Chambers on Theory and Research

Raymond John Chambers is widely acknowledged as one of the leading academic contributors to the art of accounting. Chambers' research promoted accounting as a university discipline. His research output was voluminous - numbering over 230 articles and a dozen major books and monographs. His response upon receipt of the 1991 American Accounting Association's Outstanding Educator Award provides an insight into what motivated his research: he explained that "economics…presupposes the rational and knowledgeable pursuit of ends in a volatile world, where up to date and reliable information would be essential". Clearly accounting had a role to play in indicating contemporary shifts in the solvency of firms, in their rates of return, and in their financial capacity for growth or adaptation. But observations of practice and his experience as a teacher suggested the products of accounting were not useful for that purpose. Most of the products of accounting (except cash, receivables and payables) were the outcome of "self contradictory rules, unrealistic presumptions and unsupported dogma". At his 1991 induction to The Ohio State University's Accounting Hall of Fame he provided an explanation for this parlous state of affairs in accounting. He noted that practice demands versatility, patience and comprehension, to match the exigencies of diverse clients with the performance of a socially necessary task. Scholars and teachers in most disciplines, on the other hand, serve no immediate clients. Ideally they are the monitors of practice in general, discriminators between what is generally serviceable and what is merely expedient. "In accounting it is still otherwise. Teachers and researchers on a large scale confuse the generally serviceable with the merely expedient."

Throughout his works the connection between observation and prescription is clearly and unashamedly expressed. So is the connection between research, education and practice. The general background of the relevant factors affecting accounting, business and management post-World War II puts Chambers' contributions in perspective. This period covering Chambers' writings witnessed substantial business growth world-wide, merger and amalgamation, multinational corporate expansion, increasing use of novel modes of organisation and invention of idiosyncratic and complex methods of financing. Interspersed were large, often unexpected corporate failures, dilemmas involving takeovers and, instances (exposed by the press, academics or government inquiries) of the use of permissible, but questionable, accounting and auditing practices. Calls for government regulation of the accounting profession were met by pleas to allow greater professional self-regulation. It was claimed practices would become more systematic, initially based on principles, and then to be translated into standards. Standards have proliferated, but the failures and the use of questionable accounting and auditing practices, continued. The non-serviceability of accounting remained a perennially unanswered complaint. Chambers' ideas were drawn freely from the literatures of other fields of inquiry, including economics, law, measurement, communication and information theory. An unusual feature, at least in accounting, is that his theory, CoCoA represents the convergence of ideas from these cognate disciplines.

Critics of CoCoA are legion (see Chambers, 1976). Nonetheless, the basic propositions remain unrefuted. To date there have been ad hoc, albeit increasing, movements to some form of market-price-based system of accounting (e.g. the current calls for 'mark-to-market' and 'fair value' accounting).

The above is an edited version of material prepared in 1992 by Frank Clarke and Graeme Dean for inclusion under the title 'Chambers, Raymond John (1917 - )', in M. Chatfield and R. Vangermeesch's (eds) The History of Accounting: An Encyclopedia, which was published by Garland Publishing in 1995.


* Note: all reference links are to University of Sydney Library databases.