Auditor independence, which has certainly been one of the most addressed topics in auditing literature, is a complex and ambiguous construct that can be analyzed along two dimensions. The first dimension, organizational independence, relates to auditors' willingness to act in accordance with professional standards and to report errors found during the audit. The second dimension, operational independence, relates to auditors' capability to work diligently and effectively in order to detect material anomalies. Surprisingly, “much of the debate has [so far] focused on the former,” while the latter has remained largely “under-discussed” (Power 1999, 132), if not ignored. In this paper, based on ethnographic data and semi-structured interviews, we examine the realities of auditors' operational independence and discuss the practical and theoretical implications of our findings. Our evidence suggests that auditors' operational independence is both unsettled in practice and impossible to achieve through institutional measures alone. This view may challenge orthodox and regulatory conceptions of audit, but the smooth conduct of an audit engagement largely depends on the auditees' desire to cooperate. In order to arouse and maintain this desire, audit team members resort to a number of relational strategies that aim at securing their capability to work with diligence and efficacy, but that can also undermine their willingness to take enforcement action when necessary. Audit, therefore, appears to be a complex balancing act between capability and willingness. Ultimately, it is shown that because official arrangements designed to guarantee operational independence are unlikely to be effective, the reality of auditor independence remains highly uncertain and needs to be constantly negotiated and renegotiated in the field.

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