Liminality in UK social housing associations: ethnographies of accounting change

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Social housing in the UK is a “pillar of the society along with free health care and education” (CIH, 2018). It is also near the top of the political agenda primarily due to a housing shortage. Social housing is rented housing provided at rents below market levels, by social housing associations to people who can demonstrate they are in housing need. As such, social housing is for people on low incomes and whose needs are not adequately served by the private housing sector. One in five of the UK population lives in the social rented sector (circa. 5 million or 17% of the households in 2017) and the main providers of social housing are not-for-profit social housing associations. Sector revenues (mainly rental income) in 2020 are circa. £24 billion with an operating surplus of £5.3 billion. Social purpose and mission are often core values for social housing associations, which impact society in many ways. Specifically, they can help solve the housing shortage in a highly regulated social housing sector. However, in recent years, social housing has transformed from a local/central government funded sector to a privately financed sector. With a dramatic reduction of state funding (from circa. 90% down to 10%), social housing associations face extreme pressures to their operating model, combined with the urgent need to finance new housing stock (Smyth, 2019; Smyth, Cole, & Fields, 2020). It is within this fast-moving and high-pressure environment that key individuals make important choices/decisions that impact the operational sustainability of housing associations. They must balance funding needs (Cooper, Graham, & Himick, 2016), regulation, commercial practices, and the desire to satisfy/serve tenants in their housing associations.

It is against this background, that individuals within social housing are faced with/consider reporting the impact on communities and society in general. However, specifically at the individual level, the research seeks to answer how self-regularising individuals, that is, key social housing individuals (including professional accountants) deal with their liminality (or inbetweenness) when confronted with accounting change (Hopwood, 1990) and/or financial pressures in UK social housing. In other words, how do they deal with the challenges they face. Ethnographic research (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2019; Madden, 2011), in the interpretive research tradition (Chua, 1986, 2019) is considered appropriate for this study as I seek output of first-hand individual experiences. The theoretical lens being used is the ritual theory, which encapsulates the concept of liminality (Turner, 1967, 1969) and accounting as ritual activity (Ezzamel, 2009, 2012; Gambling, 1987).

The findings bring to attention the idea of self-regularising individuals in the setting of social housing and the wider context of communities and society. In this study, these individuals when confronted with accounting change and/or financial pressures dealt with their liminality by bringing about new forms of accounting (such as social accounting), which were operationalised as “new ritual” accounting activity. I draw a distinction between new and mature ritual with new ritual containing the characteristics of transformation which occurred during liminality. Further, I theorise from the lived experiences of these individuals that they necessarily go through a five-stage liminality process model potentially interrelated to collective levels. Finally, the notion of self-regularising individuals, the experiences of liminality in ritual theory, and accounting as ritual activity may resonate with other individuals, not only in social housing, but other sectors as powerful concepts helping to generate new possibilities and ideas at individual and collective levels (Söderlund & Borg, 2018).
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aston Business School
  • Cordery, Carolyn J., Supervisor
  • De Loo, Ivo, Supervisor
  • Manochin, Melina, Supervisor
Award date9 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - 9 Dec 2021


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