Reflecting on Legacy: Commemorating Peter Miller's Distinguished Career in Management Accounting at the LSE

On 27 September 2023, the Department of Accounting held a day of events to mark the retirement of Peter Miller - Professor of Management Accounting – and to celebrate his distinguished LSE career of 36 years in which he made many significant contributions – both intellectual and managerial.

Attendees included former PhD students and others who have been greatly influenced by Peter’s work and supported by him personally. The day included a lunch hosted by the Department at which Peter was thanked for his dedicated service over many years, which includes acting as head of the previous Department of Accounting and Finance and then, from 2007, the newly formed Department of Accounting. Colleagues recall his exemplary stewardship, and commitment to good governance at a challenging and sensitive time.  

Peter Miller was one of a number of appointments in the late 1980s as professors Bromwich and Hopwood sought to expand Accounting and strengthen it intellectually. He joined from the University of Sheffield and was in effect returning to LSE, where he had been a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. His subsequent work over three decades generated important intersections between accounting and sociology which have been transformative for both fields, encompassing studies of accounting in settings as diverse as new manufacturing systems and the health sector. 

Miller’s papers and books continue to be extensively cited across many disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Very few accounting academics achieve this kind of recognition beyond their field; Peter Miller is a striking exception and, together with the late Anthony Hopwood, he was instrumental in generating the wider reputation and perception of the Department, and of accounting itself, within the academy. His work not only provided accounting scholars with the theoretical confidence to engage with elements of mainstream sociology and public policy, but it also demonstrated to sociologists, political scientists and others that accounting is central to many of the issues which preoccupy them.   

At the heart of his influence has been Miller’s original conceptualisation, and sustained theoretical and empirical analysis of, ‘calculative practices’ as critical, but often unnoticed, features of organisational and societal governance. In essence Miller’s work shows how accounting, far from being of minor technical interest, shapes the way we think about, understand and act in our social and economic lifeworlds. Working mainly, but not exclusively, with Ted O’leary, he produced a number of seminal papers for the sociologically-oriented accounting in the 1980s and 1990s. One of these - ‘Accounting and the construction of the governable person’ (Accounting, Organizations and Society, 1987), changed the way that accounting scholars think about the ‘behavioural’ dimensions of accounting. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, the paper shows how accounting ‘disciplines’ organisational agents by establishing zones of decision freedom and by embedding ideas of performance which come to seem natural to these agents. Indeed, this fundamental problematic of subjects, subjectification and incentive formation has been a continuing thread in his work (cf. his papers in Annals of Scholarship 1992; Social Research 2001). In short, Miller revisits and reconstructs the connections that Max Weber briefly made between accounting and administration, and shows how general sociological problems of agency and identity can be explored in new ways within the accounting setting.

Peter Miller also produced innovative studies based on extensive periods of immersive fieldwork in organisations – at Caterpillar Inc. and at Intel Inc. This work shows how, for example, detailed features of factory design can be linked to aspirational ideals and competitive concerns at the macro-level. “Mediating instruments” (Accounting, Organizations and Society, 2007), an influential analysis of investment strategies at Intel, exemplifies his genre of combining detailed fieldwork with a strong institutional orientation. His work also did much to recentralise history in the analysis of accounting. “Genealogies of calculation” (Accounting, Organizations and Society, 1993 with Christopher Napier) provided the impetus for many accounting scholars to historicise, at least in part, their analyses of current accounting practice, thereby building more dynamic, processual understandings of practice and change. These sensibilities are especially evident in “On the interrelations between accounting and the state” (Accounting, Organizations and Society, 1990) which shows how forms of discounting and financial mathematics, which we take for granted today, were initially resisted as “dangerous nonsense”, a juxtaposition which demands both an explanation of change and a recognition that the present is never static. This paper also consolidated Miller’s footprint as a scholar of public sector accounting and administration, leading to important work with LSE colleagues on the role of ratios in the accounting construction of ‘failure’ (Business History, 2013), and extensions of these insights to the analysis of the UK health service.

Within sociology more generally, and working mainly but not exclusively with Nik Rose, Peter Miller  produced two landmark papers, “Governing economic life” (Economy & Society, 1990) and “Political power beyond the state” (British Journal of Sociology, 1992). Inspired by, but moving beyond, Michel Foucault’s conception of “governmentality”, these papers have shaped the way that many scholars in accounting and other fields have analysed the many faces of neoliberalism. The Miller/Rose tripartite theoretical schema  of programmes, rationalities and technologies (of government) has been applied to the analysis of change processes in many different contexts. More generally, Miller has shown how accounting and forms of state-building are deeply intertwined, with the former often acting as an enabler of economic reform. Finally, the co-edited book The Foucault Effect (1991 with Graham Burchell and Colin Gordon) has become a classic, and remains essential reading for critical sociological work.

In recognition of these and many other contributions to scholarship, Peter is the recipient of honorary doctorates from Copenhagen Business School and Paris Dauphine, and in 2018 he was elected to the British Academy.  Yet, his managerial and administrative contributions have been as outstanding as his academic work. In addition to serving on many editorial boards, he was at the heart of the editorial process of Accounting, Organizations and Society for over two decades, working tirelessly to support authors, and to maintain the standing of the journal as both the leading interdisciplinary accounting journal, and also as a reference point in the wider social sciences. In addition to this community-level work, Peter has also been a significant citizen of the School. In addition to his leadership of the department, noted earlier, he served as an academic Governor and Member of Council, as a member of the LSE Audit Committee, and as a Director of Executive LSE (ELSE) and its joint venture with Duke University. Relatedly, despite being a scholar of international distinction, Peter always respected the work of those who keep universities working and he built strong and cordial working relationships with professional services staff both within and beyond the department. In this respect, he always led by example.

In conclusion, the September events to celebrate these and many other achievements encompassed both personal reflections by many scholars on Peter’s influence and support, and also formal thanks from the department for his exceptional service. It was a happy but poignant celebration of a wonderful career which left its mark on so many. We all thank Peter for this and wish him well for a long, healthy fulfilling retirement.

Michael Power
London, 21 November 2023