Accounts Essay

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An account, as the term is most commonly used in sociology, refers to statements that explain disruptions in the social and moral order. In this sense, accounts are linguistic devices by which actors attempt to reposition themselves as socially acceptable and morally reputable in the face of imputations of deviance or failure. Although the concept of accounts has roots in C. Wright Mills’s 1940 article on ”Situated actions and the vocabularies of motives,” in Gresham Sykes and David Matza’s 1957 article on ”Techniques of neutralization,” and more generally in the work of Erving Goffman, the term itself was introduced in its distinctive sociological sense by Marvin Scott and Sanford Lyman in their 1968 article, entitled simply ”Accounts.”

Accounts may be classified by what they accomplish, by their functions and consequences, both for individual actors and for the social and moral order. First, accounts may restore breaches in the social order. Second, accounts, even taken narrowly as explanations of disruptions of an ongoing moral order, are deeply implicated in processes of social control.

Third, and more generally, accounts are a form of making meaning. Whether, as some suggest, this meaning making emerges from a deep-felt human urge or, as is more demonstrable, from specific social situations that challenge existing understandings, accounts provide interpretations of behavior and its motives. Understood narrowly, accounts are efforts to give socially acceptable meanings to particular and otherwise discredited behaviors. Understood more broadly, as plotted narratives, accounts are efforts to connect a series of events and behaviors into a coherent story,  with a beginning, a middle, and an end, causally related and with a more or less explicit moral content. Fourth, and more specifically, accounts create identities. Because accounts involve the imputation of motives, and the selective avowal and disavowal of behaviors as motivated, they also involve claims as to what is and is not a part of the self. When offered with deep-felt belief on the part of the speaker, as is often the case in response to illness, divorce, or other disruptions of a previous routine, accounts contribute to the formation of both personal (internally held) and social (publicly enacted) identities. When offered cynically, as self-conscious efforts to manipulate impressions, whether for the enhancement of status or to avoid sanctions, accounts may not contribute to the formation of personal identities but nonetheless still contribute to the formation of social identities.


  1. Orbuch, T. L. (1997) People’s accounts count: the sociology of accounts. Annual Review ofSociology 23: 455-78.
  2. Scott, M. B. & Lyman, S. (1968) Accounts. American Sociological Review 33: 46-62.

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