Accounting for equality and social justice? Lessons from cooperatives

Cooperatives and mutuals, such as the Bristol Bike Project, are using accounting practices to support their work within communities.

How can accounting help us achieve a more equal society? Dr Alice Bryer, Reader in Accounting, explains how cooperatives and alternative organisations are leading the way in utilising accounting practices to facilitate social change.

It might seem like accounting has nothing to do with struggles for equality and social justice, such as the Black Lives Matter protests that recently surged up in Bristol and around the world. The story that people mostly hear about accounting is that it is something ‘specialist’ and ‘technical’, done by an exclusive/elitist group of (mostly white, male, heterosexual) managers and accountants. Many of us may even associate accounting with feelings of powerlessness. Accounting numbers can make decisions that affect our lives and futures seem unavoidable and necessary.  They can make it seem that ‘what matters’ are not the lives of people affected by these decisions, but profits for a minority of shareholders.

There is however another accounting story to tell. Its protagonists are growing numbers of alternative organizations around the world, including worker cooperatives and social movements. Worker cooperatives are businesses that the members own and manage collectively.  Historically, cooperatives have formed a way for people to resist oppression and build community and livelihood. In the US, for example, cooperatives have, since the early twentieth century, played a key role in movements for black civil rights and economic equality. They have more recently been active in the Black Lives Matter movement, and in reaching out to communities that are deemed ‘not to matter’ by prevailing models of progress and development. Cooperatives have to ‘make a profit’ like any other business.  They can be elitist and exclusionary too.  Unlike conventional businesses, however, cooperatives commonly involve members throughout the organization (and sometimes wider community) in everyday accounting practices, like discussing targets and budgets.

Cooperatives show that accounting practices can be critical in opening up the debate about what matters in organizations and society. They can become ways to resist social and ideological pressures to focus narrowly on profits and to reproduce social and economic inequalities. Cooperatives around the world show that accounting practices can be repurposed to support wider organizing practices – including BLM protests and climate strikes, as well as the community organizing that has taken shape in response to Covid-19 – building more inclusive and egalitarian social relations, political meanings and modes of conduct.

Such possibilities may also depend on developing new approaches to education and training. As part of the Inclusive Economy Initiative at the University of Bristol, we have begun working with cooperatives and activists in the city to develop alternative ways of thinking about and practising accounting. We want to develop ideas and techniques that work for the inclusive, egalitarian, and sustainable city that many people want to see emerge from the pandemic crisis. Students are also increasingly interested to engage with the world outside of conventional, monochromatic images of accounting and finance. We aim to build partnerships with alternative and community businesses that can give them this experience, and allow them to take part in building a future that is free from oppression and inequality today.

About the author

Dr Alice Bryer is a Reader in Accounting at the University of Bristol. Her research has focused mainly on the organizing and accounting practices of alternative organizations such as cooperatives and social movements in different cultural contexts. She sees these organizations as potentially allowing us to draw wider insights about how practices can be developed to achieve broad social and environmental aims.

Dr Bryer has published work in leading journals in the field including Accounting Organizations and Society, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, Accounting Auditing and Accountability Journal, and Organization Studies. She also aims to have direct impact on practice through collaborative research projects with alternative organizations.

View Dr Bryer’s research outputs

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