Power and Accountability


Human agency has two sides. Power is the capacity to act, the flexibility to choose, the freedom to move. Accountability is the duty to reveal and explain our actions, and the reasons behind them, and to accept any potential consequences. This network brings together researchers working on the relation between power and accountability at different scales and from different perspectives, including social, cultural, political, linguistic, philosophical, and psychological. Questions include: Why is there a moral intuition that power and accountability should scale together? When and why is it okay to punish or reward a person for someone else’s actions? What are the proper units of accountability?


The goal is to spark constructive interdisciplinary debate and progress in this emerging research area, through presentations of our current projects, in-depth discussion of them in light of the network’s themes, culminating in symposia (involving visiting scholars as well) and possible publications arising.


When we hear the words ‘power’ and ‘accountability’ our thoughts may go first to high-stakes political and legal realms. Edward Snowden’s recent actions, whose global consequences are still playing out, were motivated by his dismay at the ‘divorce of power from accountability’ in state-sanctioned behaviour. Our simplest moral intuitions tell us that it is wrong to operate freely without ever having to reveal or explain one’s reasons for action. This is true not only at macro scales of history and state, but also in realms of human agency at micro levels.

The need to strike the right balance between power and accountability goes to the heart of what is unique about human sociality. Take language in everyday use: Just by asking you the time, I’m exercising power by obliging you to respond, and I can hold you to account if you stay silent. Or in human development: a constant tension in socialization is the need to appropriately calibrate the child’s degree of accountability with their degree of control and rational understanding. The toddler lacks self-control and awareness of norms, so we do not hold her to account for certain behavior that we would not tolerate from adults. Then there are the cases where power and accountability appear to be mismatched. In competitive sport: ordinary people who happen to be citizens of the losing team’s nation had little if any power over the match’s outcome, and yet they may be taunted for being losers. Or in the blood feud: a grandson is held to account (or at least, made to pay) for something his grandfather did, an action that the grandson had no power over, and probably little understanding of.

As these examples and many others show, the relations between power and accountability are not only diverse and complex, they can be highly consequential in our lives. In public discourse there is constant debate about accountability: demands for it, questions about it, and disagreements as to when and to what extent it applies. Understanding the dynamic relation between power and accountability is essential to understanding the dynamics of human social life. Each of the scholars involved in this network is ultimately concerned with transforming new understandings of power and accountability into meaningful outcomes.

Some elements of accountability

The concept of being accountable is a complex one, and part of the goal of this network is to explicate the idea so that it may be ‘translated’ across the disciplines represented. Network members are exploring its underlying conceptual elements, including at least these:

  • a what: an action or set of actions; some event or state of affairs
  • a why: a reason or reasons behind those actions, events or states
  • a record of (1) and (2); the obligation to keep that record
  • the right to demand that record be revealed
  • the obligation to disclose that record publicly to those who demand
  • the obligation to explain (1) and (2) in a way that is consistent with (3)
  • the possibility for any such explanation to be evaluated and sanctioned
  • the possibility for correction or adjustment of future action

Note that elements (4-7) show that the idea is an essentially social one, invoking rights and duties in communication and social relations.

“Government Accountability Office Building” | Image Credit: Raymond Bryson (October 2011) https://www.flickr.com/


Co-ordinator: Nick Enfield

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