The social construction of the financial crisis

Political and economic measures taken so far to face the ongoing global economic and financial crisis show a general tendency to remain anchored to a pre-crisis economic paradigm, tied to the idea of economic development as unlimited growth of production and income (Krugman 2011, Greenspan 2007, Latouche 2004, Stiglitz 2010, Wallerstein 2009).

This cultural paradigm has been pointed out by a number of economists and other social scientists as being one of the very causes of the crisis: they call attention to the fact that over the past three decades it failed to keep its promises of improvement in material well-being and poverty reduction in the world (Amin 1973, Bergeron 1992, Latouche 2004, Rist 1996, Sachs 1994), stressing its negative impact on environment (Meadows et al. 1972, Meadows & al. 2004, Bonaiuti 2001, Georgescu-Roegen 2004) and social cohesion (Hirsch 1977, Martinez-Alliez 2002, Teune 1988). The cultural predominance of this economic model proves to be unsuccessful even with respect to the possibility of envisaging new models of societal organizations, not limited to a mere economic logic.

As demonstrated by the constructivist studies conducted over the last decade, financial crisis are not natural events, but social events, which are socially constructed (Gamble 2009) and the media play a central role in this process, by contributing to establish collective meanings and values, as well as the interpretive frameworks for reality perception, as shown by the theoretical approach of Cultural Studies (Hall 1977, 1980).

The mediatization of the financial crisis

Following the theory of the media as agents of social and cultural change (Hjarvard 2008) I suggest to examine the role played by the media in fostering interpretative patterns of the current financial crisis that remain driven by the cultural paradigm of growth and to investigate how this process hinders the emergence and diffusion of alternative views, as well as collective awareness of the social nature of such event and its implications.

The current global crisis can be considered as the failure of a certain model of social and economic development. This assumption unveils the need to develop new forms of human society, based on a ​​new concept of well-being, which should be focused on the quality of human relations and general living conditions, with respect to the limited resources of the earth’s ecosystem. With this taken into consideration, such social awareness could play an essential role in inducing changes in the current consumerist lifestyles, considered as one of the deep causes of this crisis (Bonaiuto 2001, Georgescu-Roegen 2003, Latouche 2010).

The social nature of the financial crisis

These perspective of analysis of the financial crisis is based on an integrated approach that combines two theoretical models that share a common view of reality conceived as a social and symbolic construction.

These models are represented by the social constructionism (Berger & Luckmann 1966, Gergen 1999, Searle 1995) and by the psychoanalytic perspective developed on the basis of the theory of bi-logic and the construct of affective symbolizations (Matte Blanco 1975, Carli & Giovagnoli 2010, Salvatore 2004). Such integrated perspective allowed to focus on the social nature of the current financial crisis, as a result of collective behaviours based on shared unconscious representations of reality.

The findings of such analysis could have important social effects, leading to an increased social empowerment towards the global crisis. In fact, previous researches conducted from this theoretical perspective (D’Andreta 2003, 2011) highlighted that awareness of the social nature of events and phenomena of reality leads to the possibility of conceiving their change. On the contrary, representations of reality as natural facts, make people feel powerless toward such events and phenomena. And such different approach to reality perception influences human behaviours by defining the range of possible strategies of problem setting and problem solving and the consequent actions.

Given these considerations, I mean to put the spotlight on how the influence of the media in defining the range of possible interpretations of the financial crisis may hinder the elaboration of further analysis of the problem that could lead to achievable and effective solutions.

The output of this kind of approach could provide a dual contribution, both theoretical and practical, to the understanding of the currently ongoing financial crisis. On one hand, the analysis of the role of media in producing specific representations of the financial crisis and in influencing its social construction could contribute to the development of a social theory of global economy and finance, useful in steering further studies on this topic. On the other hand, a better understanding of social processes related to the deep causes of the crisis could allow to identify more effective strategies of intervention, in terms of social changes needed to develop new forms of social and economic organization of society.

theoretical and methodological framework

This kind of approach to the understanding and intervention towards the current global financial crisis is based on the following theoretical and methodological premises:

  • the constructivist perspective to the study of the current financial crisis from a (Abdelal et al. 2010, Chwieroth et al. 2010, Fuchs & Graf 2010, Schulz & Raupp 2009, Ruggie 1998), developed within the research field of the International Political Economy, which aims to demonstrate the social nature of the crisis, produced by ongoing processes of social practice and interactions.
  • the literature regarding the causes of the current financial crisis and the relevant policy responses of governments (Krugman 2011, Ougaard & Leander 2010, Semmler & Young 2010, Spence 2011, Stiglitz 2010, Wallerstein 2009), which reveals the cultural dominance of the economic paradigm of growth in the analysis of the recession event.
  • the critical approaches to the growth paradigm that highlights its ecological and social limits and proposes alternative models of development, based on the drastic change of the lifestyles that characterize the capitalist economy and the consumer society (Castoriadis 2005, Hirsch 1977, Latouche 2004, Martinez-Alier 2002, Rist 1996, Sachs 1994).
  • the media studies and mass communication theories that draw attention to the influence of mass media on the social perception of reality and its subjective meanings, by focusing the public’s attention on specific topics and providing related interpretative patterns (Downing 2004, Kolker 2009, McCombs 2004, Hjarvard 2008, Rayner et al. 2004).
  • the qualitative methodologies of the grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss 1967, Tarozzi, 2008), the Lexicometric Analysis (Benzécri 1981, Bolasco 1999, Lebart & Salem 1988, Lancia 2004) and the emotional text analysis (Carli & Paniccia 2002). The latter constitutes an useful tool for the identification of the unconscious symbolization of social events and phenomena, such as the financial crisis. Compared to the previous studies in this field, this approach represents the specificity of my approach to the study of the financial crisis, in terms of integration between the constructionist theory and the psychoanalytic perspective based on Matte Blanco’s theory of mind (Matte Blanco 1975).

 

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