting research.

5. Few empirically testable theories. More progress could be made if theorists generated models with testable predictions.

6. The literature's almost exclusive focus on decision making, not control. Perhaps research related to decision-making has been emphasized because it is more popular to practitioners, but if accounting systems are used mainly for control, rather than decision-making, the underlying theory is misguided.


Empirical researchers should use economics-based hypotheses and emphasize the control function of accounting. The shift towards consulting-like, practice-oriented research will cause less theory development and hypotheses testing research to be conducted and all areas of accounting inquiry will suffer.


Note: This paper provided considerable fuel for a very interesting controversy. We summarized some of the reactions to Zimmerman's conjectures as indicated below. But there are many other papers that address similar issues. For example, see Kaplan 1998 and Jones & Dugdale who report that contributions such as the development of ABC were not authenticated by mainstream accounting journals or professional organizations. Instead management consultants at Harvard and CAM-I had a pivotal role. So the question can be turned around. What are the major contributions from what Zimmerman refers to as the mainstream North American accounting journals?

Articles related to this issue in the order that they were published.

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).

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

Hopwood, A. G. 2002. If only there were simple solutions, but there aren't: Some reflections on Zimmerman's critique of empirical management accounting research. The European Accounting Review 11(4): 777-785. (Summary).

Ittner, C. D. and D. F. Larcker. 2002. Empirical managerial accounting research: Are we just describing management consulting practice? The European Accounting Review 11(4): 787-794. (Summary).

Luft, J. and M. D. Shields. 2002. Zimmerman's contentious conjectures: Describing the present and prescribing the future of empirical management accounting research. The European Accounting Review 11(4): 795-803. (Summary).

Lukka, K. and J. Mouritsen. 2002. Homogeneity or heterogeneity of research in management accounting? The European Accounting Review 11(4): 805-811. (Summary).

Mensah, Y. M., N. R. Hwang and D. Wu. 2004. Does managerial accounting research contribute to related disciplines? An examination using citation analysis. Journal of Management Accounting Research (16): 163-181. (These authors find evidence to refute Zimmerman's contention that economics-based MAR research papers make greater contributions to knowledge).

Kaplan, R. S. 2006. The competitive advantage of management accounting. Journal of Management Accounting Research (18): 127-135. (Kaplan's comments on receiving the AAA Management Accounting Section Lifetime Achievement Award at the MAS January 2006 midyear meeting. It is mainly a defense of ABC and the balanced scorecard).

For another interesting controversy related to Zimmerman, see the following:

Christenson, C. 1983. The methodology of positive accounting. The Accounting Review (January): 1-22. (JSTOR link). (Positive vs. normative theory. Positive accounting theory is concerned with why accounting is what it is, why accountants do what they do, and how this affects people and resources. Normative, or negative accounting theory is concerned with what ought to be.)

Watts, R. L. and J. L. Zimmerman. 1978. Towards a positive theory of the determination of accounting standards. The Accounting Review (January): 112-134. (JSTOR link).

Watts, R. L. and J. L. Zimmerman. 1979. The demand for and supply of accounting theories: The market for excuses. The Accounting Review (April): 273-305. (JSTOR link).

Other related summaries:

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

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).

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