Zero Order Summaries

"Accounts" : Statement from actor designed to separate self from a faulty performance. Excuses, reasons, justifications.
"Vocabularies of Motive" : Acceptable explanations for behavior found in group culture.
"Techniques of Neutralization" : Standard lines of thinking we use to duck responsibility for our actions. Some of these are covered in "Accounts"
Schutz : Distinguishing between "because" motives and "in order to" motives.

First Order

Why are accounts needed? OR What do accounts do? OR What do Lyman and Scott mean when they say "shore up the timbers of fractured sociation, its ability to throw bridges between the promised and the performed…."?

How can we use "wrongness" and "responsibility" to create a typology in which we can locate excuses, reasons, justifications?
Let's look at the subtypes of excuses

Work though the variations on excuses — see worksheet.

Generate examples of accounts you give to others vs accounts you give to yourself. How much of the same thing is going on? What's different?

What are some strategies for avoiding accounts?


Generate examples for each of the following types of excuses

  1. Accidents
  2. Defeasibility
    1. Lack of knowledge
    2. Lack of free will (duress, undue influence)
    3. Denial of intent
    4. Denial of knowledge of consequences
    5. Gravity disclaimer: I knew there was a problem but didn’t know it was this big a problem
    6. Intoxication, diminished capacity
  3. Biological Drives, Inescapable Structures and other Fatalistic Forces
  4. Scapegoating

Generate Examples of each of the following justifications

  1. Denial of injury
  2. Denial of victim
    1. Proximate foes
    2. Incumbents of normatively discrepant roles
    3. Groups with tribal stigma
    4. Distant foes
    5. Objects
      1. Associated with above
      2. Neutral or ambiguously owned
      3. Objects with low or polluted value
  3. Condemnation of condemners
  4. Appeal to loyalties
  5. Sad stories

What are some strategies for avoiding accounts?

  1. Mystification
  2. Referral

What are some answers to the question: why don't you have your paper today? It was due at 5 pm.

Why does it seem like there is a contest involved in the negotiation of identity? Because there is. "Every account is a manifestation of the underlying negotiation of identities."


In our last class we focused on the actor and her responsibility to "keep it together" in the face of situational risk.

Stanford Lyman and Marvin Scott's article "Accounts," originally appeared in the ASR and later in their wonderfully 70sish A Sociology of the Absurd, is at once a contribution to the "sociology of talk" and to a sociology of motives.

In particular, it is about the capacity of talk to

“shore up the timbers of fractured sociation, its ability to throw bridges between the promised and the performed….”

What does this mean?

Daily life is chock full of disappointing behaviors. It's not just that "nobody's perfect," it's that everybody's imperfect but we carry around expectations based on idealizations, the perfect. This doesn't mean we set the standard too high. Rather, it means we operate in terms of standards, expectations, approximations that in reality we tend to aim at but frequently land wide of. For better or worse, most things that are subject to that are also subject to valuative inquiry. The frequent gap between expectation and performance are marks of whether we are "good" or "bad" Xs (daughters, students, friends, drivers, housemates, customers, etc.).

An account is statement made by a social actor to explain unanticipated or untoward or unexpected behavior. "Unexpected" means that the context (you seem to be a nice person) within which the act occurs (you lashing out with expletives) would lead others to predict other behavior. Assuming the observed behavior is real, they can only make sense of it by adjusting their understanding of the context (you are not such a nice person). By "explain" we mean put the behavior in a context that relieves it of the force of its unexpectedness.

Accounts are not called for when we engage in completely routine behavior because “everyone knows what it means.” It is when there is a disjuncture around meaning that an account is necessary.

We now generalize from "unexpected" to "against the rules" (whatever they may be). In response, an actor can either admit that the act was a violation or claim that it was not AND s/he can either take responsibility or not.

Yes No
Yes Reason? Justification
No Excuse

Excuses – admit act is bad but deny responsibility

  1. Accidents
  2. Defeasibility
    1. Lack of knowledge
    2. Lack of free will (duress, undue influence)
    3. Denial of intent
    4. Denial of knowledge of consequences
    5. Gravity disclaimer: I knew there was a problem but didn’t know it was this big a problem
    6. Intoxication, diminished capacity
  3. Biological Drives and other Fatalistic Forces
    1. Contrast “universalistic achievement orientation” vs. “particularistic ascriptive orientation” – blaming things on my gender, SES, neighborhood, etc.
    2. “men are like that” “typical woman” “it’s the booze speaking” “it’s the prozac speaking” “she’s from a broken family” "s/he's thinking with her/his ___"
    3. What can you do? A girl's gotta…
    4. When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.
  4. Scapegoating
    1. Connects with existing status hierarchies. Reflects them.


Justifications – words that neutralize act or consequences

Recognize the act is wrong BUT in THIS circumstance on this occasion it’s different

  1. Denial of injury – “doesn’t hurt anyone” “he can afford it” “it was just among friends” “it was a joke”
  2. Denial of victim – victim deserved it…
    1. Proximate foes = people who have hurt me
    2. Incumbents of normatively discrepant roles = e.g., gays, the poor, pimps, etc.
    3. Groups with tribal stigma
    4. Distant foes = e.g., reds, politicians, the rich
    5. Objects
      1. Associated with above
      2. Neutral or ambiguously owned
      3. Objects with low or polluted value
  3. Condemnation of condemners – others do worse things
  4. Appeal to loyalties – the act served a higher good
  5. Sad stories – compare narratives in Mason-Schrock

Honoring Accounts

Accounts, as pieces of "talk," are interactive. They only exist, in a manner of speaking, in the space between us. (By contrast, techniques of neutralization are things an actor tells herself to relieve any internalized resistance she might have to a behavior.) If an account is honored equilibrium is restored to the relationship, and the flow of exchange begins again, if not, the infraction stands and the relationship can be harmed or changed or destroyed.

Members of a social circle: friends, kin, etc., accept accounts that strangers would not. Delinquents, criminals, amongst themselves give accounts that others would not accept.

The acceptability of an account depends on its according with 'what everyone knows'..

Unreasonable and illegitimate accounts: not honored when account does seem adequate to the gravity of the situation, to appeals to an unacceptable 'vocabulary of motives'.

Strategies for Avoiding Accounts

Whether a call for an account is honored can be up for grabs. A number of techniques can put off the demand.

Mystification : “It’s a long story….” There is an account but I can’t tell you. (Sherlock Holmes with Watson: "Well you see Watson, it was like this"…)
Referral : “You need to talk to my boss…”

Ambiguous and generic accounts: "Mistakes were made…" Or “there are some complications….” Charismatic leaders, doctors, lawyers, spies.

Identity switching

  • Where were you?
  • None of you're business, you're a wife.
  • What kind of father are you?
  • I'm a man - and you're a woman.


The Negotiation of Identities

Why does it seem like there is a contest involved in the negotiation of identity? Because there is. "Every account is a manifestation of the underlying negotiation of identities." These identities are relative to one another and relative to membership in a community. When human beings bump into one another they act out a drama that answers questions such as "who are you?" and "why are you here?" and the drama involves agreeing on answers based on how we treat one another and how we explain how we treat one another.

Accounts, Reasons, and Motives

Lecture I

Social life is an uncluttered, orderly thing because the person voluntarily stays away from the places and topics and times where he is not wanted and where he might be disparaged for going. He cooperates to save his face, finding that there is much to be gained from venturing nothing. (Erving Goffman (IR, 43))
The differing reasons men give for their actions are not themselves without reasons. (C. Wright Mills (SAVM, 904))


Crude methodological individualism treats individual as self-contained unit with internal wants, desires, values, fears, appetites, etc. S/he surveys the environment, assesses conditions, sends signals, etc. May engage in deceit, but only exceptionally. There is no performative aspect to this model of the social world. In it, things are very much as they seem.

IN the reading that we omitted (from George Herbert Mead's Mind, Self, and Society) we would have learned about his theory of the social genesis of the self. For Mead, a key developmental step occurs when we learn to "take the role of the other." My friend Eviatar tells the story of how, when it was his turn to get the kids ready for school in the morning, he would present his pre-schooler with a selection of three outfits and ask her which she wanted to wear. One day, after making her choice, she started laughing. When he asked her what was the matter, she replied, "I bet you thought I was going to choose the other one!" In this remarkable moment he witnessed her first attempt to be open about having thought not only about what she wanted but about what he was thinking about what she was thinking.

For Mead, socialization is a gradual process of internalizing the likely reactions of "others" to specific acts. At first we have specific others in mind ("mommy won't like it if I do that" or "she'll bring me more milk if I cry"). These anticipated reactions become the meaning of the action for us. After a time, we build up for ourselves a sort of average or "generalized" other and we come to have a stock of "meanings" for our various behaviors quite apart from any particular other interactant.


Consider what is going on when an act is not questioned by those who observe it. The act is taken as routine, expected. It makes sense in the context of the ongoing situation. Does this mean that none of the parties present either impute or avow a motive for the action? Or is everyone doing so "automatically"?

Why don't you have your paper today? It was, after all, due. To this question there are many possible "actual" answers – that is literal explanations as to why on a certain day you are not in possession of a five page paper to turn in. There is, however, a smaller set of explanations that is culturally acceptable. I was sick, had other class work, didn't realize, etc. What about, I went out drinking with my friends on Saturday night instead of staying home and working on this assignment? Or I worked on it a bit but I think I'm just not smart enough to see the assignment through. Or "it was hard."


  • "That's the drugs speaking…."
  • "I'm not really like that…."
  • "Don't do that, it's rude…."

Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive

"Within the perspective under consideration, the verbalized motive is not used as an index of something in the individual but as a basis of inference for a typical vocabulary of motives of a situated action" (909.9).

This paper can be put in Zerubavelian terms. First, there is not doubt that there are such things as universal human wants and needs (food, sex, etc.). And it is also the case that motives can be completely idiosyncratic (we might say that being human involves the possibility of being arbitrary, spontaneous, and capricious). Just the same, there remains a large open space in between these in which our motivations for doing things are derived from the situations we find ourselves in.
Thus, Mills' paper might be seen as another chapter in Social Mindscapes, perhaps called "."

At the same time, however, Mills' paper lies very much in Goffmanian territory (even if it predates Goffman's earliest published work by about 15 years). In this sense, Mills is writing about a particular part of the mundane order of face to face interaction (though his analysis does not limit itself to the face to face in any explicit way).
Definition: "motives are the terms with which interpretation of conduct by social actors proceeds" (904). There are reasons for our reasons and these reasons are as often outside ourselves as inside.

Socialization into a World/Role with its Associated Vocabulary of Motive

Business training.

Learning the vocabulary of victimhood, of recovery, of economic rationality, of psychobabble, of admin-speak, etc.

In every case, there is an implicit ontology of the soul – what makes one tick, what leanings and tickings are acceptable and what ones are not (both in contrast to those that are simply unimaginable).

Consider the vocabulary of motives surrounding "courtship" (to use a phrase) – is one looking to have fun, find a partner, cure loneliness, find support, get a good one? You can also marry a doctor, you know. For love or for money? Are you trying to make a good match? Were you attracted by his/her looks or personality? Could it possibly be his/her middle name? Or dog?

Motives as social currency (904)

Pointless to plumb for "real" motives. Still, we can study this phenomenon empirically: look at whole range of motives associated in practice with a given type of situation. Be aware that sets of motives vary over cultural space (between cultures, between social ranks, and between institutional realms) and social time (910).

Mixed or competing motives are often related to overlapping situational definitions. Role conflicts (912).

Vocabularies of Motive and Sociology of Knowledge

Although we are exploiting Mills for "micro" purposes, he was always most comfortable thinking about macro implications. Thus, he sees this as an investigation in the sociology of knowledge. Recall Marx's dictum that the ruling ideas of any era are the ideas of its ruling class. Mills briefly looks at psychoanalysis and Marxism and the origins of the vocabularies of motive that are their guiding frameworks. Once you get the "psychoanalytic terminology of motives, all other seem deceptive." Similarly, to adherents of Marxism, power, struggle and economic motives trump all others which are relegated to the realm of false consciousness (912.8).


Sykes and Matza

Their techniques are:

Their techniques are:

  1. denial of responsibility
    1. unintentional
    2. due to causes beyond one's control
    3. allows one to deviate without making a frontal assault on norms
  2. denial of injury
    1. mala per se vs. mala prohibita
    2. no one is hurt by action or victim can well afford it
  3. denial of victim
    1. victim transformed into wrongdoer, into deserving it, etc.
    2. perpetrator thinks of self as avenger
    3. Robin Hood syndrome
  4. condemnation of the condemners
    1. see condemners as hypocrites, etc.
  5. appeal to higher loyalties
    1. conflict of loyalties solved at the expense of victim or loyalty to law and society in favor of smaller group to which perpetrator owes some kind of allegiance. Psychologically we sometimes see people trying to take credit for their being faithful to the smaller group.

See also Sykes and Matza, Techniques of Neutralization