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Madeleine Akrich
Yannick Barthe
Fabian Muniesa
et al.

Accounting for others

Peter Miller

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1The historian Paul Veyne once described the work of Michel Foucault as a ‘philosophy of the relation’, rather than a philosophy of ‘discourse’ or ‘structure’ (Veyne, 1978). This was at a time when people were much bothered by terms such as ‘discourse’ and ‘structure’. His argument has resonance with our concerns today, when terms such as instruments, devices and tools loom larger. Veyne’s point was simple: a focus on a particular set of practices (for governing others) requires that we pay attention to the interaction between practices for governing and the objects they seek to govern. Put differently, there is little point in studying the objects of government separately from the practices that seek to govern them. In contemporary parlance, there are ‘looping effects’, or interactions, between certain classes of objects, and ways of seeking to act on them (Hacking, 1999).

2For those concerned with developing a ‘history of the present’, this focus on relations and practices meant a shift in perspective (Miller & Rose, 2008). It meant asking ‘how’ type questions rather than ‘why’ type questions. It meant focusing on small histories and their intersecting trajectories. It meant examining events and practices in terms of their singularity or rarity, rather than as instances of modernisation, rationalisation, individualisation, globalisation, capitalist development or whatever. It meant, for those interested in subjectivity – whether of mothers, workers, children or managers – examining how particular conceptions of human beings were problematised at certain moments and in certain places, and how interventions were devised that somehow were appropriate to an object that was also a subject. And it meant giving a central place to the study of individuals’ relations with themselves and with others, and to the practices which were at one at the same time their correlate and condition of possibility.

3‘Social construction’ is the generic label that has been given to such concerns with the interactive effects and interrelations between the objects of analysis and the varied social conditions in which they emerge, even if those working within the ‘governmentality’ perspective typically have not used the term. At some point, it began to seem as if anything could be socially constructed. Authorship, emotions, facts, gender, homosexual culture, illness and much more were eagerly shown to be ‘socially constructed’. But the constructionist project went much further. Nature, quarks, technological systems, and even reality itself, were also to be depicted as social constructions. As Ian Hacking (1999) has remarked, the idea of social construction was liberating, at least for those already on their way to being liberated. It showed that certain phenomena are not fixed and inevitable, that they are the outcome of a complex of historical events, social forces, practices, rules and institutions. But the idea of social construction tired rather quickly. Worse, it acted like a cancerous cell, at least in the United States where the so-called ‘Sokal affair’ crystallised debates within the academy, which at times were little more than mischief, and at times merited the epithet ‘science wars’.

4Looking back at social constructionism puts things in perspective. It allows us to distinguish between ‘universal’ constructionism (which is relatively rare), and a more nuanced kind of constructionism. As Hacking shows, even those that spoke of the social construction of ‘reality’ were in fact interested in something relatively specific: the shared and taken-for-granted experiences that individuals have of themselves and others (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). They were not claiming that nothing can exist – the planet Mars for instance – unless it is socially constructed. They were simply interested in the ways in which individuals’ experiences of the world are constituted in social settings. Hacking’s discussion is helpful in a further sense. For he differentiates the broad types of things that can be thought to be socially constructed, identifying three such classes. First, ‘objects’, such as people (children), states (childhood), conditions (health, autism), practices (child abuse, hiking), actions (throwing a ball, rape) and behaviour (generous, fidgety). Second, ‘ideas’, by which he means conceptions, beliefs and attitudes that are accepted and shared, but also worked out, clarified and contested. Third, ‘elevator words’, by which he means words that are used to say something about the world, but which are at a higher level than actual objects in the world. The examples he gives are facts, truths, reality. The point is that such ‘elevator words’ are remarkably free-floating, they can travel readily across time and space, and attach to a range of objects.

5Expressed in this differentiated and nuanced way, social constructionism had value. It resonated with what others – some of whom preferred to avoid the taint of the label, and to remain silent on the increasingly polarised debate about its merits – have shown for widely differing fields. For instance, ‘making up people’ (largely under the aegis of the psycho-disciplines) and ‘making up users’ (of financial accounts, for instance) can be seen to have something in common (Hacking, 1986; Young, 2006). In turn, they can be seen to have affiliations with the constructing of the ‘governable person’ (through Taylorism and standard costing, in the early decades of the twentieth century), the processes of ‘making things auditable’, and the ‘hybridising’ of medical and financial expertise in recent years in some countries (Kurunmäki, 2004; Kurunmäki & Miller, forthcoming; Miller & O’Leary, 1987; Power, 1997). And these, in turn, can be shown to have affinities with the dual processes of formatting the economy and constructing calculative agents that Michel Callon has done so much to highlight (Callon, 1998). For here we find objects being moulded and made (the inefficient worker, the under-performing manager, the poorly performing public service), ideas being popularised and promulgated, and often quickly abandoned or at least superseded (efficiency, competitiveness, choice and so on), and appeals made to the true state of the economy or the facts of economic performance. To use Hacking’s terms, objects, ideas and elevator words go hand in hand, and are mutually constitutive. Put differently, programmes and technologies are intrinsically linked and interdependent (Miller & Rose, 2008).

6This is not a plea for social construction after the event. It is more a matter of reflecting on the sorts of entities, practices and interactions that make up the world we study, and how we might look at them without the absurd partitioning of the academic world that is often buttressed by terms such as rigour and robustness. The work of Ian Hacking has been particularly instructive in this regard, because it has traversed so effortlessly the boundaries between the disciplines of philosophy, sociology and history. Economic sociology has generally proved rather less instructive in this respect, with the recently published second edition of the Handbook of Economic Sociology (Smelser & Swedberg, 2005) acting as exemplar. Despite its otherwise impressive scope, the Handbook more or less completely ignores the calculative practices that make the economy visible, calculable and operable (Miller, 2008). It is as if markets and the economy are composed only of institutions, organizations and networks, with little place for mundane calculative tools. If it is reasonable to speak of ‘institutional amnesia’ (Miller, 2008) in this respect, or to ask ‘how and why sociology forgot accounting’ (Mennicken, Miller & Samiolo, 2008), such questions extend beyond the sociology of accounting, and take us into the realm of the sociology of economic calculation, the sociology of quantification, and the sociology of finance.

7It is here that the studies of Michel Callon have been so inspiring for so many. He has shown convincingly that the calculative infrastructure of the modern economy, along with its associated ideas, are legitimate topics of sociological enquiry. And he has shown how this can help us understand better the classic sociological puzzle about ‘agency’. For calculative tools and calculative agency are two sides of the same coin. They are interdependent, and exist in a dynamic relationship. The same holds for networks. These are not something to be added on, or studied as discrete phenomena. Agents, calculative tools, and networks exist in a triangular and mutually constitutive interrelationship. If a particular set of calculative tools fits the capacities of the agents who use them (up to a point at least), and if the tools can travel across highly complex and extensive networks that traverse the boundaries of firms, nations and the academy, that is because they have been made to fit.

8This takes us to the title of this essay. To speak of ‘accounting for others’ means paying attention to the ways in which accounting seeks to act on the actions of others, one of the primary aims of much accounting. It also means paying attention to the ways in which the roles of accounting, the purposes for which it is set to work, are defined by ‘others’, or at least argued for in terms of the dreams and schemes of policy makers, reformers, and others who want to administer economic and social life differently (Burchell et al., 1980; Miller, 1994a, 1994b). And it means attending to the assemblages, networks, matrices or constellations which both shape accounting and are shaped by its practices. The following three propositions set out in a little more detail what it might mean to study ‘accounting for others’.

9First, accounting for others means paying attention to the distinctive capacity of accounting to act on the actions of others. This is derived to a large extent from its ability to summarise or distil things into a single financial figure.

10This is more than quantification or calculation. And it is more than ‘trust in numbers’ (Porter, 1995). Many other disciplines (statistics, engineering, operations research, medicine) quantify. But, in doing so, they only allow comparisons of things that are already comparable. Accounting takes quantification to a different level. It makes comparable the incomparable. By distilling substantively different kinds or classes of things into a single financial figure (the Return on Investment of a Division, the Net Present Value of an investment opportunity, the financial ratios of a company), accounting abstracts from the qualities of things, and places them on an equal footing. This equal footing is not only ‘above the fray’ of politics (or at least aspires to be); it is on a different level or plane, one that is far removed from the messy reality of manufacturing automobiles, extracting oil, or delivering healthcare or social care.

11This ‘making up’ that accounting performs is intrinsically tied to the making up of particular entities and particular forms of agency, both of which are to be acted on and enacted through the calculative practices of accounting. Cost centres, profit centres, divisions, and strategic business units are just some of the objects that accounting helps construct. But it also helps construct the type of people or identities that inhabit these spaces. The budget holder, the profit centre manager, and the Chief Financial Officer are all part of the dynamic process of creating chains of calculation that are also chains of agents. Put differently, calculating selves and calculable spaces are intrinsically linked (Miller, 1994a). And they are tied together by the sorts of ideas that Hacking has called ‘elevator words’. Particularly prominent among these, in managerial and accounting circles, is the idea of the ‘decision maker’. This idea, or ‘character’ (to borrow Alasdair MacIntyre’s term) is a special type of social role, one that places a particular kind of moral constraint on those that inhabit it (MacIntyre, 1981). Accounting for others, when applied to ‘decision makers’, means to define or constrain the possibilities for action, and deliberately so. And this accounting for others goes further, once the calculative practices of accounting escape the world of the private enterprise and become a prominent feature of the managing and regulating of public services. Accounting for others can mean a sort of ‘democratisation’ of performance assessment (Kurunmäki & Miller, 2006), as appeals to the single figure become increasingly prevalent in assessments of public services. With this step, accounting achieves a somewhat distinctive and binding social authority, one that has quickly become indissociable from certain ideas of democratic accountability for the delivery of public services.

12Second, accounting for others means examining the assemblages or matrices within which accounting operates. These assemblages include calculative agents and calculative tools, and their interrelations. But they include also the ideas that require and inspire particular modes of calculation. As Michel Callon has shown, to understand the formatting of the economy requires that we attend not only to the devices that allow various agents to intervene. It requires also that we attend to the ideas, the intellectual machinery, that shape our understanding of what the economy should be and how it should operate. Histories of the ‘real’ economy, and histories of economic thought, should be intrinsically linked. For abstract concepts such as supply and demand, imperfect competition, or incentives have been formulated in close relation to practical questions which, in turn, they help reformulate.

13Hacking makes a similar point, taking the very different example of the category ‘woman refugee’. Such a category or idea does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within a matrix or complex of institutions, advocates, newspaper articles, lawyers, court decisions, immigration proceedings and so forth. It also exists within a material infrastructure of barriers, passports, uniforms, counters at airports, detention centers, courthouses, camps, papers and so forth. But, within this matrix, the idea of the woman refugee is decisive. It really matters to be called a refugee, it can result in deportation, or evasive strategies such as going into hiding. It affects directly and indirectly how particular individuals feel about themselves, their experiences, and their actions.

14Miller and Rose have argued in a similar vein, when distinguishing between rationalities or programmes of government, and technologies of government (Miller & Rose, 2008). By this, they meant to designate the intrinsic links between ways of representing and knowing a phenomenon, and ways of acting upon it so as to transform it. Programmes or rationalities were styles of thinking, ways of rendering reality thinkable so that it was amenable to calculation, programming and intervention. These were not ‘mentalities’ in the sense used by the Annales School, that is structures of collective beliefs or illusions, collective or individual meaning structures, or totalized mentalities that characterized an epoch. There was no presupposition of homogeneity or of a Zeitgeist, or a set of enclosed and self-contained systems of ideas or attitudes. But there was a concern to understand how sets of shared ideas, even if relatively localised, allowed the world to be ordered in accordance with them. The mad person, the unemployed person, the sick person, the pauper, and the hysteric thus had something in common. They could all be analysed as ideas or categories, as well as in terms of the tools through which they could be acted on.

15The same holds, it was argued, for the governing of economic life. Before one can seek to manage a domain such as an economy, it is first necessary to conceptualize a set of processes and relations as an economy which is amenable to management. The birth of a language of national economy as a domain with its own characteristics, laws and processes that can be spoken about, and about which knowledge can be gained, enables it to become an element in programmes which can seek to evaluate and increase the power of nations by governing and managing ‘the economy’. Likewise with entities such as firms. Before one can ‘benchmark’ one firm against another in a manner viewed as meaningful, a whole set of agencies ranging from consulting firms to government commissions have to articulate the concept of competitiveness, and show it to be meaningful both at the level of the nation and individual firms. Before one can embark on the task of seeking to ascertain the costs of a particular activity, one has to articulate the idea of costliness, and show current methods of calculating it to be wanting. Likewise with audit. As Michael Power has shown, the ‘audit explosion’ is not only an avalanche of checking on checking (Power, 1997). It is also the explosion of an idea, one that has become central to a certain style of seeking to act on individuals and organisations in many societies. In their differing ways, and with differing emphases, this attentiveness to the ideas, programmes, rationalities, and intellectual machineries for conceptualising and representing objects and domains has been central to the project of accounting for others.

16Third, accounting for others depends on the capacity of accounting to act as a ‘mediating instrument’ (Miller & O’Leary, 2007; Morrison & Morgan, 1999; Wise, 1988). This is more than simply linking things together. It refers to the ability of an instrument to carry within it at least a dual set of ideas, whether they pertain to engineering and industry, science and the economy, or medicine and finance. Mediating instruments operate as means of representation and means of intervention, linking up discrete domains and activities, yet remaining distinct from the object of intervention. This allows aspirations, actors and arenas to be connected, but via a particular instrument rather than directly. In this way, the categories of a local scientific community can come to be interdefined with political and economic categories. Or a particular set of management control practices can link the larger political culture with the ‘everyday doings’ of practitioners.

17For instance, in the case of the microprocessor industry, the oddly-named ‘Moore’s Law’ embeds within it both a cost function and a technological trajectory (Miller & O’Leary, 2007), allowing a vast array of agents distributed across firms and continents to cooperate in the timing of product and process development. In a very different domain, that of healthcare, new forms of management control practices (new ways of structuring, assessing and monitoring work, and new budgeting practices) allowed service delivery to be understood and framed in terms of larger political ideals related to the ‘Modernising Government’ initiative as well as in terms of localised concerns for service delivery (Kurunmäki & Miller, forthcoming). Put differently, administrative reforms come to be mediated through a particular set of instruments that link up disparate and possibly competing actors, activities and aspirations. As actor-network theory, and the concept of ‘techno-economic networks’ has emphasised, this is not a uni-directional process. The notion of mediating draws attention to the always temporary nature of the stabilisation that such instruments can achieve.

18Accounting is not unique in its ability to act as a mediating instrument (Morrison & Morgan, 1999; Wise, 1988). But it is distinctive in its ability to link together widely differing actors and aspirations into an operating ensemble with the aim of making markets. The aspirations of those devising new microprocessors and new processes for fabricating them have no necessary affinity with those seeking annual cost reductions. The aspirations of those inventing new techniques for hip surgery have no necessary affinity with those seeking to give healthcare consumers more ‘choice’. More generally, those seeking to enact responsibility and devolve decisions at the personal level have no necessary affinity with those seeking to calculate the economic returns from the creation of new responsibility centres. But this affinity can be forged and enacted (up to a point) through the increasingly prevalent calculative practices that go under the name accounting. As a mediating instrument, accounting for others is an ongoing and inherently fragile accomplishment, and one which operates in widely differing domains.


19The economy has only recently been ‘rediscovered’ as a legitimate object of sociological enquiry. Following Weber’s bold and somewhat extravagant statements about the links between the development of capitalism and doubleentry bookkeeping, sociologists were more or less silent for half a century or so about the roles of accounting in making and moulding markets and persons. The writings of Michel Callon have been decisive in refocusing sociological attention on the constitutive or performative roles of calculative practices, their roles in the formation of markets and market relations, and the ways in which they make visible and shape actions and entities. Recent studies conducted on both sides of the Atlantic demonstrate encouragingly the readiness of scholars now to engage with such issues (Abolafia, 1996; Amin & Thrift, 2004; Beunza & Stark, 2004; Callon et al., 2007; Fligstein, 2001; Kalthoff, 2005; MacKenzie, 2003, 2004, 2006; MacKenzie et al., 2007; MacKenzie & Millo, 2003; Mennicken, 2008).

20This essay endorses in the strongest possible terms this recent attentiveness to the material reality of calculation, the focus on the calculative practices or devices which facilitate the interrelations between the economy as a thing and economics as a discipline. But, as suggested above, this needs to be paired with a similar concern with the ideas or programmes that articulate and animate particular ways of calculating. This can be via notions of efficiency, competitiveness, markets, modernisation, innovation, and much else besides. This is why we have focussed here on ‘accounting for others’. For it is the aspirations and ambitions of ‘others’ that typically give accounting meaning and momentum.

21In examining this phenomenon, we suggest the need for a differentiated approach to modes of calculation. While quantification has much appeal for political systems that aspire to govern ‘at a distance’, and by recourse to ‘technical’ rather than political adjudication, not all modes of quantification are equivalent. As has been suggested above, accounting is a highly specific mode of quantification, giving rise as it so often does to a single financial figure that makes comparable the incomparable. And it has distinctive attributes in terms of its ability to link domains and demands, which is why we have described accounting as a ‘mediating instrument’. If the economy has only recently been ‘rediscovered’ by sociologists, recent events in financial markets, and in the regulatory regimes surrounding public services, demonstrate how much more needs to be done in terms of enhancing our understanding of what enables and enacts ‘accounting for others’.



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