A corpus-assisted perspective on corporate wrongdoing: the case of Boeing

Activity: Talk or presentationScience to science


Boeing is one of the two main aircraft producers in the world, attracting both public and private customers, and widely known for its impeccable safety record. In late 2018 and early 2019 however, Boeing made headlines after two 737 MAX aircrafts, the latest addition to its fleet, were involved in two fatal crashes. The first was Lion Air Flight 610 which crashed into the Java Sea 13 minutes after takeoff, whilst the second was Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 which crashed near the town of Bischoftu 6 minutes after takeoff. The same issue was to blame for both incidents: the airplane’s MCAS system (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), which is responsible for stabilising the airplane failed on both occasions, and as such caused the plane to overcorrect its position and fly towards the ground.

Boeing’s initial response, perhaps acting upon advice from their lawyers, was to avoid the issue of responsibility and instead focused on providing “technical assistance” at the request of government authorities (Boeing, 2018). As the second incident occurred and the true cause of the issue become more apparent (including emerging details that Boeing knew about the issue as early as 2013) the company instead focused on protecting its corporate image, emphasising their commitment to safety and increased pilot training on the new aircraft. In January 2021, Boeing was charged with conspiracy to commit fraud and agreed to pay over $2.5 billion. This is a clear case of corporate wrongdoing.
In this paper, I offer a working definition of corporate wrongdoing and discuss how it relates to the case of Boeing. Then, using corpus-assisted methods (Hardt-Mautner, 1995; Baker, 2006), I explore how Boeing presented themselves throughout the scandal. This includes discussions around responsibility and mitigation attempts, but also attempts to regain public trust. To do this, I collected two corpora: 1) an approximately 17,000-word corpus, consisting of all of Boeing’s press releases related to the scandal; and 2) a corpus consisting of all of the other press releases produced by Boeing, throughout the period of the scandal. Using keyword analysis, I explore which terms were most salient in the ‘wrongdoing corpus’ when compared to the other press releases. Whilst these terms point towards terms that are specific to the scandal (e.g., MCAS, Lion, Bischoftu), the use of collocation analysis and concordance analysis provides a nuanced insight into the wider discourse being invoked by the texts. Exploring those significant lexical items within their linguistic context allows for a more detailed analysis of the issue.

This paper therefore offers an insight into how companies accused of wrongdoing negotiate their responsibility, perhaps in response to outside pressures, and how a corpus linguistic approach to analysis can offer a more nuanced picture of a particularly high-pressure and difficult situation.
Period13 Jan 2023
Event titleABC Regional Conference 2023
Event typeConference
LocationNaples, ItalyShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational