Political accountability in practice: a conversation analytic study of ministerial accountability towards the Scottish parliamentary committees
Ispas, Ileana Alexandra
This study examines political accountability within the context of ministerial accountability towards the Scottish parliamentary committees. A review of the existing literature on accountability identified striking discrepancies between different disciplinary perspectives. In particular, political science research (e.g. Mayer, 1999) focuses on describing the structural mechanisms available for constraining the behaviour of those being made accountable. This literature includes research on ministerial accountability (e.g. Flinders, 1991), although largely focusing on accountability towards the parliamentary Chamber rather than the committees. By contrast, the psychological literature does not focus on accountability, but rather on developing a classification of accounts (e.g. Scott and Lyman, 1968) doing the kind of work that is examined in political science under ‘accountability’ (i.e. providing excuses and justifications to explain problematic behaviours), and testing these accounts using experimental designs (e.g. Weiner et al., 1987). However, given its focus on classification and experimental designs, the psychological literature on accounts treats language as reified and abstract. A third (discourse and conversation analytic) research tradition uses recordings of real-life verbal interactions to examine the turn-by-turn unfolding of interactions (e.g. Atkinson and Drew, 1979), but few studies focus on accountability, and none specifically investigate political accountability. My study is the first to bridge the gap between these three disciplinary perspectives by examining the practice of political accountability through the turn-by-turn unfolding of interactions between ministers and members of Scottish parliamentary committees. The thesis aims to contribute to an understanding of democracy in action by providing an insight into the practical ways in which accountability is accomplished within this specific real-life setting. The corpus of data was compiled from 27 hours of video recordings of interactions between ministers and members of four Scottish parliamentary committees. I analysed the data using conversation analysis (CA). Use of CA led me to identify indirectness as a pervading characteristic of the ways in which challenges are formulated and attended to in the interactions between committee members and ministers, as well as a number of ways in which committee members and ministers attended to matters of stake and interest in relation to such challenges. In addition, CA has allowed an insight into the limits of accountability by showing how ministers can avoid answering particular questions. These findings stand in stark contrast to the political science literature, which emphasises the adversarial nature of interactions within parliamentary settings and the availability of mechanisms for holding ministers to account (e.g. parliamentary committees) without investigating the way in which these mechanisms are used in practice. Furthermore, these findings contribute to the psychological literature on accounts by investigating their use within a real-life setting, and to the discourse and conversation analytic literature by showing the way in which well-known conversational devices (e.g. footing) are adapted to suit the specific context of parliamentary committee meetings with ministers.