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Drawing on the case of accounting for the impact of research in UK universities, and building on key contributions to Accounting, Organizations and Society, the paper explores the conditions under which new accounting systems begin and the unfolding dynamics by which vague performance objects becoming operational. Accounting for research impact involves a radical change in the landscape of UK universities. At the centre of this change process is the progressive construction of the Impact Case Study (ICS) as a new unit of performance accountability for UK universities. Inductively, the emergence of the ICS suggests a fourfold developmental schema for accounting origination spanning field and organization level changes: policy object formation, object elaboration, activity orchestration and practice stabilization in infrastructure. Drawing upon existing scholarship, the paper uses the impact accounting setting to explore the dynamics of this developmental schema and its implications for calculation, subjectivization and the structuring of organizational temporalities. The case of impact in UK universities shows that accounting never simply begins but has multiple conditions of possibility which align as drivers for change at both field and organization levels. The case of impact accounting also reveals the significance of managerial infrastructures during accounting origination and this is suggestive of a future research agenda.
The requirement to account explicitly for research impact was, and is, a radical change to the operational logic of UK universities. Even though sub-disciplines and specific organizations may have historically oriented themselves primarily to a logic of use value, the 2014 REF in the UK has transformed this into a field-wide norm. At the centre of this transformation is the emergence of the ICS. This is an entirely new accounting device which has been used to explore the question of ‘how accounting begins’. It is clear, as genealogy teaches us, that there are multiple contingent beginnings of accounting systems and we should not expect ‘any general theory of crisis driven accounting change’ (Hopwood, 1987 p.231). Or, as institutionalists might put it: ‘the emergence of new practices results from spatially dispersed, heterogenous activity by actors with varying kinds and levels of resources’ (Lounsbury & Crumley, 2007: 993). Yet if there is no general theory of how accounting begins, forty years of scholarship in Accounting, Organizations and Society has nevertheless provided considerable insights into important elements of the dynamics of accounting origination, not least into how the alignment of arenas creates possibilities for agency and for innovation. This paper has created a dialogue between some of this work and the specific case of impact accounting in the UK.