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The economic entity and accounting for labour: Insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 - 1945)

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posted on 2021-11-14, 09:02 authored by Lim, Francesca Fung Mei

This thesis offers an alternative to conventional accounting in the conceptualisation of the economic entity. Framed by the principles of philosophical hermeneutics, the writings of the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) are explored in order to provide an alternative conceptualisation of the economic entity. This thesis then examines the implications of this conceptualisation for accounting for labour, beyond the confines of conventional accounting. The most widely accepted conceptualisation of the economic entity in business disciplines, including conventional accounting, is the nexus-of-contract perspective. The nexus-of-contract perspective conceptualises the entity as an atomised, ahistorical and artificial fiction that serves as a nexus for contracting relationships among various parties. Because it is merely a nexus, the entity cannot be construed as an actor with ethical responsibility. The normative behaviour of the nexus-of-contract entity is profit and shareholder wealth maximisation. Despite the dominance of this approach, this perspective is limited in addressing the ethical controversies that economic entities currently face. As an alternative, the conceptualisation of the entity as “responsible collective person” – based on Bonhoeffer‟s concept of mandates and his concept of the collective person – is provided to address the limitations of the nexus-of-contract approach. The “responsible collective person” has two features. The first feature is the positioning of the entity amidst various spheres of life, called “mandates”. The “mandates” exist in relations of “being-with”, “being-for” and “being-against” each other. The second feature is the delineation of the boundary of the entity through the notion of influence. The ethical imperative of the “responsible collective person” is based on Bonhoeffer‟s ethic of responsible action. Any conceptualisation of the entity has implications for how various stakeholders are perceived and accounted for by the entity. In regards to labour as a major stakeholder, the nexus-of-contract approach views labour as an equal, contracting partner that has a “fixed claim” from the entity in the form of agreed-upon remuneration. Following this perspective, conventional accounting characterises labour as a cost to the entity, with the assumption that remuneration to labour is adequate compensation for their services. While there have been attempts at recognising labour as assets, the strong adherence towards the principles of conventional accounting have thwarted these efforts. There are several ethical limitations to these approaches. Firstly, the categorisation of labour as cost leads to the commodification of human beings in the pursuit of profits. Secondly, the adherence towards the “hard” and calculative nature of conventional accounting means that the goal of accounting for the worth of labour cannot come to fruition. Thirdly, conventional accounting for labour is mostly from the perspective of the entity, silencing labour‟s own voices. In contrast, the “responsible collective person” approach argues that “the labourer” cannot be separated from “the human”, and that any debate on labour necessarily entails a debate on humanity. To this end, it is proposed that accounting, via its communicative function, can act as a discourse that provides the “responsible collective person” with a wide array of information – information that will be helpful in enabling the entity to become an ethical and responsible agent. In regards to accounting for labour, it is argued that labour should not be negatively ascribed as an expense, but as a significant and important contributor to the entity. Space should be given for multiple forms of accounting from multiple perspectives, ranging from the “hard” financial representations to the “soft” narrative and visual approaches. Three approaches to accounting for labour are explored: the Statement of Redistribution of Income; Self-Accountings from Labour; and Accounting for Labour from Others.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970115 Expanding Knowledge in Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Accounting and Commercial Law


Colquhoun, Philip; Cordery, Carolyn