My PhD thesis, Rethinking lay people’s theories of the economy, explored contemporary public rhetoric related to the economy in New Zealand as a critical lens to rethink scholarship on lay people’s economic thinking.

The thesis is available from the University of Canterbury Research Repository via the following permanent link:

Here is the citation:

Ford, G. (2018). Rethinking lay people's theories of the economy (Doctoral thesis, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand). Retrieved from


Renewed scholarly interest in lay people’s economics (Leiser & Kril, 2017; Darriet & Bourgeois-Gironde, 2015; Sapienza & Zingales, 2013a; Dixon, Griffiths, & Lim, 2014), a tradition of research typically associated with economists and economic psychologists (Furnham, 1988; Williamson & Wearing, 1996; Blendon et al., 1997; Caplan, 2001; Leiser & Aroch, 2009), can be situated alongside recent public debate about economics, economists’ expertise and the role of economists and lay people in democratic decision-making (for example, see: Earle, Moran, & Ward-Perkins, 2017). This thesis contributes to our understanding of lay people’s theories of the economy by interrogating, challenging and addressing key assumptions underpinning this tradition of research. I approached this research from a cross-disciplinary perspective. The thesis is situated at the intersection of critical political psychology (Tileagă, 2013) and corpus linguistics (Partington, 2013).

I examine two key assumptions that are common in the economic and psychological literature on lay people’s economic thinking. These assumptions are often uncritically reproduced in studies of lay people’s thinking about the economy. The first of these is an assumption from a disciplinary perspective, which I term from the Academy, that privileges the expert economist as the correct reference for understanding and studying lay people’s thinking (for example, see: Caplan, 2006). The second assumption treats lay theories as something to be conceived and researched as primarily individual-level cognitive phenomena, which I term in the head (for example, see: Williamson & Wearing, 1996). I argue that these assumptions reflect and reproduce a depoliticised account of economics that neglects the public nature of economic thinking.

In contrast to the traditional approaches noted above, I propose an analytic reorientation, drawing on rhetorical psychology (Billig, 1987, 1991), that reconceptualises lay people’s theories as action oriented to a context of ongoing public debate. While psychologists have raised the importance of the context of public debate (Vergès, 1987; Furnham, 1988; van Bavel, 2000; Leiser & Kril, 2017), no work has previously made this context the focus of enquiry. I proposed to make the public use of the word economy the object of enquiry and study the rhetorical use of economy “in the wild” (Finlayson, 2007, p. 552). The word economy is “economic”, but also has a history of use in the public sphere (Mitchell, 2005; Schabas, 2009).

I used a “corpus-assisted” approach (Partington, 2004, 2013) to study patterns of language use in large corpora featuring many examples of people using the word economy. I conducted two studies that explored and identified common features of contemporary public rhetoric related to use of economy in New Zealand in distinct settings: New Zealand’s parliament and talkback radio calls. There are multiple methodological contributions related to the use of corpus methods. Firstly, I advanced an argument for the relevance of corpus methods for rhetorical psychological enquiry and exemplified this “in the wild” approach through the two studies. Secondly, in each of the studies I developed and deployed original software-driven processes to create and analyse large corpora that are important contributions of the thesis. In the first study, I examined the use of economy in New Zealand’s parliament by building a 57-million-word annotated corpus based on the New Zealand Parliamentary Debates (or Hansard) and developed a new analytic method, key collocates analysis, to detect meaningful shifts in the rhetoric of political parties related to the economy during the period between 2003 to 2016. In the second study, I examined the use of economy by people speaking on talkback calls on 1788 hours of talk radio in 2016. This study developed and demonstrated a novel computer-assisted approach using speech recognition software to identify keywords within an untranscribed corpus of audio recordings and an approach to analysis that was analogous to qualitative and quantitative analysis used in text-based corpus analysis.

The thesis contributes to knowledge about lay people’s economic thinking. The overall framework I developed, contrasts the from the Academy and in the head assumptions with an “in the wild” perspective, and offers new insights into existing work by economists and psychologists. In contrast to past research, this thesis demonstrates the deeply political nature of economic ideas in practice. Studying the rhetoric of the economy revealed and quantified dominant ways of representing the economy involving ideas about nation, government and growth that have been neglected in previous research on lay economics. Both political elites and people speaking on talkback calls were orienting to the ever-present role of government and used the economy as an appeal to the collective prosperity and welfare. This thesis also found evidence of a disconnect between the thinking of political leaders and the public regarding the key concept of growth. For political elites, assumptions about growth were pervasive in the way they represented the economy. In contrast, rather than appealing to assumptions about growth, people on talkback were critically orienting to the economy, emphasising they were implicated in the economy and elaborating it as a qualitative and problematic entity. Rather than finding ignorant or deficient thinkers, this research demonstrates people drawing on and critically engaging with dominant economic ideas and able to relate these to the debates of their political community. The findings underscore the necessity to attend to the context of political ideas and arguments when researching lay people’s economic thinking.

The complete thesis is available here: