Prof Kevin Morrell
11 Feb 2017

Governance, tax and folk tales

Introduction

We use narrative analysis to study a recent, pivotal period in the governance of taxation in the UK. Our contribution is to show how a Formalist approach to narrative (explained in depth below) helps us understand personal projects of sense making in a context that is technically, legally and morally complex. In doing so, we provocatively advocate thinking about what ordinarily could be called `real world’ narratives about the governance of taxation (lax tales’) as folk tales. This leads to novel insights be¬cause by invoking the structure of the folktale we move beyond considering the content of a narrative, the ‘story’, to reflecting on how that content is organised, the ‘plot’ (a distinction that can be traced as far back as Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric; Morrell, 2012). This approach concentrates attention not simply on the component parts of a narrative, such as the events that are related, but on the relationship of these components to one another and on their role within the narrative as a whole.

Our theoretical contribution is to show how features of strong or dominant plots (Czarniawska & Rhodes, 2006); of the kind that structure folktales (Propp, 1928), also help accounting professionals to make sense of this complex governance environment. This has implications for how we understand accounting as a professional project. We extend understanding of narratives as sense making projects by detailing the role emplotment plays; where emplotment is, ‘introducing structure that allows making sense of the events reported in a narrative’ (Czarniawska, 2012a: 758). The paper begins with a brief account of the broad theoretical context of work on narrative in organization studies, moving to a more detailed consideration of Propp’s Formalist framework, and introducing the idea of emplotment (White, 1973). It then moves on to discuss the context for the research – taxation, and the empirical data: two phases of interview research just prior to, and shortly after, the creation of a new body for overseeing the governance of taxation in the UK: Her Majesty’s Reve¬nue & Customs (HMRC). In our analysis we show ways in which interviewees resolve attendant complexities in this context by enacting personal projects of sense making, and we conclude by identifying some implications that fol¬low from treating ‘tax tales’ as folk tales.

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