Definitions of austerity vary from “sternness or severity of manner or attitude” including “extreme plainness and simplicity of style or appearance” and ”conditions characterized by severity, sternness, or asceticism” as in “a simple life of prayer and personal austerity” to the definition that is most prominent these days: “difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce a budget deficit, especially by reducing public expenditure.” Evident in these divergent definitions is the fact that austerity is a social construct. When we say that we are undergoing “a period of austerity” what exactly do we mean by that and who gets to define it? What are the experiences of people living in such a time? How are different people affected by it differently and which people might, in fact, benefit by it. And more to the focus of this paper, why is it that the same measures taken in Greece or Spain are called austerity and similar measures in the US are not? This paper highlights four assertions: (1) Austerity is a social construct with material effects that affect individuals and nations differently. (2) The way in which austerity, as a social construct is discursively employed furthers the neoliberal agenda. (3) The way in which austerity is discursively employed also furthers the imperialist project. And consequently, women and racial or other social minorities pay the greater price.
Nancy A. Naples, Ph.D.
Director, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor
Sociology and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies,
University of Connecticut