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Accountability as an Inhabited Institution: Contested Meanings and the Symbolic Politics of Reform


Symbolic Interaction

Published online on


This paper examines the failed attempt to reauthorize the American educational law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2007. Drawing on existing research on cultural processes of policymaking and insights from inhabited institutionalism, we analyze data from 20 congressional hearings, viewing them as social interactions. We find that hearing participants identified problems with strict accountability policies and, in interpreting those problems, introduced alternative meanings, including “NCLB means children left behind.” Our approach stresses the symbolic politics of reform at the meso level of interaction and makes the case for a cultural analysis of policymaking that synthesizes both interactionism and institutionalism.