Attributing responsibility in the sense of moral responsibility, accountability, blame or shame, is a social process. As everything has multiple necessary conditions, i.e. causes, highlighting a specific (group of) actor(s) is always a choice which could be different in principle. Responsibility is constructed within society as well as in the public sphere.
The approach of discursive actor attribution analysis aims at a standardized content analysis focusing on public interpretation processes in which actors relate phenomena to actors in the sense of attribution. The unit of analysis in this approach is the actor attribution. The actor attribution is the reconstructed answer to the question: “Who is made responsible by whom for what?” The actor attribution constitutes the social construction of a relation between two actors and an issue in the form of one actor ascribing another actor the responsibility for something. The actor attribution is based on the attribution trias: sending actor (sender) – issue – addressed actor (addressee). This responsibility can occur in various forms (see below for details).
Actor attribution occurs permanently in social reality and in reporting on this reality. All witnessed action can be regarded as an actor attribution: as soon as a spectator (sender) sees/reports the action of an actor (addressee) with a result (issue), we would have an actor attribution. Also, in societies we have in many cases a clear understanding of who (addressee) is in charge of doing what (issue). Mentioning (sender) such by and large consensual responsibilities, regardless whether they are based in law or cultural rules, would again constitute an actor attribution. However, the discursive actor attribution approach is more limited because it only relates to discursive incidents of actor attribution. That means the subject of analysis are only instances of actor attribution in which the issue or addressee are evaluated and often (but not always) discussed with arguments. The discursive actor attribution analysis is therefore limited to those cases in which the attribution becomes the issue of a debate. It focuses on the public presentation and exchange of interpretations and attributions in cases where the attribution is not taken for granted.
The discursive actor attribution analysis offers in particular three directions of analysis. First, it allows a reconstruction of the patterns of attribution behavior. Second, it allows the analysis of the reasons for attribution actors refer to. Third, it is possible to analyze the form with which the senders introduce their attribution into the public debate.
With these three directions of analysis the approach of discursive actor attribution analysis relates to and amalgamates three related approaches. It refers to attribution analysis as the relationship between responsible and/or accountable actors and issues (see Gerhards/ Offerhaus/Roose 2007, 2009). However, it extends this research by including more dimensions, especially the form and the reasons. It relates to protest event analysis, established in social movement research (see e.g. Rucht/Koopmans 1998). Protest event analysis focuses on the form that claims are presented in the public (Koopmans/Rucht 2002: 235). The discursive actor attribution analysis is, as the political claims analysis (Koopmans/Statham 1999), more inclusive in the forms in which an interpretation is presented to the public. Also routine public statements of institutionalized actors are included. Finally, it relates to frame analysis. This applies to frame analysis in the wider sense (see Chong/Druckman 2007, Scheufele 1999) as patterns of reasons are analyzed. It refers also to the frame analysis of social movement research as the concepts of diagnostic, prognostic and motivational frames (Snow/Benford 1988) are specified in the perspective on attributions. Accordingly, it has a close connection to the analysis of political claims making (Koopmans/Statham 1999) as this approach is an amalgamation of protest event research and frame analysis. However, while the analysis of political claims making is more closely related to protest event research with the (of course important!) amendment of reasons and arguments and the extension of forms, the discursive actor attribution approach is more closely related to frame analysis. At the core of the analysis are interpretations of reality in respect to relations between actors and issues. Therefore the analysis is not limited to claims, i.e. to calls that an actor should act in a specified way. This is only one kind of actor-issue-relation which enters the discursive actor attribution analysis. Another kind of attribution to be analyzed is the interpretation of an actor causing a result. This interpretation does not necessarily result directly in demands for specific action. Rather as such it constitutes a diagnostic interpretation of the situation, and contributes to what has been introduced as a diagnostic frame (Snow/Benford 1988). The discursive actor attribution approach, however, includes a detailed look at the forms how arguments are introduced in the public debate. In this respect it takes up the advantages of protest event research which have also become part of political claims making analysis. Though the differences may seem gradual they affect the coding procedure considerably.
The discursive actor attribution approach remains in the realm of actor centred approaches with the aim to investigate strategic action. In this respect it deviates from other approaches in discourse analysis where the discursive arena is regarded as a social reality sui generis which can (and should and actually is) analyzed without direct relation to actors contributing to the discourse (Keller et al. 2010, 2011 for an overview in German). Instead the discursive actor attribution analysis focuses on actors and their behaviour rather than the content of the discourse in whole.
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