The global financial crisis that began in 2008 shook many societies to their core, none more so than the Republic of Ireland where effects of the crisis were felt particularly acutely. Between 1990 and 2007 — often characterised as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ era — Irish economic output had quadrupled (Kelly, 2010). However, in autumn 2008, the combination of an international liquidity crisis and the collapse of Irish property prices led the effective failure of Ireland's domestic banking sector, necessitating substantial government bailouts. From 2008 to 2010, GNP contracted by 18% and unemployment rose from 5% to 14% (CSOI, 2010). In Ireland, the sharp descent into recession was met with bewilderment on the part of the political and economic elite and the general public alike. It was clear that the effects of the crisis were things for which the country was structurally, socially and psychologically unprepared.
Lay explanation of contemporary social crises
In a context of confusion engendered by such a crisis, people are motivated to construct understandings that establish solid points of reference through which they can conceptually adjust to the situation. Research indicates that search for explanation — accounting for why the event happened — is stimulated by negative and unexpected events (Försterling, 2001). Explaining social events is one of the central mechanisms through which we orient ourselves to the world; Hume (1740/2007) described causal inference as ‘the cement of the universe’ (p. 417). Gustav Ichheiser, one of the first scholars to study causal explanation systematically, was drawn to the topic by its social importance, writing that the role of societies' attributional processes in the lead-up to World War II was ‘hardly possible to exaggerate’ (Ichheiser, 1949, p.47). People are called — implicitly as social actors and explicitly as citizens — to explain the problems faced by society (Hewstone, 1989). The explanations produced have weighty implications, determining who is afforded responsibility to deal with problems and what measures are deemed appropriate to do so. Uncovering the lay epistemology of societal problems is therefore a critical task in understanding our social world.
For most laypeople, the process of explaining a crisis like economic recession is not straightforward. Sociologists have characterised our age as one of constant impending catastrophe, in which the threat of social, technological or environmental collapse is never far from the agenda. This is theoretically embodied in the risk society thesis developed by the sociologist Ulrich Beck (1992). While the resources of post-industrial society have administered control over many of the hazards that blighted previous times, technological advances have simultaneously spawned a new set of risks — like environmental pollution, nuclear accidents and food contamination — that threaten our social order and material existence and dominate the political landscape of Western societies. The problems typical of the risk society are defined by a number of distinctive features to which the recent recession can be seen to conform. First, it was a global event that largely transcended national boundaries. Second, economic processes are invisible and not available to direct perception. Third, understanding its origin and development requires specialised knowledge: people cannot see or directly experience phenomena like economic recession and rely on experts to identify and characterise them. Fourth, it resulted from human activities, but it is difficult to pinpoint distinct groups or individuals to whom the problem can be unambiguously attributed.
It is likely that these four features make the recession resistant to simple causal explanation. Their effect is to remove the crisis from people's everyday realities; it is not a matter of local, immediate experience and must be conceptualised at an abstract rather than a directly experiential level. When an issue is not available to direct experience or perception, the construction of its explanation must be a socially constituted process. Research supports the pivotal role of the social in economic cognition: studies have identified socialisation (rather than direct experience) as critical in the development of children's economic concepts (Bonn, Earle, Lea & Webley, 1999; Sévon & Weckström, 1989), and there are large degrees of commonality in the economic concepts held by different individuals (Leiser & Drori, 2005). As an individual cannot look into the world and directly perceive a macro-economic process, the only way in which to ‘know’ the issue is through the mediation of other people or institutions, including experts, media outlets and conversational partners. Understanding how lay explanation of economic crisis develops therefore requires a theoretical framework in which the constitutive role of social context and communication processes is central.
Social representations theory
Such a framework is provided by social representations theory (SRT), a social psychological theory designed to capture the shared, common-sense and everyday representations through which people orient themselves to the world (Moscovici, 1988). SRT rejects the individualistic approach to human thought that dominates much mainstream psychology and shifts concern from knowledge as an individual property to knowledge grounded in the intersubjective world of a community (Jovchelovitch, 2007). This makes it appropriate for examining economic issues, independent explanation of which is not an option available to most people. SRT provides a lens through which one can track how social resources are drawn upon in order to satisfy the imperative to explain events. Applications of SRT to responses to public issues have proved fruitful in domains such as health (e.g. Jodelet, 1991; Joffe & Haarhoff, 2002) and science and technology (e.g. Bauer, 2009; Wagner & Kronberger, 2001).
The social representational process is driven by people's motivation to ‘know’ the world around them by ‘making the unfamiliar familiar’ (Moscovici, 1961/2008). This development of understanding is achieved through two processes. First, the new phenomenon is anchored in phenomena with which the community is already familiar, and the meanings attached to the familiar phenomena influence how the new phenomenon is represented (Moscovici, 1988). The second process is objectification, in which the initially abstract new idea is concretized by grounding the representation in a tangible object, image or concept. Bauer and Gaskell (1999) give the example of genetic engineering in the 1990s being anchored in the idea of ‘cloning’ and objectified in the figure of ‘Dolly the sheep’. The relevance of these processes for examining lay explanations of risk society crises like the recession is that they provide a means by which the crises' distinctly abstract nature can be brought into the domain of immediate apprehension. Recruitment of these theoretical concepts is therefore likely to offer significant advantage in understanding how the recession has been comprehended by the public.
SRT is especially concerned with how knowledge that is produced in the ‘reified universe’ of science and expertise diffuses through society to the ‘consensual universe’ populated by the general public, becoming transformed in the process. Thus, it acknowledges the influence of expert evaluations in public representation, but does not assume that these are simply transplanted intact into the minds of the populace. Expert pronouncements are reframed, reconstituted and sometimes actively resisted (Jovchelovitch, 2008), and this process is driven by meaningful social interests rather than individual cognitive biases. Joffe, Washer and Solberg's (2011) study examining public perceptions of the hospital infection methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) found that the accepted medical explanation for MRSA — antibiotic overuse — tended to be overlooked in favour of explanations anchored in ideas of dirty hospitals, foreign hospital staff and structural problems with the National Health Service. Thus, people do not approach a new issue with a mental blank slate but through the lens of existing sets of worldviews and representations, resulting in explanations that incorporate a broader range of concerns than typically found in decontextualised expert evaluations. An SRT approach allows these concerns to emerge, thereby facilitating not just a picture of representations of the issue under direct scrutiny, but establishing an insight into the wider concerns that structure people's experience of specific social contexts.
As a framework, SRT represents a move away from the rationalistic tradition that dominates much of psychology. Social representations are not ‘cold’ knowledge structures but are underpinned by social and emotional motivations (Joffe, 2003). A central motivational foundation of the social representational process is identity protection (Howarth, 2002). The identity functions of social representations become particularly apparent when a community is confronted with a threatening phenomenon. Research indicates that in such a case, the risk is often projected onto an ‘other’ or outgroup, thereby protecting the self from blame or symbolic contamination. Joffe (1999) documents how at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, symbolisation of the disease as a ‘gay plague’ served to distance the majority from the threat itself and from its associated social censure. SRT thus provides a useful lens for exploring how the identity dynamics of a society feed into public reactions to an impinging threat.
There seems to be a certain fit between these dimensions of social representation and the characteristics of risk society-type problems outlined earlier. Typical risk society issues cannot be accessed through direct experience: explanations must be constructed socially, the process of which is captured by SRT. The issues are invisible: they can be made tangible through anchoring and objectification processes. Further, they require specialised knowledge: SRT explicitly designates a role for experts and authorities, but treats their pronouncements as funnelled into a wider network of lay knowledge that is meaningful on its own terms. Additionally, responsibility for their causation is ambiguous: the identity dynamics of social representation may aid in resolution of this ambiguity. Social representation thus offers several means by which people can resolve the abstract nature of risk society-type issues, representing them in such a way as to make them accessible to direct apprehension.
Social representations of the financial crisis
SRT therefore appears to be an appropriate framework in which to locate explorations of public reactions to the recent financial crisis. This was recognised in studies by Leiser, Bourgeois-Gironde and Benita (2010) and Roland-Lévy, Pappalardo Boumelki and Guillet (2010), both of which applied SRT to analyses of public perceptions of the crisis. The Leiser et al. (2010) study comprised a questionnaire completed by 1707 people in France, the US, Russia, Germany, Israel and sub-Saharan Africa. Factor analysis revealed two major conceptions of the crisis, one (the most pervasive) focusing on the role of morally or cognitively flawed individuals, and another relying on understandings of the economy as a system largely independent from human intentions. Roland-Lévy et al. (2010) also administered a questionnaire, asking 275 French participants to provide words or expressions that they associated with the word ‘crisis’. People spontaneously associated the crisis with ideas like economy, unemployment, difficulties and finances. The Leiser et al. (2010) and Roland-Lévy et al. (2010) studies both contribute valuable data on public understandings of the economic crisis. However, the reliance of both on questionnaire data means that there is a limit to the depth of analysis possible. Participants were restricted to predefined response types, and a comprehensive depiction of the anchoring, objectification and identity dynamics of the social representations is difficult to formulate from this data.
The current study attempted to deepen analysis of social representations of the crisis by recruiting qualitative interview methodology to explore lay explanations for Ireland's economic recession. Interviews allow people to contextualise and elaborate on their responses, thereby facilitating not just the identification of the particular ideas circulating in a society but also observation of their meaning and function in particular social and emotional contexts. The study drew on interviews with 14 people. A survey of 138 people was also conducted to provide confidence that the themes identified in the interviews were present among a wider population segment. The aim was to identify patterns present in Irish people's explanations of the recession in spring–summer 2010, a time when the issue was paramount in the public agenda.