Sub-theme 16: Societal accountability: Understanding and negotiating the identity of individuals, societies and institutions *

Carmelo Mazza
Grenoble Ecole de Management, France
Paolo Quattrone
Saïd Business School & Christ Church, University of Oxford, UK
Stephen Woolgar
Saïd Business School University of Oxford, UK

Call for Papers

Studies of contemporary societies stress the diffusion of social controls and orders across a series of actors and institutions. Centralized regulations are increasingly being replaced by liberalization and the creation of quasi self-regulatory markets. Governments are substituted by governance, and controls by accountabilities, auditing and risk management (Power, 1997; 2007). In this renewed milieu, organizations of various sorts (e.g. think thanks, governmental agencies, consumer associations; and the like) act to shape public policies, govern practices and, in the end, contribute to define what counts as legitimate organizations and individual as a civic being. In this sense, society itself, rather than being seen as an overarching defined entity, can be seen as the result of the combined and continuous work of these organizations, their governing practices, and the mechanism which make them interact.

As noted by O’Malley (2000), given the multiple identities of individual and organizations, practices and how they are enacted in and by organizations should be the starting point to understand what counts as individual, organizations and society. Building from this perspective, we propose to start from what links the various actors defining identities, organizations as institutions and world views. Societies are to be understood for the practices which make organizations and individuals tighten together, i.e. as 'societies'. Amongst these, one of the most pervasive practices of contemporary organizations and societies is certainly accountability. By the term "societal accountability" we indicate the application of accountability to society at large and to countries, in an attempt to understand diversity at the macro level in a globalized world.

Accountability has emerged in recent decades as one of the distinct modalities of our times in that "it [affects] a variety of cultural phenomena [… and] it is also a value in itself" (Carruthers, 1990: 260). We can therefore note its relevance in both the private sector, with issues such as corporate governance, makeup of boards and the role of hedge funds, and the public sphere, via the spread of New Public Management and its strictly prescribed notions of 'good' and 'bad' accountability.

Though early engagements with the concept have been of a largely normative nature, recent writings in a variety of disciplines, from anthropology to accounting to science and technology studies, have approached accountability as a heterogeneous mode of ordering. In particular, accountability, like other trendy labels (e.g. governance, efficiency and the like) can be seen as an 'empty signifier' in being able to assume different meanings in different spaces/times while still retaining a certain degree of homogeneity. In the contemporary setting where identities, organizations and societies are made in a nest of relationships (Latour, 2005), the study of accountability is thus a proxy to the study of complex orderings of organisations and societies.

By introducing the concept of societal accountability as our central theme we thus wish to stress the importance of investigating how accountability practices and relationships contribute to enduring definitions of organizations and societies at the level of practical interaction rather than at the abstract level of the individual or the context. What it means to be 'accountable' in a variety of settings is a question which is undoubtedly both timely and pertinent. Yet, it has thus far received limited academic attention.

We welcome contributions that seek to explore the theoretical, historical, empirical and methodological issues concerning societal accountability. In particular, the track welcomes papers addressing issues such as, though not exclusively:

  1. Accountability relationships and practices and their role in defining our worldviews and the kind of society we live in
  2. In-depth empirical investigations on accountability as practice at the societal level, looking at working of social actors like think tanks, blogs, social movements, new political parties, etc.
  3. How to develop a practice of accountability appropriate for societies and large organizational networks
  4. How to bridge the traditional micro/macro dichotomy in theoretically exploring and empirically investigating societal accountability
  5. When, how, and with what intent are different societies constructed, negotiated, settled and unsettled by different actors
  6. What are the key roles of science and technology in forging and sustaining accountability relations

Our hope is that the papers will stimulate an opening of a debate on the framing and introduction of this new perspective on accountability. For this reason, we welcome a broad array wide of research traditions, perspectives and empirical approaches.

Key readings

Carruthers, M.J. (1990): The book of memory: A study of memory in medieval culture. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

de Certeau, M. (1984): The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Latour, B. (2005): Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Munro, R. and J. Mouritsen (eds.) (1996): Accountability: Power, ethos and the technologies of managing. London: International Thomson Business Press.

Strathern, M. (ed.) (2000): Audit cultures: Anthropological studies in accountability, ethics and the academy. London: Routledge.




* The convenors of this sub-theme are fortunate to be able to count on the support of Maja Korica, a doctoral student at the Saïd Business School and Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, UK. Her thesis centers on governance and accountability as they are practiced in knowledge-producing organizations in the public sphere, specifically focusing on a 'traditional' university, a think tank and a quango as empirical settings. Her wider interests include dynamics of knowledge in society, theories of practice, the roles of institutions in everyday life, and the boundary between the public and the private.


Carmelo Mazza 
Paolo Quattrone 
Stephen Woolgar