sisr Società Italiana di Storia della Ragioneria
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Created 2015-06-23


Historical research is an area that finds its inclusion within disciplines relating to business economics. This is demonstrated by the number of works which have for centuries featured in our studies. It is generally believed that historic investigation results in increased knowledge of business economics, both in respect of extensive and intensive research.

By looking at the studies currently available we can identify several research nuclei to which we can refer as established fields of historic research and as such operating within the literature.

These are the nucleus of History of Accounting and Accountancy, largely intended as the genetic and evolutional analysis of accounting entries, that concerning business history and public institutions, the nucleus of the History of the theoretical approaches, aimed at studying the evolutionary process of business economics theory, and lastly, though quite different from the two former areas in terms of volume and topics covered, the nucleus of the History of the Professions. The distinction made between the areas outlined is always instrumental since they all concern different aspects of the same subject: the business phenomenon. Yet this applies every time greater knowledge of a complex subject is gained.

There is only one research nucleus that can be seen as having the fundamental and distinguishing focal core for historical studies, necessarily present in all those we have outlined – the History of Accounting.

The History of Accounting is the story of the relationship between company performances such as that emerging from the analysis of quantitative documentation, either of an accounting or non-accounting nature, and can only be interpreted with data entry methodologies.

Like any discipline within the historical field, the history of accounting is based on diachronic comparison, looking at the movements in administrative documents which record the events experienced by companies or economic institutions in the past. The task of the scholar is therefore to collect documentation useful for the investigation and perform research, usually carried out in the archives, translate and transcribe the statistical and non-statistical findings when they date far back in time, and interpret the economic significance of the findings. Yet this is merely the initial phase, which can be considered as focussing on the provision of the materials to be studied and a preliminary examination. The scientific knowledge and specific techniques of those who are sufficiently familiar with the complex world of accounting are naturally already required at this stage.

Nonetheless, in order to understand what direction the work of the researcher may take, we must identify the subject of the historical evolution brought about by the economic institutions existing in previous centuries.

Well, the subject has never been the accounting document, however original or perfect an innovator it is! And in fact it is not enough to find a “ledger” or a “cartulary” in an archive, decipher and transcribe it. This is doubtless a useful task, yet it makes reference to a form of history that does not belong to us. It reflects a type of research which only touches the surface of our world, goes no further than certain facts without looking more deeply. There is nothing wrong with this way of conducting studies. It may simply be a question of habit, of tradition, yet it is not a story of cause and effect, and therefore is not our story, which is instead is a story of relations of an extremely scientific significance.

The subject therefore comprises firms, public administrations and the entire world of business economics, with the restrictions it is under and the conditioning it imposes, its potential, its successes, its failings, its relatively sudden adjustments to change, its innovations. And the documents, the accounting entries lie within the firms or institutions, form their semantic basis, and are the quantitative language that they speak, the essential tool for this difficult world subject to exogenous and endogenous forces, which at any moment are at risk of slipping through the fingers of those who over the centuries have never stopped handling them with the greatest care and respect.

Yet what function does this means serve? It entails demonstrating, representing, and translating into the language of figures, as far as is possible, the sense of evolutional trends whether spatial or temporal, qualitative or quantitative, which often accompany and embody the life of business organisations.

Limiting ourselves to mere “cartulary” investigation means closing our eyes to the game of hidden forces, ultimately giving up on science’s task of understanding and explaining, acting as if the root causes of the changing conditions and resulting variation in trends were not there to be deciphered and instead proclaim that the complex reasons behind events are destined to remain shrouded in darkness.

The History of Accounting is always also the history of companies and economic institutions, and the history of companies must always also be the history of accounting. The connection between the two branches can thus be traced back to our concept of historical investigation, to the fact that form cannot exist without substance just as substance cannot exist without form.

The History of Accounting and Business History thus represent a single nucleus of research since the non-literal interpretation of quantitative documents is an essential prerequisite for understanding and reliably explaining the dynamics of trends and events affecting companies in historical periods whether recent or remote in time.

The other nucleus we have indicated as history of the doctrines, intended as the analysis and understanding of the evolutionary process followed over time by doctrinal theorization, in turn identifies with the history of accounting to the extent that the same, without limiting itself to defining the changes made to systems and methods of quantitative data entry, concerns the entirety of the non-apparent causes behind these changes, and thus to the “lower stratifications of history”.

It is true that when looking into these causes scholars must also often choose their own guiding hypotheses and mark out the routes to follow, and to direct that choice must avail themselves of knowledge drawn from a number of areas in the cultural world, (philosophical, sociological or technical) in order not to lose the sense of the changes, even those that are subtle, or underestimate the manifold influences exerted by the changes to the cultural, scientific, economic and productive environment in which the company is positioned. Yet the role of the directional centre exerted by the history of accounting continues to dominate as literature has always represented a final quantitative synthesis in different doctrinal systems or simple conceptual frameworks, or instead provide a key indication of the change in response made by the economic institutions to the environmental or structural changes.

The research method, which is a logical method, encompasses the accounting methodology that represents the fundamental trait of historical research in our studies, i.e. the decisive element on which to base the differentiation in respect of the other potential directions the historical investigation may take. All this is possible since science and therefore also history is founded on the postulate that any object in nature can be understood and therefore explained.