In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Apologies and Accounts

  • Introduction
  • Intellectual Foundations
  • Overviews
  • Apologies
  • Accounts

Communication Apologies and Accounts
Mariko Kotani
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0305


Apology is an action in which one admits the wrongfulness of an act and one’s responsibility for it in dealing with some type of problematic situation, such as interactional offenses in conversation, rule-breaking behaviors, embarrassment, violations of expectations, and social predicaments that can damage relationships. Account is another action in which one tries to explain such a situation so that one can transform the problematic quality of it. Apologies and accounts are both communication practices used to deal with problematic situations, and they can therefore be dealt with together. These two actions are ubiquitous in everyday lives, and studies on them, therefore, especially on apologies, abound across many disciplines. The concepts of apologies and accounts are important for three reasons. First, they help us understand the way in which society is maintained through individual conduct. By apologizing, one claims that one’s act was an exception to the rule, and, as a result, the original rule is sustained. Second, the concepts of apologies and accounts help us understand the way in which one restores one’s preferred image of self, or “face,” and the other’s face, as well as the relationship with the other. Third, these concepts help us explore culturally appropriate communication conduct. By engaging in apologies and accounts, one’s taken-for-granted views of what is wrong and what is acceptable can be revealed. Apologies have been studied in a variety of contexts (e.g., interpersonal, organizational, political, mediated, cultural) and in various fields, including philosophy, sociology, social psychology, sociolinguistics, cross-cultural pragmatics, applied linguistics, rhetoric, discourse analysis, conversation analysis, interpersonal communication, and intercultural communication. Because there has been far more research on the topic than could be covered in one article, this piece focuses on apologies and accounts mainly in interpersonal face-to-face settings, with an emphasis on literature in communication. It also touches on apologies made by political figures. For apologies in other public arenas (e.g., media and online apologies; corporate apologies in crisis communication; apologies in judicial, medical, religious, and international conflicts), see other sources, such as the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Image Repair Theory.”

Intellectual Foundations

The concept of apology can be traced back to apologia, the speech of self-defense in Greek rhetoric. Goffman 1971 was the first to give much attention to the action of apology in face-to-face interpersonal settings. Goffman introduced the notion of remedial work, in which one tries to change the meaning of an action that is potentially offensive to one that is acceptable; Three types of remedial work are accounts, apologies, and requests. The importance of studying accounts was brought to light in Mills 1940 and then elaborated on in Scott and Lyman 1968. Scott and Lyman made an important distinction between two types of accounts: excuses and justifications. Excuse is an action in which one admits the wrongful nature of an act but denies one’s full responsibility, whereas a justification is an action in which one admits the responsibility but denies that the act itself was wrong. Later, Schonbach 1980 added two categories of accounts to excuses and justifications: concessions, including acknowledgment of responsibility and restitution, and refusals. Note that in this classification, apology is considered a type of accounts, while Goffman 1971 treated accounts, apologies, and requests as three types of remedial work. Hewitt and Stokes 1975 introduced yet another strategy, disclaimer, that is used prospectively with the anticipation of problematic events, rather than retrospectively. The situations that give rise to these strategies are problematic situations that, according to Hewitt and Hall 1973, block or interfere with conduct and involve social disorder for which an explanation is available. Stokes and Hewitt 1976 introduced the notion of aligning actions to collectively refer to all verbal efforts to restore meaningful interaction in problematic situations, including motive talk, accounts, remedial interchanges, and disclaimers. Ethnomethodology, introduced in Garfinkel 1967, argues that members of a society engage in actions as an ongoing, practical accomplishment, and these actions are observable and reportable, and thus accountable. It treats members’ descriptive accounts of their mundane everyday affairs as objects of sociological inquiries when such accounts are interpreted in relation to the contexts in which they occur. See Heritage 1984 for understanding an ethnomethodological view of accounts. Although ethnomethodology’s sense of accounts is different from other works cited here in that it deals with ordinary explanations of mundane events, not necessarily about problematic situations, it became the basis for conversation analytic studies on accounts and apologies.

  • Garfinkel, H. 1967. Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    The classic that first introduced ethnomethodology, in which “accountability” is one of the central concepts.

  • Goffman, E. 1971. Relations in public: Microstudies of the public order. New York: Basic Books.

    Foundational work on apology; the chapter “Remedial Interchanges” is especially relevant. Introduces the concept of “remedial work” that can be accomplished by three main devices: accounts, apologies, and requests. Treats a remedial interchange as basically consisting of four moves: remedy (account, apology, request), relief, appreciation, and minimization.

  • Heritage, J. 1984. Garfinkel and ethnomethodology. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Essential reading for understanding Garfinkel’s ideas, including ethnomethodology’s historical and intellectual background in sociology, its sense of accounts and accounting, and a comprehensive overview of conversation analysis.

  • Hewitt, J. P., and P. M. Hall. 1973. Social problems, problematic situations, and quasi-theories. American Sociological Review 38:367–374.

    DOI: 10.2307/2094359

    Contains a definition of problematic situations, but the main focus of the article is quasi-theories, which, according to the authors, are ad hoc explanations offered in problematic situations to give them order and hope.

  • Hewitt, J. P., and R. Stokes. 1975. Disclaimers. American Sociological Review 40:1–11.

    DOI: 10.2307/2094442

    Introduces the notion of disclaimers, which are given in anticipation of potentially problematic events in future, arguing that Mill’s vocabularies of motives and Scott and Lyman’s account concepts deal with problematic situations retrospectively about the past event. Illustrates types of disclaimers and their responses and discusses how actions such as disclaimers bring problematic conduct into line with cultural constraints.

  • Mills, C. W. 1940. Situated actions and vocabularies of motives. American Sociological Review 5:904–913.

    DOI: 10.2307/2084524

    Foundational work that had a major impact on subsequent studies of accounts. Does not use the term accounts but instead discusses verbalized motives. Rather than treating motive as an internal psychological object, this article focuses on motives actually verbalized by actors. Argues that vocalized motives are situated and should be considered appropriate in historic and specified situations, and thus an object of sociological inquiry.

  • Schonbach, P. 1980. A category system for account phases. European Journal of Social Psychology 10:195–200.

    DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2420100206

    This short research note extends and modifies Scott and Lyman’s categories of accounts. On the basis of the author’s exploratory studies using vignettes of failure events, this article adds two types of accounts to excuses and justifications: concessions and refusals.

  • Scott, M. B., and S. M. Lyman. 1968. Accounts. American Sociological Review 33:46–62.

    DOI: 10.2307/2092239

    The most influential work on accounts. Defines accounts, distinguishes accounts from explanations, and discusses their two types: excuses and justifications. Also describes forms of excuses and justifications, discusses how the honoring of accounts depends on the background expectancies of the interactants, illustrates linguistic styles of accounts and strategies for avoiding accounts, and makes suggestions for future research, including taking the speech community as a unit of analysis.

  • Stokes, R., and J. P. Hewitt. 1976. Aligning actions. American Sociological Review 41:838–849.

    DOI: 10.2307/2094730

    Aiming to bridge the gap between structural theory and interactionist theory in sociology, this article introduces the notion of aligning actions to fill the gap between culturally recognized ways of acting and the ongoing action actually taking place.

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