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    On audits and airplanes: Redundancy and...
    research summary posted October 19, 2015 by Jennifer M Mueller-Phillips, tagged 09.0 Auditor Judgment, 09.03 Adequacy of Evidence 
    On audits and airplanes: Redundancy and reliability-assessment in high technologies.
    Practical Implications:

    This article explains the importance of redundancy to both design and assessment practices in aviation, but contests redundancy’s ability to accurately translate between them. It suggests that FAA reliability assessments serve a useful regulatory purpose by couching the qualitative work of engineers and regulators in an idiom of calculative objectivity, but cautions that this comes with potentially perverse consequences. For, like many audit-practices, reliability calculations are constitutive of their subjects, and their construal of redundancy shapes both airplanes and aviation praxis.


    Downer, J. 2011. On audits and airplanes: Redundancy and reliability-assessment in high technologies. Accounting, Organizations & Society 36 (4/5): 269-283.

    reliability assessments, redundancy, auditing
    Purpose of the Study:

    Reliability assessments of the most publicly significant high technologies from nuclear power-plants to civil jetliners  invoke calculative practices that are both opaque to the public gaze and largely neglected by sociologists of accounting. This paper is an effort to begin the long process of redressing the latter. A panoply of oversight bodies are responsible for performing reliability assessments of high technologies. Invariably, these are state regulators, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US. Among other functions, they measure and verify the reliability of complex and potentially dangerous technologies. This function is important, not only because the technologies involved are consequential, but also because the reliability they require is not readily knowable.

    This paper argues that reliability assessments of complex technologies can usefully be construed as ‘audits’ and understood in relation to the literature on audit-practices. It looks at a specific calculative tool  redundancy  and explores its role in the assessments of new airframes by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

    Design/Method/ Approach:

    This article is a commentary.


    It is important to recognize that the counting practices of high technology, like those of other audit domains, are worthy of sociological consideration and amenable to sociological deconstruction. Like all institutional audit practices, they are socially constructed and materially constitutive: shaping technological systems and colonizing engineering practices. They may even be more constitutive in engineering than in other domains. Modernity widely subscribes to a pervasive but misleading ideal that construes technologies as more ‘objectively knowable’ than most audit objects, and this imbues engineering calculations with uncommon influence.

    In the specific case of FAA reliability assessments, the ideal of objectivity leans heavily on redundancy because of its usefulness in enacting quantitative proof. It allows auditors to translate the vicissitudes of engineering practice into the formal language of regulatory assessment. Yet this function depends on a false equivalence between redundancy as ‘engineering tool’ and redundancy as ‘audit paradigm’, where the latter is misconstrued as accurately reflecting the former. And, given the socially and materially constitutive nature of formal reliability assessments, this disjuncture has complex ramifications with significant social consequences. Calculative practices like redundancy are not important because they accurately represent the technological world but because they claim to, and because such claims become institutionalized in ways that shape technological designs, influence technological practices, and frame important technological choices.

    Auditor Judgment
    Adequacy of Evidence