My work explores the problem of responsibility assignment in long and complex causal chains. I investigate the sociopolitical conflicts emerging in the aftermath of major economic disasters.
Currently, I am working on a book project, called The Blame Game, which focuses on attribution of responsibility for the recent financial crisis in the United States (2007 – 2010). I am not interested in knowing who was responsible, but how responsibility for the crisis was constructed through a blame game. Why did most of the blame focus on Wall Street? Why did President Bush – among others - receive so little blame? After all, he was in power for the eight years that preceded the crisis.
I examine media excerpts drawn from three main newspapers (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today) to analyze the games of accusations and counter-accusations for the crisis. I show how when the financial system exploded, blame moved in many directions, but mostly focused on the political sphere. Through public speeches, congressional hearings, and public investigations, the political sphere managed to refocus the attention on Wall Street.
During my lengthy data collection process, which took about 2.5 years, I noticed that Goldman Sachs was both much more frequently accused, and much more active in responding to the accusations than any other bank. It led me to write two articles on Goldman Sachs, which I am now finalizing. In the first one, I analyze the theoretical difference between social discredit and stigma. How come that the most vilified Wall Street bank avoided being stigmatized? The firm did not lose its clients, employees, investors, and/or business partners. I emphasize the role of network structure and power dynamics in explaining this outcome.
In the second article, I analyze the triangular relationship between corporations, politicians and the media. Goldman Sachs is notoriously one of the most secretive institutions in the world, and yet it engaged in a PR blitzkrieg from late summer 2009 on. I argue that its situation as the most vilified bank on Wall Street, with no large customer or employee base, forced Goldman Sachs to go public, rather than to use lobbying or campaign contributions to influence Washington.
I complemented this research with interviews with Wall Street bankers conducted during the crisis. It led me to write two articles. The first one was published in the Journal of Business Ethics. I show that while the bankers that I interviewed overwhelmingly attribute responsibility to financial institutions, few would accept any personal responsibility for the crisis. Banks as institutions are held responsible, but bankers as agents are not. I argue that in a complex crisis, responsibility becomes diluted in a maelstrom of actors, actions and mechanisms, and therefore can neither be easily attributed nor assumed.
In the second one, I explore how the bankers that I interviewed explored the deviant label they were subjected to. I show that bankers can dismiss a label perceived as an anomaly, which does not fundamentally threaten their local world. I argue that this deviance disavowal can partly account for the rapid return to business as usual practices on Wall Street.
Finally, I recently started a collaboration with Zsombor Meder, an economist at SUTD, to explore the dynamics of blame games using lab experiments. We assign respondents with a simple task and ask them to evaluate and then discuss their team’s performance. The aim of the experiment is to see if the dynamic interactions between the participants affect responsibility assignments.