Afshin Mehrpouya is our Chair in Accounting, Sustainability and Governance, having joined the Business School in 2021. Here, Afshin talks about giving his Inaugural Lecture, what the role of Chair entails, and how his love for craftsmanship would aid him well on a Desert Island.
Headshot photograph of Afshin

Congratulations on recently giving your inaugural lecture! Can you give a layman summary of what you presented and what you hope people took away from the lecture?

Inauguration, in its earlier origin, refers to the talk or the discourse of the birds. In my talk, I reflected on the notion of ‘seeing from above’ or the ‘bird’s eye view’. This is a central idea in accounting: using knowledge and numbers to see from above to control and to influence within and across organisations. I talked about how my research has been focused on questioning and interrogating the components of this accounting gaze from above – ranging from discourses of transparency that enable/legitimise accounting, to accounting devices such as ratings and rankings used for governance and regulation of corporations’ environmental and social behaviour and citizens. I discussed what increased reliance on behavioural governance of organisations/citizens combined with Artificial Intelligence – mean for citizenship, rights and public goods.

More widely, how does it feel to hold the Chair in Accounting?

I've been in this role now for about three years having moved here from outside the UK, so it took me time to understand the responsibilities and possibilities that go with the Chair. Within the School, I have used my position to ensure our academic colleagues get the support that they need and that their voices are heard. Especially those that are frequently silent – such as junior colleagues and PhD students. Holding the Chair has also meant that I've been invited to more arenas to share ideas relating to my research, and I’ve given more keynotes and talks. This has been quite inspiring and impactful. So for me, being a Chair has been about being an effective academic citizen and making sure that walls and silos are weakened and that dialogue and ideas flow more effectively within our institution, and beyond.

Can you give a brief summary of your career to date, and the journey that brought you here to us at the University of Edinburgh Business School?

I have a bit of an unconventional story as I'm a medical doctor by training, having graduated back in 2000. More recently, I moved to Canada from Iran, where I worked as a responsible investment analyst. I then moved to France where I undertook a PhD in interdisciplinary accounting, based on my experience in the field of responsible investments with ratings and rankings of corporate conduct. I was a faculty member at HEC Paris for ten years, before joining the interdisciplinary accounting team at the Business School in September 2021. A radical and very interesting move in many ways for both my personal and professional lives.

With regards to your work, is there anything exciting in the pipelines that you are working on?

I have a few research projects that are now on the top of my agenda. One is continuing with my work on the Chinese social credit system, in trying to understand how AI and big data and various forms of quantification of citizens’ conduct are used for behavioural governance of citizens and their implications. I've recently got involved with another project on rating consumer electronics products for their repairability in France which is a novel approach towards the regulation of production to enable circular economy. I also have a project on accountability and AI, looking at the notion of explainability of AI based decisions and its regulation to try to understand how it could be organised differently to be more effective for public accountability.

What do you enjoy most about your teaching and research?

What do I enjoy most in my teaching? Well, interaction. In my courses on ethics and sustainability, I love triggering and moderating debates among the students as a core aspect of my pedagogy. I like challenging my students to face difficult decisions, to articulate their positions on their decisions and to argue for them. I think this is an effective way of engaging the students in a deeper way with class content, especially on ethical questions. I think this is very important in business education because of the significance of the decisions that the students will make in the future, and the societal and ecological impact and complexity of those decisions.

In my research, I think what I enjoy most is connecting to people during the conduct of empirical investigations, sensing/relating to how they navigate, improvise, struggle and organize. And then there is the challenge and joy of theory and abstract thinking.

What do you enjoy most about working at the Business School?

I would say my colleagues, as I’ve found them to be diverse and engaging. Besides the interdisciplinary accounting team which is one of the most vibrant in Europe, and several colleagues in other research groups whose work relates closely to mine, I have found the intellectual/academic possibilities of being part of University of Edinburgh immense and exciting. In interdisciplinary accounting, the lifeblood of our work is connecting to the other disciplines ranging from anthropology to sociology of finance, markets studies and political sciences, which are all very strong at the University of Edinburgh, I should also mention our PhD programme: we get very good candidates and have a lively PhD community here, and it’s a joy working with them.

What advice would you give to your younger self, about to leave home and embark upon further education?

I would tell myself to try not to lose touch with what is essential and what your values are. I'd also say to focus on the joys of doing meaningful work, the joy of writing, the joy of intellectual engagement, and don't let the academic professional pressures distract you. Keep reminding yourself of why you do what you do!

What one book, piece of music and beloved item would you take with you to a Desert Island?

  • Book: I would take a book of poetry, because poetry never exhausts itself. In Persian, we say, good poetry is like a tool to shine/carve the soul. The more you reread a good poem the sharper it gets. I would take a book of poetry by Joyce Mansour who is a playful and forceful Egyptian surrealist poet I have discovered recently.
  • Music: I think I would take music by Elaheh, an Iranian singer that my mom sang when I was a child, and who we've been singing together over the years. It is called Raftam which means ‘I went’. It is a tender song reflecting on the tension between the urge to leave and the pull to stay, that connects me to my past in so many ways, I would want to carry that with me.
  • Beloved item: Instead of a thing as a relic, or a thing to use/consume, I'll take a thing to learn to make with. Recently, I've been keener on making things with my hands so I'll take a tool to carve wood.

If you could invite anyone over for dinner (past/present) who would it be and why?

I am an avid and patient cook. Cooking gives me some of the most meditative and exquisite moments. These days, I cannot think of cooking without being reminded of the people in Gaza who have been living under a violent siege and have been struggling to feed themselves and their families. I would like to prepare some of my favourite dishes with the best of ingredients to share over dinner with a family from Gaza. It would be such a source of joy and honour.