Building Image: The Presentation of Self
Accounting for a Spoiled Identity
Among the ways that a
person with a spoiled identity can try to restore her or his image is to provide an
account, a verbal explanation of the behavior that disrupted the social order.
For example, 114 convicted
rapists interviewed by Diana Scully and Joseph Marolla came up with a variety of accounts
meant to protect their self-image as decent people.1
Although some of the men admitted they had raped their victims, many either denied they
were guilty or defined their actions as essentially "nonrapes."
Some of the rapists
attempted to justify their behavior by presenting the victim in a light that made her
appear responsible, regardless of their own actions. Some of the men stated that nice
girls don't get raped. Some defined women as seductresses, claiming that women say no when
they mean yes or that they actually enjoy being raped.
justifications are buttressed by a cultural environment that views women as sexual
commodities and that trivializes and sometimes even condones rape.
Indeed, to be acceptable,
all accounts of deviant behavior must fall within the range of believable explanations
within a given society. Citing "family problems" as a cause of one's depression
and listlessness can work as an excuse only if the audience understands what "family
problems" implies. In a society that has no conception of coincidence or chance, a
person would be unlikely to explain an identity-threatening, disruptive act as
Within a society, some
accounts may be so overused (for example, "The dog ate my homework") that they
are immediately considered unreasonable, even if they are true.
Other accounts are deemed
illegitimate because the seriousness of the infraction exceeds the credibility of the
account. If you cite blocked vision as the reason you ran over a neighbor's tomato plant
with your car, that account might be accepted. However, if you ran over the neighbor's
child, such an account would fall far short of acceptability.
The acceptability of
accounts, then, is specific to particular groups or situations. A group is able to
maintain the loyalty of its members in part because it provides a context in which they
can talk about the reasons for their conduct and have their reasons confirmed by others.
For instance, if you
didn't do your homework, "I was hungry, so I went for pizza" may be a legitimate
excuse among your friends but would fail if you tried to use it with your instructor.2 A company president who explains the low salaries he or she pays
by citing market pressures and profit margins may be supported by business colleagues but
scoffed at by his or her employees.
Accounts have become an
institutionalized part of everyday life. In fact, some organizations have made
systematized accounts part of their day-to-day operations. The Metropolitan Transportation
Authority has an office in New York's Grand Central Station that provides commuters with
written notes verifying that a train they were traveling on was delayed. In an era when
downsizing has made many workers especially tense about their jobs, such notes provide
official alibis that they can give to skeptical bosses.
1Scully, D., & Marolla, J. 1984. "Convicted
rapists' vocabulary of motive: Excuses and justifications." Social Problems,
2Bernstein, S. 1990. "Getting it done: Notes on student
fritters." In J. W. Heeren & M. Mason (Eds.), Sociology: Windows on society.
Los Angeles: Roxbury.
David Newman and Rebecca Smith.
(Created October 7, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.