In attempting to understand the genesis and scope of modern cost and management accounting systems, accounting historians adopting what has been labeled a “Foucauldian” approach have been rewriting the history of key 18th and 19th century developments in the U.K. and U.S. through new evidence, new interpretation, and a refocusing of attention on familiar events. This is a “disciplinary” history which sees modern cost and management accounting as articulating a new kind of “expert disciplinary knowledge,” as well as exercising a “disciplinary power,” in the construction of a new human accountability. However, this “disciplinary” view has been challenged by more “economic rationalist” historians, e.g., Boyns and Edwards [1996] for the British Industrial Revolution and Tyson [1998] for the U.S., as being too narrowly concerned with labor control.

This paper takes up the gauntlet. It addresses the theoretical issues and seeks to clarify the import of the “disciplinary view” and its contribution to understanding how 19th century accounting practices shaped emerging managerial discourses, initially in the U.S. It argues that, until businesses adopted this new disciplinarity, there remained an absence of practices focused on calculating human performance, and accounting was not fully deployed to construct that system of “administrative coordination” [Chandler, 1977] which distinguishes modern management action and control.

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