This interpretative research engages with calls for a visual turn in accounting by presenting stagy empirical illustrations of municipal budgeting that draw upon Goffman’s dramaturgical framework. The budget is theorized as visual and theatrical. Analysis of video recordings of budget meetings and on-scene observation of budget-making at a site of city management reveal visual triggers, rhetoric, and framing that constitute budgeting as visual discourse. A central impression presented in this paper is that of uncontrollability. The apparatus of budgeting is complex and grows in an undisturbed way, given that budget actors seem to be passive in taking leadership roles to substantively promote change. This paper draws attention to numerous elements of budget-making that highlight visual accounting as part of its apparatus. This view is in contrast to classic theories of controllability that claim Weberian bureaucratic ideals of rationality, efficiency, and professionalism. Two scholarly contributions are claimed. First, this paper joins a growing academic conversation about visual accounting, and extends this discussion with an exemplar of management accounting. Until recently, the visual has been inappropriately neglected in accounting research, particularly in studies of the public sector. Second, this paper applies Goffman’s dramaturgy, an underused perspective in the accounting literature and a thought-provoking methodology with a capacity for what may be regarded as “visual critique”.
The accounting milieu, and social life in general, is immensely visual. This paper calls attention to influential visual material in performances of accounting authority and contributes to a nascent academic conversation around critical visual analysis in accounting (Brown, 2010; Davison, 2015; Davison, McLean, & Warren, 2015; Malsch & Gendron, 2009; Meyer, Hollerer, Jancsary, & van Leeuwen, 2013). A broad definition of the visual is employed in this paper; for example, pictures, diagrams, spreadsheets, ritual enactments, videos, web pages, television screens, graphs, and artefacts in the physical spaces where interaction takes place. Accounting researchers have been interested in the visual for at least several decades. However, unlike other disciplines such as the humanities and social studies, this stream of research has not been prominent. ‘‘Visuality has been neglected despite accounting having a strong visual resonance” (Brown, 2010, p. 486). The call for more visual research in accounting began in earnest with a special issue of Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal (AAAJ, 2009). It was suggested that ‘‘there was a blind spot with regard to the visual in both accounting and organization studies” (Davison & Warren, 2009, p. 845). Davison (2015) also argues that until recently the visual has been mostly absent in accounting studies. Important for the focus of my paper, Davison’s (2015) synthesis of 83 articles in the visual accounting field, which reveals an infrequent use of drama-based theoretical approaches, claims that there has been ‘‘no work on the public sector or on management accounting” (p. 148). This opinion is supported by Meyer et al. (2013) who claim that visual modes of meaning construction in organization and management research remain inactive and require more quantity and contrasting types of methodologies. Lapsley, Miller, and Panozzo (2010, p. 305) call for accounting research based on ‘‘visualizing and calculating the city” because they have found that municipalities have received little attention regarding the visual. Thus, the visual turn, nearly a decade after its introduction in AAAJ, is still in need of a variety of empirical illustrations of its theoretical concepts. This paper answers the call for a visual turn in accounting by paying attention to how actors in municipal administration use visual images to achieve financial patronage1 in budget practices. It does so intertextually by bringing dramaturgy (Goffman, 1959, 1967, 1974) explicitly into the emerging literature on visual accounting. The following sampling of articles illustrates the rather eclectic nature of this literature. Bettner, Frandsen, and McGoun (2010) discuss the prevalent visual culture of accounting – a culture that teaches us how to visually see knowledge patterns. They claim that it is possible to also ‘‘hear” patterns (listening to accounting) to aurally find knowledge. Brown (2010) considered challenges and prospects of accounting and visual cultural studies. She concluded that this confluence enables strategic accounting to critique and resist dominant modes of thinking. Meyer et al. (2013) show how visuals disguised as information, rather than argument, become reified – enhancing their power to dominate, even though such domination is seldom made explicit. It has been suggested elsewhere that visual accounting in annual reports is laden with vestiges of archaic religious symbolism (Davison, 2004), including visuals that often adopt sacred images of ascension. Visual accountability has also been explored in the context of accounting for municipal projects (Czarniawska, 2010); the article discusses interpretative frameworks for studying city management and enriches the discussion by including visual reporting of the author’s photographs.