Imaginaries and Materialities of Accountability: Exploring practices, collectives and spaces
Location 121
Date and Start Time 03 September, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 2


  • Dawn Goodwin (Lancaster University) email
  • Vicky Singleton (Lancaster University) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This track considers the sociotechnologies of accountability. We ask:

• How is accountability being done, challenged and remade?

• How do practices of accountability variously distribute responsibility?

• How might accountability be done differently and what circumstances are necessary to do so?

Long Abstract

This track invites contributions on the complex relations and practices that constitute sociotechnologies of accountability. There has been a proliferation of technologies of auditing, responsibilising, surveillance and evaluation in many areas, including health, environment, academia and economic and political systems. Recent 'crises of accountability' in these areas have resulted in moves that both increase regulation and control, while also devolving and individualising responsibility. Increasingly, workers should not only discharge their duties conscientiously but be seen to be doing so, and record having done so. In this sense, accountability is conceptualised as a public, witnessed phenomenon. Yet, such formulations are considered dissatisfactory in their erasure of embedded, embodied and collective practices, and because accountabilities crystallise on particular actors at particular times, strengthening the connection between action and outcome thus reflecting an overly deterministic impression of decision-making.

Inspired by Donna Haraway's (2007) assertion that accountabilities are mundane, prosaic, effects of relations, rather than ethical abstractions, we invite contributions which:

• Explore how accountability is being done, challenged and remade.

• Explore how relations and practices of accountability variously distribute responsibility.

Further, if accountability is conceptualised as enacted in collectives this suggests the possibility of political intervention about which accountability to 'do'. Hence we also seek to promote theorising and empirical research about imaginaries and materialities that (re)produce restrictive and oppressive accountabilities, as well as those that open spaces for transformative accountabilities. We ask:

• How might accountability be done differently?

• What circumstances and provisions would need to be in place to do it differently?


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Layers of accountability and surveillance in a foundling room

Authors: Dara Ivanova (Erasmus University Rotterdam)  email
Iris Wallenburg (Erasmus University Rotterdam)  email
Roland Bal (Erasmus University Rotterdam)  email

Short Abstract

We analyze the existence of a foundling room in Holland, where anonymous child abandonment is illegal. The room is a social experiment, where different accountabilities are enacted in the public eye. We show how this public enactment creates and legitimates new ontologies and practices.

Long Abstract

Anonymous child abandonment is illegal in the Netherlands, yet yearly an average of 6 infants are unsafely abandoned (NIDAA). Some do not survive. To address this problem, a non-governmental organization created a foundling room, where one can abandon a baby anonymously.

We analyze this room as a place of various surveillances and accountabilities. We focus on the links between the room's material affordances and surrounding practices. In our analysis we conceive of the room as an experimental infrastructure (Jensen and Morita 2015), which reconfigures the field and gives rise to "new ontologies" (Pickering 2008). Although the room is meant to be an alternative to state-channel abandonment, its legitimation is its claim of encouraging control through surveillance. Its materialities are placed strategically to avoid anonymity, or (as its mere existence) to suggest it. As a temporary public experiment, accounting for its practices is a balance of seeing and not seeing. The room's 'ways of seeing' legitimate its existence to the public and the law, while its 'ways of unseeing' attract the people it tries to reach. All the while the legal debate over the room's existence carves out space for new practices.

Using an ethnographic approach, we conduct interviews, observations and archival research. Our goal is to show empirically how accountability is being done, challenged and remade as a public experiment and how socio-material practices of regulation emerge. We contribute to debates on materiality and control/surveillance, as well as on spaces for transformative accountabilities.

Accountability and Emotions in Public Sector Organizations

Authors: Cecilie Glerup (University of Copenhagen)  email
Lise Justesen (Copenhagen Business School)  email

Short Abstract

This paper shows how new accountability ideals in public sector organizations create feelings of discomfort such as blame, anxiety, guilt and shame among public servants. We suggest that the new ideals may endanger both the professional judgement and the work environment in the public sector.

Long Abstract

Along with recent public reforms inspired by New Public Management and Responsive Government ideals follow new accountability ideals and relations in public sector organizations (Strathern 2003). Some studies (e.g. Skærbæk 2009; Gendron et al. 2009; Kurunmäki 2004) have shown how these accountability relations change the professional identities of public professionals. But there is little focus on how new accountability relations generate effects at the emotional level among public sector employees and how this, in turn, affect work and well being in the organizations. The scarce attention is surprising because, as John Roberts puts it,: "… the scene of accountability is almost invariably highly charged emotionally…" (Roberts 2009, p. 961).

In this paper we argue that along with new organizational accountability relations also follow strong affective reactions from the individual employees. Based on ethnographic and interview studies in the Danish public sector; a science department at the University of Copenhagen and ministries subjected to performance audits, we investigate how public professionals perform in order to live up to ambiguous organizational accountability ideals. We show how this, on the one hand, implies new daily responsibilities, different tasks and novel distributions of work (Glerup 2015), but, on the other hand, simultaneously produce serious "discomfort" (Justesen and Skærbæk, 2006) and strong emotions such as shame, guilt, anxiety and blame among the employees. Based on the empirical studies, we suggest that the accountability ideals and -relations may endanger both the professional judgement and the work environment in public sector organizations.

Healthcare 'scandals', inquiries, and new and old enactments of accountability

Author: Dawn Goodwin (Lancaster University)  email

Short Abstract

Inquiry reports into healthcare ‘scandals’ repeatedly point to culture as a cause of healthcare failures. I examine how such reports aim to make culture visible and accountable and reflect on the forms of accountability they enact; transformative, conservative, individualising, and collectivising.

Long Abstract

In the UK, healthcare 'scandals' and subsequent inquiries repeatedly point to the pivotal role culture plays in producing and sustaining healthcare failures. Most notably, the Francis report (2013), which documents the failings at Mid-Staffordshire Trust said to have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of patients between 2005 and 2009, was overwhelming a comment on the culture that existed at the hospital. Mid-Staffordshire Trust was characterised as having an 'insidious negative culture involving a tolerance of poor standards' and a culture of fear, secrecy and bullying (2013: 10).

More recently, the Kirkup Report (2015), which documents the failings in maternity care at Furness General Hospital, provides a stark illustration of how uncompromising working relationships between different professional groups, unwillingness to question taken-for-granted practices, denial of deficits in care, and zealous pursuit of professional ideology can combine to produce an organisational culture so dysfunctional as to culminate in the deaths of eleven babies and one mother. The Kirkup report echoes the denial, lack of candour and culture of secrecy found at Mid-Staffordshire Trust.

This paper explores enactments of accountability in the Kirkup report; how it seeks to make culture visible and accountable. I question what it means to make culture accountable and examine the tension between individual and collective incarnations of accountability. I position inquiry reports as a prominent new sociotechnology of accountability and reflect on the forms of accountability they enact; how they are transformative, conservative, individualising, and collectivising.

Shading the Maps of Responsibilities

Author: Peter Fuzesi (Lancaster University)  email

Short Abstract

My presentation explores how becoming a user implicates specific maps of responsibilities (Akrich, 1992). Tracing the work of adapting users and artefacts in personalised assistive technologies, can unsettle the naturalised figure of user and relations of use and valuation.

Long Abstract

My presentation explores how becoming a user entails becoming accountable; the exchange of technological artefacts encompasses passing on obligations, what technologies can do also delineate what users should do. To understand how does this re-assignment of responsibility is imagined and materialise in manuals, designs and forms of exchange, and what is naturalised in the figure of user, I revisit Akrich's notion of the script to unpack the idea of maps of responsibilities (1994), and how these are contested and re-made in the case of assistive technologies.

Personalised technologies for disabled people offer an intriguing case of negotiating the user's role, insofar as here the individual is often not alone, she is accompanied by medical professionals who take active part in selecting and purchasing technologies but also making adaptations, conducting maintenance work and monitoring by establishing an ongoing care relation with the client. Comparing these maps between artefact and user are drawn differently can problematise and refigure largely naturalised figures such as user and (commodified) device. The participation of medical professionals not only blurs the boundary between work and consumption, development and use, but unlike in the case of commodities, marks the work goes into making artefacts and users connect (Star and Strauss, 1999; Suchman, 2013).

In sum, recognising the work of adapting users to artefacts can unsettle certain naturalised relations of use and valuation, and point not only how becoming a user is the site of implicit ordering, but how commodified technologies rely on making users responsible.

Surfacing 'Surfing': Accounting for Digital Practices Within the Home

Author: Murray Goulden (University of Nottingham)  email

Short Abstract

This talk examines the implications of a technology of accounting within the home - a tool which logs and visualises Internet use. Ostensibly a means of empowering individuals with knowledge and control of their data, such tools potentially establish a new set of conditions for accounting work.

Long Abstract

Systems of data logging and retrieval have always been central components of accountability within the professional sphere. This talk will explore the implications of such a technology within the domestic sphere, in the form of an Internet logging and visualisation tool. This technology was created under the noble aspiration of giving individuals knowledge and control of their own data, data that is currently harvested by digital service providers for profit, and elements of the state for monitoring. The project this study is a part of is one of many similar programmes seeking to nurture a digital citizenry, whose empowerment stems from the conviction that 'data is power'. Internet use in the home has traditionally been subject to 'natural accountability' (Garfinkel 1967) just as any other practice is, but contemporary technologies - particularly mobile devices - render many digital activities unobservable to others (consider, for example, the difficulty parents face in surveilling the activities of their children online). Furthermore, the mundane and deeply embedded nature of Internet use in daily activities even limits observability of one's own activities. The talk will consider existing accounting practices around Internet use within domestic contexts, before analysing the accounting work conducted by family members when their activities are surfaced by network logs. The talk will conclude with a discussion of what the consequences of such technologies of accountability in the home might be, where hierarchies of power are multifaceted and dynamic.

Counting on Others or Counting Incidents? Practices of Accountability in a Nuclear Research Center

Author: Nicolas Rossignol (University of Liège)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on a 40-months ethnographic research stay at the Belgian Nuclear Research Center, this paper empirically situates practices of accountability and questions the ‘managerialization’ of safety via the use of an Incident Reporting System.

Long Abstract

The growing use of Incident Reporting Systems (IRS) in aviation, hospitals and high-risk facilities such as nuclear power plants aims at improving the safety of these socio-technical systems by fostering organizational learning about past incidents. Our 40-months ethnographic research stay at the Belgian Nuclear Research Center SCK-CEN suggests that this aim is institutionally promoted while the use of IRS also actively contributes to disciplining and responsabilizing individuals on the one hand, and rendering the center collectively accountable toward society at large on the other hand. In this paper, we explore variously enacted forms of accountability (e.g. individuals taking responsibility for an incident, the organization transmitting detailed logs of incidents to Regulatory Authorities) and discuss how these relate to, or oppose, received and alternative views of safety. We argue that individuals resist the IRS to nurture relationships of shared accountability in which they count on each other, while managers seek to transform societal accountability into managerial accountancy. By empirically situating practices of accountability and questioning the appropriateness of 'managerializing' safety, the paper contributes to understand what sustains the current widespread commitment to the idea of incident reporting.

Shaping accountabilities for erroneously enacted environmental evidence

Author: Ingmar Lippert (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

I present ethnographic vignettes of carbon accounting practices in which members categorised some of the environmental evidence as erroneous. I analyse the enactment of erroneously evidence in terms of ontological/ontic politics, wondering how these politics shaped abilities to account and respond.

Long Abstract

Drawing on fieldwork in and around a transnational Fortune 50 company's "corporate social responsibility" unit, this paper opens up a range of situations that took part in enacting the company's evidence of its impact on global warming. This evidence was implicated in at least two significant modes of accountability: first, the company was performing itself as a socially and environmentally accountable and responsible "corporate citizen"; second, the company was inhabiting a discourse of evidence-based decision-making, requiring the evidence to be produced accountably. I analyse a limited set of ethnographic vignettes of situated work practice that (con)figured the company's accounting for their carbon emissions. Common to all these situations was that the environmental realities enacted have been categorised by some members as erroneous or as not good enough. In this paper I am interested, thence, in the enactment of such erroneous environmental evidence by and in heterogeneous collectives. To explore these enactments I experiment with contrasting analyses of these practices as ontological (Mol) or ontic (Verran) politics whilst focusing on how these politics shape and distribute the (im)possibilities for particular modes of relating to, responding to and accounting for the various actants involved in the work, including to/for the discursively imagined "real" carbon.

Turning Scientific Authorship into an Accountability Technology: the Rise of Contributorship in Biomedicine

Author: David Pontille (MINES ParisTech - CNRS)  email

Short Abstract

Considered as mere “units” to be counted in scientometrics circles, authors’ names are simultaneously a powerful technology of accountability in science. I investigate how authorship in biomedicine has been reframed so as to restore forms of individual responsibility in collaborative projects.

Long Abstract

When it comes to sociotechnologies of accountability, a diversity of rating systems, league tables, rankings, metrics and performance indicators generally come to the fore. Interestingly, previous studies of audit cultures have regularly overlooked a mundane, yet powerful, technology of accountability in academia: authors' names on scientific papers. Merely considered as "units" to be counted in scientometrics circles, names have also raised iterative concerns since the 1950s in biomedicine. With the rise of team research, multiple authorship and misconduct cases, the attribution of credit and the ascription of responsibility have been challenged to such an extend that, to some researchers, journal editors, and research administrators, authorship does not properly account for who did what anymore.

Drawing on a series of various documents (editorials, letters to editors, conferences proceedings, disclosure forms of contributions…), I will examine the way the opening up of authorship has resulted in the experimentation of alternative procedures of attribution, the amendment of professional guidelines, and the implementation of innovative tools. In so doing, I will investigate the steps by which authorship in biomedicine has been progressively turned into a transparency device and an accountability technology. Two side-effects will also be emphasized: a growing body of works in ethics and the stabilization of a vocabulary to stigmatize malpractices. Such a moral crusade to restore individual accountability in collaborative projects eventually enacted a politics of transparency that distributes various forms of responsibility, and ascribes a peculiar status both to scientific authors and to journals.

The Knowing/Accounting Disjunction: The Case of Public Management Account-Making

Authors: Oz Gore (University of Leicester)  email
Chris Mclean (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

Highlighting the divergent concerns provoked when analysts value a project, the paper problematizes the equation of ‘knowing’ and ‘accounting’. Drawing on Deleuze, it proposes to see accountability work as a process of morphogenesis rather than an input-output procedure of production.

Long Abstract

With New Managerialism's spread accounting is gradually becoming the preferred way of public organisations to know, reflect, evidence, or refer to their worlds. When studying evidence-making and accountability practices in a public management consultancy in North England, it became apparent that accountability work is driven by, directed at, and provoked in a multiplicity of accountability spaces all at once. From certain angles, 'accountability entities' (numbers, rations, tables, analysts, the futures of a project, etc.) emerge through a concern with accuracy. From others, accountability enacts not accuracy but adherence to standards, methods and rules. Yet from others, it is effectivity, or organisational impact that seems to be at stake. And as these are not necessarily commensurable, the very possibility of equating accounting with knowing becomes problematic.

This paper engages with the disjunction of knowing and account-making by asking how should we imagine these ways of knowing which bring about divergent kinds of objectivities and subjectivities? To address the question head-on, it closely unpacks an episode when analysts value a policy project and 'credible', 'big', or 'working' numbers surfaced and were challenged.

The paper builds on an 18-month ethnographic study and draws on Deleuze's metaphysics to call into question traditional imagining of accounting as an input-output process of knowledge production (discreet things go into devices and out of them). It concludes by suggesting viewing accountability work as a process of morphogenesis, one not reliant on 'producer' or 'products' of knowledge and which can open new venues for accountability to be made from.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.