New unit puts lens on accounting and accountability in Africa

10 May 2010

Accounting and accountability are concepts that shape human interactions far beyond the boundaries of organisations. They influence the way people perform their tasks in relation to others and how they are held responsible for their actions, says Associate Professor Thomas Gstraunthaler, director of the new research unit, Accounting and Accountability in Africa, in the Faculty of Commerce.

But despite its importance for society, little is known about the driving forces behind accountability. It is observable that organisations adapt their systems of checks and balances depending on their stage of development and the growing complexity of their business activities. An even greater variety of accountability concepts is visible in different cultural environments.

Yet large swathes of academic writing completely neglect the importance of cultural influences and different value systems on accountability, says Gstraunthaler.

"This is partly due to the prevailing research paradigm of social realism, which applies mathematically-driven methods to the search for a universal, objective social reality. Accountability structures that are not congruent with the westernised bureaucratic systems are quickly labelled un-accountable or underdeveloped."

The newly-founded research unit, Accounting and Accountability in Africa, will study the cultural and historical roots for different concepts of accountability through the lens of a cultural-relativist position. It is the African understandings of accountability that interest the members of the research group, and they find elements of accountability everywhere: from daily practices to the tales of the elders, or the interpretation of historical events.

These projects demand a lot from the researchers.

"The researcher has to be aware of their own presumptions, and exercise extreme caution in the interpretation of field data. To keep the highest level of professionalism, it is imperative that researchers be linked to major research centres all over the world."

Gstraunthaler has put much effort into building such links between the new unit and the leading research centres in this field. In particular, PhD students will work closely with other PhD students from different cultural environments to help them keep a critical eye on "what seems so ordinary to them".

Searching for new and challenging research projects, "and better weather", Gstraunthaler joined UCT in August 2008 from the University of Innsbruck, Austria. He completed his PhD thesis on the risk management of hospitals after the 2006 SARS outbreak in Taiwan.

"To study cultural influences on accounting or other aspects of society, one has to do so in a multicultural environment. UCT offers an excellent setting for such ambitious projects," he adds.

"Our aim is to produce outstanding research papers that allow African findings to talk back to findings out of a European, American or Asian environment. Thereby we can learn a lot: about the roots of accountability in other cultures, and in our own."

In January 2011, the research unit will host an international conference with Professor Toni Tinker of the City University, New York, and Aida Sy of the Manhattan College, New York. A key part of this conference will be an emerging-researcher workshop where PhD students will swop experiences and learn about similar research projects in different countries.

The conference will also see the launch of the research unit's own journal, the Annual Review of Accounting and Accountability in Africa. This will promote the publication of papers that contribute to the understanding of cultural influences on accountability.

The research unit is also looking for three top students keen on doing a PhD in the field.

"The emphasis will be on students who want to pursue a career in academia and who are eager to join the next generation of professors in the field of critical accounting research," says Gstraunthaler.

To learn more about the research unit or to find out about available PhD-topics, click here.

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