'It wasn't me, Guv. It was the System': MPs Expenses and Rhetorical Accounting Techniques

Research output: Contribution to conferenceUnpublished paper


The recent MPs expenses scandal represents an interesting empirical case of rhetorical accounting techniques whereby MPs were urged to account for their actions, in a very public way. Rhetorical accounts are usually (but not only) given when a moral code has been breached and often occur at some form of institutional interface. Moral codes are tied to particular times and places and so too are the accounts given when the code is breached. Related to this, social actors may select facts and interpret to fit a prior verdict on another’s moral character, a process which Garfinkel (1968) refers to as ‘the documentary method of interpretation’. For instance, public distrust of MPs as a social group can be confirmed by concentrating on their morally dubious expense claims. However, although the ‘vocabularies of motive’ (Mills, 1940) may change and the understanding/evaluation of an account is culturally defined and variable, the techniques themselves are standard, as much research in various settings and cultures has shown, although some are more appropriate in some settings that others. Essentially, an account is an attempt to assert a morally worthy self (usually after, but sometimes before, a morally questionable course of action) via the use of various techniques such as justifications, excuses (Lyman and Scott, 1968), disclaimers (Hewitt and Stokes, 1975), or attempting to neutralise the questionable behaviour (Sykes and Matza, 1957). This paper describes the tacit moral code as revealed in public reaction to MPs expense claims and applies the aforementioned techniques of accounting with reference to the MP’s accounts for their actions in an attempt to present a morally worthy self.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2009
EventNew Directions in Social Research - Edinburgh , United Kingdom
Duration: 22 Apr 200924 Apr 2009


ConferenceNew Directions in Social Research
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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