American Sociological Association

The Public Life of Secrets: Deception, Disclosure, and Discursive Framing in the Policy Process

While secrecy enables policy makers to escape public scrutiny, leaks of classified information reveal the social construction of reality by the state. I develop a theory that explains how leaks shape the discursive frames states create to communicate the causes of social problems to the public and corresponding solutions to redress them. Synthesizing cultural sociology, symbolic interactionism, and ethnomethodology, I argue that leaks enable non–state actors to amplify contradictions between the public and secret behavior of the state. States respond by "ad hoc–ing" new frames that normalize their secret transgressions as logical extensions of other policy agendas. While these syncretic responses resolve contradictions exposed by leaks, they gradually detach discursive frames from reality and therefore increase states’ need for secrecy—as well as the probability of future leaks—in turn. I illustrate this downward spiral of deception and disclosure via a case study of the British government’s discourse about terrorism between 2000 and 2008.

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Authors

Christopher A. Bail

Volume

33

Issue

2

Starting Page

97

Ending Page

124

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