Research on verbal accounting examines how language is used to retrospectively explain or make sense of events. Citing one’s motive or describing the context may serve to portray events in a different way – as understandable, excusable, or less culpable. An accounting can range from a lengthy discourse (a narrative or courtroom cross-examination) to a single word or nonverbal substitute, e.g., a shoulder shrug. In routine circumstances accounts are not necessary; persons, actions, and events speak for themselves. The need for accounts typically arises when something problematic or out of the ordinary occurs. Another’s question, challenge, or blame makes an account relevant from the actor (Goffman 1971).
A distinction may be drawn between “accounts for actions” and “accounts of actions.” Accounts for actions arise in response to some troubles or blame; accounts attempt to remediate the incident or one’s responsibility for it (Scott & Lyman 1968). Excuses are a paradigmatic kind of account. Accounts may serve as a reason for why one did what one did. Accounts of action involve a person’s sensemaking for events such as relationships, personal crises, or life-course changes. A storylike account or narrative would be the paradigmatic form. Narratives can account by conveying a temporal sequence of events, the cast of characters, and the actor’s part in portraying events in a particular way. This approach captures our need to interpret our lives, particularly in times of stress or trauma (Orbuch 1997).
Given that an accounting is offered to other(s), the recipient may honor the account or not. An account may not be addressed at all by the recipient; it may be considered incontestable. Alternatively the recipient may question the account, thereby prompting further accounts. The larger the problematic event, the more likely the actor’s accounts will be questioned. Accounts are typically partial and selective, so it is difficult to tell the whole story in the initial accounting. Persons may be probed by recipients so that accounts get incrementally unpacked and expanded. Accountings are collaboratively achieved among interlocutors. Persons may alter their account as it is retold to different recipients (Manusov 1996).
The uses and evaluations of accounts have been studied in everyday communication as well as in a variety of specialized or institutional settings, e.g., in the courtroom, therapy sessions, medical examinations, and business negotiations. Accounts have been studied from a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives, most notably from the language and social psychology approach (Cody & McLaughlin 1990) and from the language and social interaction tradition (Buttny & Morris 2001). The former collection of approaches typically examines the efficacy of different types of accounts in remediating a breach. The latter tradition looks at accounts as texts or as exhibited within a transcript and examines the various interactional moves and collaborations in co-constructing the social reality of events.
- Buttny, R., & Morris, G. H. (2001). Accounting. In W. P. Robinson & H. Giles (eds.), The new handbook of language and social psychology. New York: John Wiley, pp. 285 –301.
- Cody, M. J., & McLaughlin, M. L. (1990). Interpersonal accounting. In H. Giles & W. P. Robinson (eds.), The handbook of language and social psychology. New York: John Wiley, pp. 227–255.
- Goffman, E. (1971). Relations in public: Microstudies of the public order. New York: Harper & Row.
- Manusov, V. (1996). Changing explanations: The process of account-making over time. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 29, 155 –179.
- Orbuch, T. L. (1997). People’s accounts count: The sociology of accounts. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 455 – 478.
- Scott, M. L., & Lyman, S. M. (1968). Accounts. American Sociological Review, 33, 46 – 62.