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Grassroots accountability: the practical and symbolic aspects of performance

Millar, John; Mueller, Frank; Carter, Chris

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Chris Carter


Purpose: Our study provides a theoretical framework for interdisciplinary accounting scholars interested in performances of accountability in front of live audiences. Design/methodology: This is a processual case study of ‘Falkirk in crisis’ that covers the period from September 2021 to September 2022. The focus of this paper is two fan Q&A sessions held in October 2021 and June 2022. Both are naturally occurring discussions between two groups such as we find in previous research on routine events and accountability. We suggest that this is a theoretically consequential case study. Findings: A key insight of the paper is to identify the practical and symbolic dimensions of accountability. We demonstrate the need to align these two dimensions when responding to questions: a practical question demands a practical answer, and a symbolic question requires a symbolic answer. Secondly, we argue that most fields contain conflicting logics and our paper highlights that a complete performance of accountability needs to cover the different conflicting logics within the field. In our case, this means paying full attention to both the communitarian and results logics. A third finding is that a performance of accountability cannot succeed if the audience rejects attempts to impose an unpalatable definition of the situation. If these three conditions are not met, the performance is bound to fail. Research implications: An important theoretical contribution of this study is its application of Jeffery Alexander’s work on political performance to public performances of accountability. Practical implications: We suggest that the phenomenon we have explored (what we term “grassroots accountability”) has broad applicability to any situation in organizational or civic life where the power apex of an organization is required to engage with a group of informed and committed stakeholders – the ‘community’. For those who find themselves in the position of the fans in our study, the observations we have set out in the empirical narrative can serve as a useful practical guide. Attempts to answer a practical complaint with a symbolic answer (or vice versa) should be challenged as evasive. Social implications: We are studying an engagement of elite actors with ordinary (or grassroots) actors. Our study shows important rules of engagement, including the importance of respecting the power of practical questions and the need to engage with these questions appropriately. Originality: This paper offers a new vista for interdisciplinary accounting by synthesizing the accountability literature with the political performance literature. Specifically, the paper employs Jeffery Alexander’s work on practical and symbolic performance to study the microprocesses underpinning successful and unsuccessful performances of accountability.


Millar, J., Mueller, F., & Carter, C. (2023). Grassroots accountability: the practical and symbolic aspects of performance. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal,

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jan 5, 2023
Online Publication Date Mar 28, 2023
Publication Date 2023
Deposit Date Jan 6, 2023
Publicly Available Date Jan 6, 2023
Journal Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal
Print ISSN 0951-3574
Publisher Emerald
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Public URL


Accepted Journal Article (526 Kb)

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Copyright Statement
This author accepted manuscript is deposited under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC) licence. This means that anyone may distribute, adapt, and build upon the work for non-commercial purposes, subject to full attribution. If you wish to use this manuscript for commercial purposes, please contact

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