No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Audit cultures

Strathern, M. (ed., 2000), Audit cultures - Anthropological studies in accountability, ethics and the academy, Routledge.

"Audit Cultures", edited by renowned anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, discusses accountability, its evolving role in society, and the cultural implications of audit practices.

Case studies in this book - mainly focused on European and British Commonwealth countries - reveal the global phenomenon of accountability driven by economic efficiency and "good practice". Accountability has gradually come to extend beyond financial realms, now permeating public institutions and shaping governance. Through rituals of verification akin to audits, individuals and organizations demonstrate their adherence to these practices, often under the guise of self-checking mandated by governments.

While accountability is widely endorsed for its positive values, "Audit Cultures" highlights the anxieties, resistance, and specific procedures that emerge alongside it. Audits have the potential to feed "bureaucratic indifference", while they become mechanisms through which the state evades accountability. The inclusion of social agency in the analysis of audit systems is deemed crucial by Strathern, shedding light on the ethical dilemmas that arise and the potential betrayal or resistance to these practices.

The book draws from the anthropology of the state, organizational and institutional studies, reflexive writing, globalization theory, universities and education, policy, and management studies. It highlights the emerging field of critical accounting, which intersects with social anthropology.

Audit, ethics, and policy work together and have convergent implications. As an ethnographic observer of cultural changes, Strathern emphasizes the importance of alternative forms of communication, such as public forums, to supplement traditional accountability measures.

The book is divided into three parts: (1) the public presentation of financial auditing and performance statistics, in which trust and operational consensus play a role; (2) the impact of auditing in higher education, and the contested nature of accountability, and (3) the broader ethical concerns surrounding accountability, advocating for the problematization of political work and the invocation of ethics as an alternative approach.

Case studies from various countries shed light on the concrete manifestations of these issues, highlighting the challenges faced by academic communities in Canada, Austria, and Greece. These studies expose the pressures and constraints imposed by auditing systems, urging the institutions involved to preserve academic independence and intellectual freedom.

While acknowledging the necessity of accountability, the book prompts us to critically examine the social processes it initiates and to navigate the ethics and challenges associated with its obstructive yet vitalizing forces.