Bankers in the dock: Moral storytelling in action

From Human Relations

This article examines the role of storytelling in the process of making sense of the financial crisis. Taken for granted assumptions were suddenly open to question. Financial products and practices that were once assumed to be sustainable sources of economic growth and prosperity swiftly became de-legitimized. Highly respected individuals and institutions (bankers, regulators) suddenly became widely detested. The moral stories crafted during a public hearing in the UK that was designed to uncover ‘what (or who) went wrong’ during the recent financial crisis are examined in this research. Micro-linguistic tools were used to build different emplotments of the ‘story’ of the financial crisis and paint a picture of the key characters, for example as ‘villains’ or ‘victims’. The stories told by the bankers had assigned responsibility for the crisis and what should be done about it. These stories shaped both public opinion and policy responses. The study illustrates when a crisis of sensemaking occurs, and the dominant and well-established storyline is no longer plausible a new story must be crafted to make sense of what happened and why. The plot and characters of a story, only start to form a meaningful story when discursive devices(linguistic styles, phrases, tropes and figures of speech) build up a moral landscape within which the events unfold.


This article draws on insights from a variety of fields, including discursive psychology, ethnomethodology, dramatism, rhetoric, ante-narrative analysis and conversation analysis, to examine the discursive devices employed in the storytelling surrounding the recent financial crisis. Discursive devices refer to the linguistic styles, phrases, tropes and figures of speech that, we propose, are central to the development of a compelling story. We focus our analysis on the moral stories constructed during a public hearing involving senior banking executives in the UK. The analysis suggests that two competing storylines were used by the bankers and their questioners to emplot the events preceding the financial crisis. We propose that a discursive devices approach contributes to the understanding of storytelling by highlighting the power of micro-linguistic tools in laying out the moral landscape of the story. We argue that the stories surrounding the financial crisis are important because they shaped how the crisis was made sense of and acted upon.

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Article details
Whittle, A., & Mueller, F. (2011). Bankers in the dock: Moral storytelling in action Human Relations DOI: 10.1177/0018726711423442

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