Social Accountability & Selfhood
by John Shotter
As we grow up into the changeable, still not fully determined world around us, we face the task of becoming accountable to those around us when they ask: “What are you doing?” For our actions draw their meaning from what we, as actors, see as their context. As very young children, it is accepted that many of our actions are playful and not in themselves contributory to the overall aims of our more adult activities. We only ‘come of age’ when, so to speak, ‘we know what we are doing, and why we are doing it’, that is, when we can bring those others to see our actions as we see them. In other words, the accounts we give of our actions are an aid to perception, enabling those puzzled by our actions to structure an otherwise indeterminate flow of activity as a sequence of recognizable events, i.e. as events already known about within our society’s ways of making sense of things. In becoming an autonomous adult, an accountable person, we need to develop a number of “ontological skills” — a skill at being a listener and a looker, at being an articulate speaker, at being sensitive to others feelings, and so on. But our growth to autonomy is not something we can do all on our own; it is a joint, social achievement. In 1984, I wrote: “The different chapters in this book each, to some extent, approach the same problem – that of what it is to be an autonomous, responsible person. Taken together, I hope they present a progressive story and each constitutes a part of a whole which is implicated within them all: that whole being what I have called ‘the ecology of everyday life’” (Shotter, 1984, p.ix) — now, I wish I had written: “the ecology of our everyday social lives together.”
The original book notes to Social Accountability and Selfhood – by John Shotter
This book tackles anew some of the most fundamental questions in psychology. What, as human beings, are we to one another? How should we treat one another as being? In what ways do we learn about our world?
John Shotter argues that our reality is constituted for us by the ways in which we render our activities accountable to one another in our daily social lives. Similarly, our ways of understanding and experiencing ourselves are a product of our learning to give acceptable accounts of ourselves to others; of our learning as children how to become persons, able to communicate about the world around us in a manner comprehensible to other persons.
Social psychologists should recognize that accountability is the basis of social life. In making his case John Shotter poses a radical challenge to all naively empirical theories of psychology.
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