Accounting history and accounting progress

The accounting historians that emerged from the mid-1980s characterised their predecessors as relying heavily on a view of accounting as progressive and accounting change as evolutionary. From a social science perspective, progress is a problematic concept, as it implies not just change but also improvement, and thus seems to imply the making of a value judgement. As accounting has become an object of study less as a technical and more as a social phenomenon, consensus as to what constitutes an improvement becomes harder to secure. However, from a perspective grounded in historiography, this paper reviews the use of a concept of progress in the writing of history from the eighteenth century, and analyses its use, together with that of a concept of evolution, in “traditional” accounting history. Appealing to recent developments in the understanding of the role of narrative in history, the paper suggests that the use of narratives of accounting progress should not be ruled out on a priori grounds.