Tacit coordination is a pervasive aspect of accounting practice. This paper teases out insights on tacit coordination from existing scholarship, starting with studies of everyday life accounting, then turning to professional practice. It develops an understanding that, in the application of rules and accounting standards, in producing, framing, auditing and using statements, records, apologies or excuses, accounting practitioners tacitly coordinate towards the passing of accounts. This passing can be articulated in terms of structures, agencies and processes of tacit coordination involved in making accounting happen. The implications of this understanding of accounting practice and the importance of the wider domain of enquiry it is indicating are discussed with respect to the stewardship position of accounting professionals and the further development of accounting theory. The passing of accounts charges accounting practitioners with the stewardship of silence and indicates a broader case for accounting theory to address the full continuum of accounting practices. One vital role of such theory is to offer antidotes against the idea that any account, any slice of information, or any amount of ‘big data’, could speak for itself – or that it should.
Tacit coordination in everyday life accounting
Accounting scholars have at times referred to the near-canonical paper by Scott and Lyman (1968) in arguing that accounting as a social practice is much more general and widespread than the jurisdiction of the accounting profession would suggest (e.g., Aerts, 1994, p. 340; Messner, 2009, p. 920). Scott and Lyman, however, started their paper with the observation that the giving of accounts in everyday life is confined to special occasions: “An account is not called for when people engage in routine, common-sense behaviour in a cultural environment that recognizes that behaviour as such” (Scott & Lyman, 1968, pp. 46e47). For Scott and Lyman (1968, p. 47), accounts were “linguistic forms that are offered for untoward action”. Their paper distinguishes between excuses, which appeal to accidental or unavoidable circumstances and might involve scapegoating (pp. 47e50), and justifications, variants of what Sykes and Matzka (1957), in a famous paper on delinquency, had called “techniques of neutralization”. The interest of Scott and Lyman ultimately was in the analysis of everyday conversation (Sykes and Matzka, 1957, pp. 61e62), which makes their careful delineation of the function of accounts, associated with deviance, mishap and mischief, perhaps even more remarkable: Accounts are given when things have gone wrong and people cannot avoid talking about this, which otherwise they would much prefer. Despite certain ritual exchanges of accounts in everyday life (“I am doing very well, thank you.”), the experience of being asked to account for ourselves occurs mostly in situations that are more confrontational than usual. In everyday life, we tend to avoid such confrontations as much as we can and to the extent of not seeming too interested in what others are doing. Behaviour in public places tends to be governed by a norm of civil inattention (Goffman, 1963a, pp. 84e88, 156e158). Orienting to this norm keeps involvement in social situations limited, mostly to those who already have an ongoing concern with each other; encroachment into an ongoing encounter is considered intrusive, if not rude, if it has not been explicitly encouraged; drawing outsiders deliberately into an encounter is considered a “scene” (Goffman, 1963a, pp. 185e187). In discouraging encroachment, we tend to let each other know by way of demonstration that we are already ‘occupied’, such as by reading a book or wearing headphones; an explicit statement to that effect would be understood as a sign of already having been disturbed. People in public places thus tend to coordinate toward noninvolvement and “tacit cooperation in maintaining conventional closure” (Goffman, 1963a, p. 159). Such cooperation minimises the odds of ‘being approached’ and having to account for oneself more explicitly (Goffman, 1963a, pp. 156e65). If the presentation of self in the age of social media seems to be associated with increased activities toward publicising accounts of ourselves (e.g., Murthy, 2012, pp. 1062e1063), such accounting remains highly selective and controlled (e.g., Hodkinson, 2017). It does not challenge the legitimacy of practising more defensive, non-verbal, if not completely silent, forms of accounting for ourselves, nowadays marked in public spaces, perhaps somewhat ironically, by eyeing our smartphones.