The constitutive ability of accounting to produce effects, influencing people's minds and behaviour, has been widely acknowledged in accounting literature. This paper argues, however, that in order for accounting to have an impact on people, its figures needs to be interpretable to its intended users. But what happens in situations where people are considered as inhibited in reading and interpreting financial information? This paper investigates how financial accounts are presented to individuals believed to be impaired in their ability to make sense of its figures. It does so by moving the empirical focus beyond the borders of the professional organisation and into the private sphere of everyday life, examining how a televised financial makeover show literally represents financial information in order to turn its participants into financially responsible citizens. The paper's empirical findings give reasons for problematising the conditions under which accounting is able to affect people, concluding that, without taking people's ability to interpret financial accounts into consideration, the possibilities of the accounts having an impact on their users risk falling short.
The issue of how to influence people to become responsible employees, managers, and CEOs has been largely elaborated within the accounting research area. Processes of accountability have long been recognised as difficult, contradictory and highly complex (Messner, 2009; Qu & Cooper, 2011; Roberts, 1991), embodying chameleon like qualities (Sinclair, 1995). Regardless of its multiplicity of manifestations, accounting is nevertheless widely acknowledged as a critical means for those processes to produce financially knowledgeable people (e.g. Ahrens, 1996; Roberts & Scapens, 1985), transforming them to think and act in rational and responsible ways (Miller & O'Leary, 1990). The possibility, however, of affecting people by means of accounting devices is said to presuppose a certain accounting literacy (Bay, Catasús, & Johed, 2014), an ability that enables individuals to read and make use of accounting information (Carruthers & Espeland, 1991; Kirk & Mouritsen, 1996). This relation between people's ability to interpret accounting representations and the expected effects thereof has received only minor attention in accounting research, possibly due to the fact that most studies are concerned with people's professional practices, where accounting information is presumed to make sense to its users. However well established in work spaces, people's familiarity with accounting information is arguably less developed outside the sphere of the professional organisation, in the world of the individual's daily way of life. Perhaps in contrast to the organisational arena, this is an area partly consisting of individuals struggling to keep up with and adjusting to a modern way of running one's private financial affairs. Even so, the financial stories that we are fed by the news and neighbours, brokers and banks, spelling out the demands by which we are expected to live, are still stuffed with references to numbers, tables, calculations and indicators. This arguably constitutes a dilemma, because, as Qu and Cooper (2011) point out, in order for this quantitative information to be useful, it needs to be made interpretable to its intended recipient. Addressing this quandary, this paper aims to examine how financial information is presented to people whose interpretive ability to make sense of its forms and accounts is considered limited or impaired.