Frugality and fairness. The 2008 economic crisis and morality

Frugality and Fairness. The 2008 Economic Crisis and Morality


Rosa Escanes Sierra

University of Sheffield


This paper contributes to the body of work that tries to understand the links between morality and evaluative language in elite political discourse within the context of the 2008 economic crisis in the UK (see for example Kelsey et al, 2016). Austerity measures were one of the main legacies of this major event and still resonate in British politics. The reduction of the state, legitimised by deficit panic tactics (Krugman, 2012) is still part of the political agenda.  

The study, within a Critical Discourse Analysis framework, is part of a doctoral project which aims to enhance our knowledge regarding the role of ethics in the discourse of political economy. Specifically, it considers whether an economic crisis could increase the use of overt morality discourse and what exactly this explicitness looks like linguistically. It contemplates this question in terms of how intrinsic morality is within politics and economics. Ethics are part of the very purpose of government, since they determine duties for citizens and translate values into policies (Swift, 2006). Moreover, economics, was actually born as a branch of ethics (Sen, 1987).

This research pays particular attention to the role of income inequality in moral linguistic patterns.  Inequality was one of the main focuses when analysing the failure of the neoliberal model in 2008. ‘Remoralising’ the markets by acknowledging their problems with greed and polarised wealth distribution was, at the rhetorical level, a common trend amongst some elite politicians at that time (Jessop, 2012). In view of this, and considering their role in wealth distribution, I analyse yearly budget parliamentary debates in Britain from 2008 to 2012 and compare them to an equivalent corpus from a period of economic growth, 2002-2006. This comparison aims to see if there was indeed a more prominent use of morality invocations during the crisis period, using frequency and keyword analysis, and how this relates to the framing of inequality.

Furthermore, for this paper I focus on two concepts dealt with in the study: frugality and fairness. They serve as examples to discuss how corpus linguistics can be used to break down a complex idea like morality. Using tools such as keyword analysis, semantic domains, collocation patterns and close textual analysis, the study proposes an inductive dialogue between a top-down (from big concepts or categories to specific lexical items) and a bottom-up (from specific lexical items to big concepts or categories) perspective.


Keywords: comparative study; Critical Discourse Analysis; economic crisis; morality; political discourse.


Jessop, B. 2012, November. “Recovered imaginaries, imagined recoveries: a cultural political economy of crisis construals and crisis-management in the North Atlantic financial crisis”. Paper presented at the Strategies of representing and managing crises conference, Morecambe, UK.

Kelsey, D., Mueller, F., Whittle, A., & KhosraviNik, M. (2016). “Financial crisis and austerity: interdisciplinary concerns in critical discourse analysis”. Critical Discourse Studies, 13(1).

Krugman, P. 2012, May 31. “The Austerity Agenda”. The New York Times.  

Sen, A. 1987. “On ethics & economics”. Oxford: Blackwell.

Swift, A. (2006). “Political philosophy. A beginner’s guide for students and politicians”. (2nd, Ed.) Cambridge: Polity.