Auditing Theory
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Auditing Theory

Ian Dennis

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Auditing Theory

Ian Dennis

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About This Book

Auditing is generally considered to be a particularly practical discipline. This hampers theoretical research, as does its complex nature. The unquestioning acceptance and implementation of rules governing auditing practice could lead to poor outcomes. This book provides a theory of auditing that underpins auditing practice.

Identifying the objectives of auditing in the context of financial reporting, this book examines underlying beliefs to provide a deeper understanding of the concepts of auditing. In analyzing the field from a theoretical perspective, the author encounters important concepts such as materiality, verification, evidence, risk and professional judgement. Philosophical ideas about the social construction of reality are employed to explain the role of theory in a building block of the business world.

This book is vital reading for auditing scholars globally, whilst its conclusions offer an interesting case study in the philosophy of professional judgement

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1 The Nature of Auditing Theory and of Conceptual Frameworks in Auditing

DOI: 10.4324/9781315762395-1
A book on auditing theory is confronted with an immediate problem. There is a perception that such a book is unnecessary. It has been suggested that ‘auditors on the whole are very practical people and … there is, of course, a danger that some practitioners will believe that they do not need a philosophy or set of unifying theories that explain what they do or should do’ (Gray and Manson, 2011, p. 31). This lack of interest was observed by the authors of one of the seminal works on auditing theory who observe that ‘many think of auditing as a completely practical, as opposed to theoretical, subject. To them, auditing is a series of practices and procedures, methods and techniques, a way of doing with little need for the explanations, descriptions, reconciliations, and arguments so frequently lumped together as “theory” ’ (Mautz and Sharaf, 1961, p.1). A later writer on auditing theory notes that ‘in spite of the social importance of auditing and the fact that it constitutes a significant part of the work of the accountancy profession throughout the world, there has been little interest in the study of its theory or in the development of research’ (Flint, 1988, p. 3). The result is that ‘auditing has developed in a very practical way. Perhaps surprisingly, given … the effort devoted to developing a coherent theory (or conceptual framework) of accounting, little attention has been given to developing a theory of auditing’ (Porter, 2003, p. 42). Although there are plenty of books on auditing practice, there are very few books on the theory of auditing. A conceptual framework is equated with a theory of accounting, but there is no conceptual framework for auditing.
The lack of interest in a theory or conceptual framework for auditing is confirmed by the fact that the International Audit and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB) rejected a proposal to develop ‘fundamental principles of auditing’, of the kind that might be expected in a conceptual framework, as part of the Clarity Project (Dennis, 2010 a, p. 299). One reason for this decision was that the IAASB believed that developing a framework would take up too much time and would deflect from the goal of clarifying auditing standards (Dennis, 2010 a, p. 299). Theory appears to be too far removed from the exigencies of practice to warrant the expenditure of time. Another possible explanation is that it is difficult to understand the nature of conceptual frameworks, something that is a legacy of their development in the area of financial reporting (Dennis, 2010 a, p. 301). There is still residual dissatisfaction, expressed in some of the comment letters on the exposure draft of clarified ISAs (International Standards on Auditing), that such a framework was not developed.
The IAASB has published the International Framework for Assurance Engagements (IAASB, 2005). It relates to all assurance engagements, of which auditing is one example. What kind of ‘framework’ is it? It states the objectives of assurance engagements and identifies five ‘elements’ of such engagements, namely that there is a three party relationship; a subject matter, or what the engagement is about; criteria, or what is evaluated or measured; evidence; and what kind of assurance report is required. It is not a theory or conceptual framework for auditing but, rather, a kind of ‘pro-forma’ for thinking about developing it or something that suggests what needs to be thought about in theorising or conceptual frameworking. This book starts off by thinking about the kind of ‘theory’ that might be developed from the ‘pro-forma’. Chapter 2 examines the objectives of auditing against the background of a three party relationship that exists in an auditing situation. Chapter 3 considers the ‘subject matter’, financial statements, and the nature of the opinion about them. The specific evidence required to give an audit opinion and the concept of materiality used in expressing the opinion are explained in chapters 4 and 5. Although the IAASB chose not to develop a conceptual framework for auditing, they bowed to pressure to develop some principles of auditing in a revision of ISA 200 (Dennis, 2010 a, p. 304).
Notable examples of books on auditing theory are Mautz and Sharaf’s The Philosophy of Auditing (1961), Flint’s book Philosophy and Principles of Auditing: An Introduction (1988) and Lee’s book Corporate Audit Theory (1993). ‘Theory’ has been defined as ‘a framework of logically connected statements which assist in organizing, explaining and predicting observations of the so-called real world’ (Lee, 1993, p. 1). Explaining and predicting accounting practice is the objective of positive accounting theory, and auditing practice, a kind of accounting practice, could be a species of positive or scientific (Watts and Zimmerman, 1986, p. 2; Sterling, 1979). An important strand in the philosophical literature rejects philosophical enquiry as a scientific investigation. The fact that two of the books on auditing theory have ‘philosophy’ in the title suggests that they may not be concerned with making a contribution towards the ‘science’ of auditing. A second problem with a book on auditing theory is that its nature is unclear. There are different views about auditing theory and its objectives, and readers may have different expectations about it.
Perhaps this explains the paucity of such books in the literature. It is important to explain the kind of theory in the book. This is done by starting with considering the implications of conceiving of auditing as a practice. Conceptual frameworks, as a theory of a practice, will then be examined. The role of concepts and of conceptual enquiry within theorising of this kind is explained. The idea of a philosophy of auditing is considered. Theorising about a practice, what might be called normative theorising, is differentiated from scientific theorising, or positive accounting theorising. Normative theorising of the kind developed in a conceptual framework for auditing is described. Problems with the practice of auditing may be solved by such a theory, which should ‘provide a basis for determining professional action’ (Mautz and Sharaf, 1961, p. 13). Assuming, for the moment, that such an enquiry is justified, what is involved in changing a practice? Examining the idea of practices throws some light on what is involved.


Practices involve regularities in behaviour where there is an intention to conform to a pattern. It is possible to identify acts that are in conformity with the practice and those that are not. An important starting point in understanding a particular kind of auditing theory, one that develops the practice of auditing, is the observation that auditing is a rule-governed practice. Rules exert a ‘dominating influence’ on the practice of accounting (West, 2003, p. 66). The same can be said about auditing. Accounting and auditing are activities of following rules. Rules are prescriptions that guide conduct and explain and justify actions of following rules. These prescriptions are not narrow, ‘rules-based’ prescriptions to be contrasted with ‘principles-based’ ones. Rules, in the sense intended here, prescribe and guide types of behaviour in types of situations (Dennis, 2014, p. 15). A practice is an activity of following rules (Dennis, 2014, p. 19).
Auditing, like accounting, is today an institutional practice. This means that auditors follow rules that are promulgated by an institution, the International Audit and Assurance Standards Board, and set out in International Standards on Auditing. At least part of the reason why auditors follow such rules is that they accept the authority of the standard setter and want to follow the rules promulgated by them (Dennis, 2014, p. 21). When questions are asked about audit practices, what is wanted is an answer which explains why the standard setter promulgated the rules that are followed, not why auditors follow them. This is the focus of auditing theory. This underlies practitioners’ perception that theory is not something they need to engage with because it is a concern of standard setters.
One way of understanding the nature of auditing theory is to understand it as something that assists standard setters in making decisions about what rules to promulgate in standards. This is the kind of thing that conceptual frameworks for financial reporting were developed to achieve. They provide ‘a coherent frame of reference to be used … in the development of accounting standards’ (Accounting Standards Board [ASB], 1999, §2). They have been characterized as some kind of ‘theoretical basis’ for financial accounting (Archer, 1993, p. 62). This suggests that looking at the nature of a conceptual framework may shed some light on the nature of the kind of auditing theory that underpins practice.

Conceptual Frameworks

One important purpose of conceptual frameworks is ‘to play a role in decision-making, in particular in assisting standard setters in making rational decisions about which accounting standards to promulgate’ (Dennis, 2014, p. 25). The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) acknowledges that the ‘Concepts Statements’, which constitute the conceptual framework in the U.S., ‘will guide the Board in developing accounting and reporting guidance by providing the Board with a common foundation and basic reasoning on which to consider merits of alternatives’ (FASB, 2010, p. 5). This is also recognised by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) and the Accounting Standards Board (ASB) in the UK. This ties in closely with Mautz and Sharaf’s conception of auditing theory as something which considers ‘the reasons for the use of various procedures as well as the steps in the procedures themselves, the “why” as well as the “how” ’ (Mautz and Sharaf, 1961, p. 3).
The model of a conceptual framework for financial reporting could be used for a framework for an auditing theory. In financial reporting accounting standards are promulgated for reasons, and the purpose of a conceptual framework is to provide such reasons (Dennis, 2014, ch. 3). The ‘principles’ in such frameworks constitute sentences that appear in reasoning that has as its conclusion a desire to promulgate standards that include rules that are to be followed in practice. Two kinds of reasoning have been identified as relevant in standard setting decisions. One starts from general rules, sometimes understood as conventions of accounting, and derives more specific rules of accounting from them. These rules may be referred to as ‘principles’, and the reasoning has been referred to as a ‘logic of appropriateness’ (Dennis, 2014, p. 20). Another starts with desires to achieve certain ends or objectives from which a desire to promulgate standards that are believed will fulfil these objectives is derived. These desires may also be referred to as ‘principles’, and the reasoning has been referred to as a ‘logic of consequences’ (Dennis, 2014, p. 20). Both of these kinds of ‘principle’ and reasoning have been used in developments of accounting theory and conceptual frameworks in the previous century. Both might provide a model for the development of auditing theory of the normative kind. However, interest in developing the conceptual framework has shifted from conceiving of the framework as the expression of accounting conventions to a decision-useful approach where the framework expresses objectives, that is, what is wanted from a system of financial reporting (Dennis, 2014, p. 36). The shift involves a change from a logic of appropriateness to a logic of consequences.
Setting standards is an intentional action of standard setters (Dennis, 2014, p. 25). Intentional actions are done for reasons. These reasons are used to make decisions about what to do. The reasoning involved is ‘practical reasoning’, another name for a ‘logic of consequences’. In reasoning of this kind, the person deciding to act starts with a premises that express a desire that the action is to achieve and from other premises that express beliefs that a certain action will fulfil this desire from which a conclusion is derived that expresses a desire to act. If, as a result of wanting to perform an action, the action is undertaken, then the desire and beliefs expressed in the premises give reasons for performing that action (Anscombe, 1957, §5). A reason for acting thus involves ‘(a) having some sort of pro attitude toward actions of a certain kind, and (b) believing (or knowing, perceiving, noticing, remembering) that his action is of that kind’ (Davidson, 1980, p. 3). Given the purpose of a conceptual framework as something that assists standard setters in deciding what standards to promulgate, such a framework is something that gives reasons for standard setting actions. They include expressions of the underlying desires and beliefs that constitute reasons for setting standards. The statements of objectives and qualitative characteristics are to be understood as statements expressing what is wanted from the action of financial accounting and reporting (Dennis, 2014, ch. 3). The decision-usefulness approach that underpins the conceptual framework states that what is wanted is to provide information that is useful to users that is expressed in the objectives chapter of the conceptual framework (CF). The chapter on qualitative characteristics states that what is wanted is information that has certain qualities that users find useful. Standard setters undertake practical reasoning by starting with desires of this kind and then look around for standards that when followed will result in financial reporting that meets the desires expressed. They need to undertake research to identify such standards. If standard setters want to achieve these desires and believe that by promulgating certain standards that will be followed these desires will be achieved, then they may conclude that they want to promulgate these standards.
If the model of a conceptual framework for financial reporting is to be used as a model for a conceptual framework for auditing, then such a framework needs to include statements about the objectives of auditing, or what is wanted from the practice of auditing. These are sometimes referred to as ‘principles’, but the nature of principles is unclear (Dennis, 2006). The statements that appear in the conceptual framework are used to derive other statements included in the standards. There is a logical relationship between these statements. Again, it is unclear whether this is meant to be a deductive logical relationship or whether it involves logic of some other kind. It is suggested that this is a logic of practical reasoning (Dennis, 2014, ch. 3). The conceptual framework is explained as a series of ‘concepts statements’. To understand this involves understanding the word. It is important to realise that the term ‘concept’ covers different kinds of things.

What Are Concepts?

The FASB and the IASB quote the definition of ‘concept’ from the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a general notion or idea … of a class of objects’ and go on to quote Sir W. Hamilton’s definition of a conception as ‘the act of comprehending or grasping into unity the various qualities by which an object is characterised’ (FASB/IASB, 2005, p. 1). There is no recognition that these are definitions of two different kinds of thing. The latter is the definition of an act or action whereas the former is the definition of a notion or class. Acts are not the same kind of thing as notions or classes. Loose talk of this kind is endemic in discussions about the conceptual framework for financial reporting. It would not take much effort to resolve a confusion of this kind. One could talk of a concept as the outcome of an act of conceiving. ‘Conceiving’ in this context would appear to be an act of defining objects or, more accurately, defining words or expressions used to denote objects. This would render a concept as the outcome of this kind of activity and something that thus gives the meaning of a word or expression. This ties in with the notion of concepts in the philosophical literature, which are equated with the meanings of words (Craig, 2005, p. 135). An example of a concept that the FASB/IASB identifies is that of an asset. The meaning of the word ‘asset’, as explained in the conceptual framework, is, at least in part, ‘a source of future economic benefits’. The concept of an asset is thus explained by explaining the meaning of the word ‘asset’.
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