Management And Accounting Web

Reiter, S. A. 1994. Beyond economic man: Lessons for behavioral research in accounting. Behavioral Research in Accounting (6) Supplement: 164-185.

Summary by Anita Reed
Ph.D. Program in Accounting
University of South Florida, Spring 2002

Behavioral Issues Main Page | Gender & Feminist Main Page

Purpose - Motivation

The author is motivated by evaluation of feminist economic theory and its value in developing alternative theoretical and methodological approaches to studying behavioral accounting phenomena. The author's view is that using feminist based theories to inform the research will yield a more balanced approach, reduce bias and result in better models. The result will be new insight and an enriched understanding of the phenomena. Her goal is to encourage using a different perspective to strengthen the objectivity of behavioral research and provide additional choices regarding theoretical and methodological approaches and a new lens for evaluating phenomena that have not been satisfactorily examined using existing theoretical approaches.

Feminist Standpoint Theory

A definition of feminist standpoint theory, based on the work of Harding, is "an attempt to construct knowledge from the perspective of women's lives". This theory is based on the concept of women as being more able to bring objectivity to research as a result of their societal roles, described as the "outsiders within". Feminists' contend that research is too often "caught up in abstraction to the exclusion of attention to everyday processes" and that women are more able to recognize the role of process and its impact on behavior. The feminist standpoint theory lens includes evaluating the role of emotion, person, relationships, underlying processes, quantitative or qualitative and other issues when examining accounting phenomena. The theory employs the two major themes:

1. what is missing in economic-based theories and

2. how research practices are related to everyday reality.

Feminist Economic Critique

Feminist critiques are based on the concept that masculine gender is embedded in scientific practice, giving rise to hidden assumptions and epistemological practices that create bias. Their goal is to reduce the bias and to reveal the hidden assumptions, thereby increasing objectivity. The exploration of dualism in scientific thought is a method for revealing hidden assumptions regarding the roles of individuals, society and nature. Dualism is examined as a patriarchal mode of thought, and seen as a rigid method of structuring research questions that obscures the characteristics of the phenomena being studied. A feminist approach would focus on mutuality, interaction and context, conceiving of the phenomena as being in a constant state of flux. Another perceived flaw of dualism is the tendency of theory to "embrace extreme ...while rejecting the other", or to place too much emphasis on one element of the duality, resulting in theories that are unbalanced in the direction of stereotypically masculine characteristics. This gender bias has been traced by feminist economic researchers to much of the economic theory used to inform behavioral research today, resulting in theory that is too rigid to be useful in behavioral studies. Utilizing the dualism approach to evaluate economic theory can illuminate the missing elements, which may be related to feminine traits. Incorporating the feminine traits may increase the explanatory power of the research and result in better theory development. An example is the comparison of the economist's concept of a person as an autonomous agent, as opposed to the' sociologist's concept of a person as an agent acting out social roles. The economist's view incorporates the masculine concepts of individual, activity, choice and competition. The sociologist's view incorporates the feminine concepts of flexibility, intuition, humanism and connectedness. Combining these concepts would result in a view that evaluated economics based on an understanding of "balanced humanity".

Neoclassical Economic Models And Behavioral Accounting Research

Feminist critiques perceives neoclassical economic theories to be based on "rational economic man", a concept of man as a rational utility maximizer, existing on an entirely abstract level, who has no individuality, cognition, personality and operates without regard to social, cultural or institutional context. This perception is recognized as a duality in which the abstract (mind) is privileged over the mechanisms (body) and separates the actor from the processes. The result is a multitude of "black box" process models and devaluation of individual characteristics and context in research models. Two areas most impacted by this view are judgment and decision making and financial reporting. Expanding these models to include individuals as decision-makers within organizational contexts is perceived as a means of increasing the understanding of accounting behavioral phenomena.

Judgment and Decision Making

The neoclassical economic concept of man as being "born fully formed" with preferences "immaculately conceived" and being devoid of both personality and physical or cultural context, with no consideration for education, persuasion, leadership or other factors results in a totally abstract view. Many of the original accounting behavioral research models were based on this view, with some consideration for cognitive biases in the heuristics models. The result is research that is narrowly focused and relates little to real world contexts. The models tended to be under specified with inconsistent results. The incorporation of personality (including emotion and cognitive factors) and organizational (including beliefs, values and culture) characteristics into more recent models has resulted in richer theoretical frameworks. This has also resulted in the use of ethnographic research techniques to capture the richness of the organizational culture, a research technique relatively new to accounting research.

Financial Reporting

The feminist approach perceives that financial accounting theory elevates abstraction and rationality and devalues process and embeddedness, so does not model human behavior, focusing instead on the aggregate behavior of the market. This is the black box model that relies on the "invisible hand" theory of price setting in efficient markets. These models tend to focus on the short-term goal of profit maximization without consideration for morality or issues of accountability and stakeholder interests. These models leave out the economic agent as human being, creating a schism between economic man and human man. The result is very little behavioral research regarding the effects of financial reporting. The aggregate behavioral basis of financial economic theory leaves no link between individual behavior and the operation of efficient markets, resulting in poorly specified models of human behavior and pointing to a need for a new theoretical basis if behavioral research is to prove effective. The models being used are under specified and may be partial. Three ways models can be partial are 1) by leaving out interactors in a process, 2) by leaving out interactions in a process and 3) by modeling only one of the many possible alternatives (Longino, 1993). The incorporation of the feminist perspective would result in a more balanced modeling of the behavior. Since these models are often used as a basis for making policy decisions, development of more highly specified models is important.

Alternative Viewpoints and Methods

The development of socio-economics, which incorporates the assumption that individuals make decisions constrained by their own values and by their social and environmental context, represents a more balanced approach to examining human behavior. Socio-economics allows for the inclusion of interdependence, mutuality and social and institutional contexts in developing behavioral theory, therefore incorporating some of the feminine traits missing from neoclassical economic theory.

Other alternatives include the development of grounded theory using qualitative research methods to reveal characteristics of behavior and organizational context that have yet to be examined using existing theoretical frameworks. Use of these methods would be particularly informing in the area of financial reporting behavior where little is known about the behavior of individuals. Also of benefit would be studies of the role of accounting information at the economy wide level, using the socio-economic framework and incorporating elements of social, moral and organizational characteristics.

Can We Change?

The feminist viewpoint perceives the world of accounting research to be hierarchical and related to the reputational structure of economics. As a result, the development of new techniques and pursuit of new theory is not encouraged. This is perceived to impede progress toward understanding of human behavior in accounting. Suggestions for combating this repressive environment include the fostering of diverse views and methods and the use of behavioral accounting journals and conferences as outlets for publication and support.

Recommendation – Pursue New Research Goals

The author encourages looking at the role of theory in accounting behavioral research through the feminist lens, creating a new view. The goal should be to "expand our scope to include the detecting of limiting and interpretive frameworks and the finding or construction of more appropriate frameworks" (Longino, 1993). The feminist theoretical perspective incorporates a different set of values from neoclassical economic theory, contributing to a more complete theory of economic interests. Another avenue to pursue is to study (feminine) quality of need by making economic provision the center of the study. Choosing theories that are compatible with the goals of our research and the individuals or organizations we are studying is also an element to consider when developing research. All of this implies a normative focus for accounting behavioral research, as opposed to the positivist focus espoused by economic-based research. The author suggests we should look at accounting behavior in light of how well it works to satisfy a particular goal, in order to provide insight that is useful to practitioners, providing guidance about behaviors that are necessary for survival and prosperity.


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