Public and Private: Transparency and Responsibility

  • Mike SheaffEmail author


The long-contested boundary between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres gains renewed relevance as ideas of transparency and responsibility come to the fore in public policy discourse. These issues have special importance for understanding organisational failure, sometimes presented in terms of another binary, between ‘people’ and ‘systems’. With public mistrust of those in authority increasing, this chapter considers examples of past sociological studies of disasters to illustrate differing ways in which questions of responsibility and blame are addressed. Detailed attention is given to this in the context of the 1966 Aberfan disaster. The chapter ends by suggesting that while contemporary neoliberal discourses apparently favour responsibility and transparency, tensions between them, accompanied by uncertain boundaries between privacy and secrecy, can create a retreat from both.


Transparency Responsibility Neoliberal Entrepreneurial Public-private 


  1. Assinder, N. (1999, July 7). Blair Risks Row Over Public Sector. BBC News.
  2. Bailey, J. (2000). Some Meanings of “The Private” in Sociological Thought. Sociology, 34(3), 381–401.Google Scholar
  3. Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory, 7(1), 14–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bovens, M. (1998). The Quest for Responsibility: Accountability and Citizenship in Complex Organisations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Brewer, J. (2005). The Public and Private in C. Wright Mills’s Life and Work. Sociology, 39(4), 661–677.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Camdessus, M. (1997, November 13). Lessons from Southeast Asia. Singapore: International Monetary Fund Press Briefing.Google Scholar
  7. Davies, Sir H. E. (Chairman) (1967). Report of the Tribunal Appointed to Inquire into the Disaster at Aberfan on October 21st, 1966. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
  8. Davies, W. (2015). The Chronic Social: Relations of Control Within and Without Neoliberalism. New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory Politics, 84(85), 40–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dawe, A. (1970). The Two Sociologies. British Journal of Sociology, 21, 207–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Deleuze, G. (1992, October). Postscript on Societies of Control. October, 59, 3–7.Google Scholar
  11. Durkheim, E. (1893/1997). The Division of Labour in Society. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  12. Etzioni, A. (2010). Is Transparency the Best Disinfectant? The Journal of Political Philosophy, 18(4), 389–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Foucault, M. (1980). The Eye of Power. In C. Gordon (Ed.), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings (pp. 1972–1977). New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  14. Goffman, E. (1972). Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Social Order. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  15. HM Government. (2010). The Coalition: Our Programme for Government. London: Cabinet Office.Google Scholar
  16. Holmes, M. (2000). When Is the Personal Political? The President’s Penis and Other Stories. Sociology, 34(2), 305–321.Google Scholar
  17. Lemke. (2001). ‘The Birth of Bio-Politics’: Michel Foucault’s Lecture at the Collège de France on Neo-Liberal Governmentality. Economy and Society, 30(2), 190–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Maclean, I., & Johnes, M. (2000). Aberfan: Government and Disasters. Cardiff: Welsh Academic Press.Google Scholar
  19. McGuigan, J. (2014). The Neoliberal Self. Culture Unbound, 6, 223–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. McNay, L. (2009). Self as Enterprise: Dilemmas of Control and Resistance in Foucault’s the Birth of Biopolitics. Theory, Culture and Society, 26(6), 55–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Meijer, A. (2014). Transparency. In M. Bovens, R. E. Goodin, & T. Schillemans (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability (pp. 507–524). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Mill, J. S., & Lerner, M. (1965). Essential Works of John Stuart Mill. New York: Bantam Books.Google Scholar
  23. Moore, S. (2018). Towards a Sociology of Institutional Transparency: Openness, Deception and the Problem of Public Trust. Sociology, 52(2), 416–430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Morgan, G. (1986). Images of Organization. Beverley Hills: Sage.Google Scholar
  25. Pateman, C. (1989). The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  26. Perrow, C. (1999). Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Peters, M. (2001). Education, Enterprise Culture and the Entrepreneurial Self: A Foucauldian Perspective. Journal of Educational Enquiry, 2(2), 58–71.Google Scholar
  28. Power, M. (1999). The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Pyysiainen, J., Halpin, D., & Guilfoyle, A. (2017). Neoliberal Governance and ‘Responsibilization’ of Agents: Reassessing the Mechanisms of Responsibility-Shift in Neoliberal Discursive Environments. Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 18(2), 215–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Ribbens-McCarthy, J., & Edwards, R. (2001). Illuminating Meanings of “The Private” in Sociological Thought. Sociology, 35(3), 765–777.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Rose, N. (1992). Governing the Enterprising Self. In P. Heelas & P. Morris (Eds.), The Values of the Enterprise Culture: The Moral Debate (pp. 141–164). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  32. Rossler, B. (2005). The Value of Privacy (R. D. V. Glasgow, Trans.). Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  33. Secretary of State for Health. (2006). Our Health, Our Care, Our Say: A New Direction for Community Services. London: HMSO.Google Scholar
  34. Seidman, S. (1994). The New Social Movements and the Making of New Social Knowledges. In S. Seidman (Ed.), Contested Knowledge: Social Theory in the Postmodern Era. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  35. Simonet, D. (2011). The New Public Management Theory and the Reform of European Health Care Systems: An International Comparative Perspective. International Journal of Public Administration, 34(12), 815–826.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Thompson, D. F. (1980, December). Moral Responsibility of Public Officials: The Problem of Many Hands. The American Political Science Review, 74(4), 905–916A.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Thompson, J. B. (2011). Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private Life. Theory, Culture and Society, 28(4), 49–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Thompson, D. F. (2014, May). Responsibility for Failures of Government: The Problem of Many Hands. American Journal of Public Administration, 44(3), 259–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Tombs, S. (2018). The UK’s Corporate Killing Law: Un/Fit for Purpose? Criminology & Criminal Justice, 18(4), 488–507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Turner, B. (1976, September). The Organizational and Interorganizational Development of Disasters. Administrative Science Quarterly, 1, 378–397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Vaughan, D. (1990). Autonomy, Interdependence, and Social Control: NASA and the Space Shuttle Challenger. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35(2), 225–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Vaughan, D. (1996). The Challenger Launch Decision. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  43. Wacquant, L. (1992). Methodological Relationism. In P. Bourdieu & L. Wacquant (Eds.), An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge/Oxford: Polity Press/Blackwell.Google Scholar
  44. Wilensky, H. L. (1967). Organizational Intelligence. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  45. Williams, R. (1983). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Flamingo Press.Google Scholar
  46. Zerubavel, E. (1997). Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Law, Criminology & GovernmentUniversity of PlymouthPlymouthUK

Personalised recommendations