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Hamlet without the prince: the ethnographic turn in information systems research

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Computer based accounting information systems (AIS) have been a major force behind the current wave of corporate downsizing and reengineering (Deloitte & Touche LLP, 1996). While greater economy and competitiveness is typically associated with these changes, conventional AIS literature usually eschews a counter-hypothesis: that this new technology may also degrade both the quality and quantity of work, and therefore people's working lives. The advent of Accounting, Management, and Information Technologies in 1991, with an espoused aim of "critically analyzing the relationships among our information systems designs, the qualities of our social and economic life, and our practices of management and control" (Boland and O'Leary, 1991, p. 2) presents a major opportunity to redress this deficiency. This paper reviews the journal's inaugural issue and ancillary literature to assess its likely contribution. This literature is found to lack a sufficient appreciation of the social and historical context of AIS developments and thus compromises the new journal's ability to achieve its espoused aims. The paper calls for a better understanding of the upheavals currently under way in the accounting workplace and ways in which AIS technology (and ethnographers) may compound these instabilities. A different kind of ethnographic research is called for: one capable of recognizing the dysfunctionalities of AIS-induced downsizing and restructuring, and more politically and socially self-aware of AIS agency in social and technological change.

Keywords: Accounting Information Systems; Accounting Profession; Downsizing; Ethnography; Marxian Economics; Social Responsibility

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 1998

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