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What is the meaning of "the public interest"?: Examining the ideology of the American public accounting profession

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Purpose ‐ To examine the rhetorical claims put forth by several prominent organizations in the American public accounting profession that claim to act in the public interest, and to attempt to identify the ideological position or positions underlying their claims. Design/methodology/approach ‐ Certain rhetorical claims put forth by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) are examined. A discussion of Paul Ricoeur's concept of ideology follows, along with an explanation of the way in which Ricoeur's understanding of ideology can be used to gain a better understanding of the ideology of the American public accounting profession. Findings ‐ Initially it appears that the rhetorical claims of the prominent organizations of the American public accounting profession reveal an underlying neo-liberal ideology. Closer examination indicates a certain degree of ambiguity with respect to a neo-liberal ideology, with a greater emphasis placed on the importance of regulation of capital markets through auditing and financial accounting standards setting. This ambiguity also reveals that there are economic interests involved and that these economic interests constitute a public accounting ideology, one which conflates the values and activities of the public accounting profession with serving the public interest. This public accounting ideology can be understood as providing a socially integrative function for the public accounting profession and also a justifying function with respect to maintaining the legitimate authority of CPAs with respect to auditing and financial accounting standards setting. The distortive aspect of ideology is also evident, in that there seems to be an inability to determine precisely what the meaning of the public interest is or may be. Research limitations/implications ‐ This is a limited study of only three prominent organizations in the American public accounting profession. Practical implications ‐ May help to define the meaning of the term "the public interest." Originality/value ‐ Uses Ricoeur's concept of ideology for the first time in the accounting literature. One of the first papers to explicitly address the meaning of "the public interest."
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Keywords: Public interest; Public sector accounting

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 October 2005

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