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Symbolic categories and the shaping of identity: The categorisation work of management accountants

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)252-278
Number of pages27
JournalQualitative Research in Accounting and Management
Volume16
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jun 2019

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King's Authors

Abstract

Purpose: This paper aims to study the symbolic categorisations management accountants produce. It examines the categories they use to describe their work and analyses the meanings they attach to such categories. This aims at explaining how management accountants can follow a common occupational orientation despite the need to adjust their practices to the specificities of their local and organisational context. The author’s argument is that management accountants build symbolic categories to create a bridge between what they do and who they are. The author further argues that symbolic categories are needed to make sense of a practice in tension between a common aspirational orientation and heterogeneous local contexts. Design/methodology/approach: This paper draws on a multiple case field study conducted by observation and interviews in a range of organisations. Findings: This paper examines the empirical diversity of management accountants’ practices and perceptions through the symbolic categories they produce. The author finds that categorisation work constitutes a central mechanism to build a shared narrative despite heterogeneous situations. The author further shows that through symbolic categorisation work, a variety of activities ranging from bookkeeping through managerial support to hierarchical surveillance and challenge in the name of the shareholder are subsumed under stable labels. This, he argues, serves to mask financial accountability, shareholder orientation and hierarchical control behind a narrative of “support” and “partnership”. Originality/value: This paper contributes to literature on management accountants’ identity by showing the central role played by symbolic categorisations. It also contributes to literature in accounting more generally by showing how symbolic categorisation work blurs the lines between “operational support” and “shareholder value creation”. The same words are used to refer to activities that managers consider helpful to make operational decisions and other activities that increase shareholder control and surveillance and encourage managers to internalise the frames and objectives of shareholder value creation. Symbolic categories that include hierarchical financial accountability within a narrative of “support” and “partnership” masks “financialisation” behind a rhetoric of “business orientation”.

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