This panel provides a reflection on debt, based on ethnographies of people's debts. It focuses on the way debts concretely shape people's lives, the challenges of dealing with debt as a generic concept, and the implications of shifting emphasis from exchange to debt.
During the last decades, households' debt rose sharply as a means to finance consumption and offer protection against uncertainty. Researchers refer to this process as "financiarisation", and often insist on the new forms of exploitation and domination it entails. However, ethnographic research casts doubts on this monolithic image of debt: instead, everyday debts are highly diverse (debts between peers, towards institutions, within the family) embedded in specific social, cultural and moral orders. This panel invites researchers to contribute to a critical reflection on the concept of debt, based on historically and socially contextualized ethnographies of people's debts, in any part of the world. Several lines of inquiries can be pursued, such as: 1) How do debts concretely shape people's lives? How are they incurred, evaluated and settled? What are the moral, social, economic and juridical implications of debts? 2) How can we qualify the various processes that debts tend to fuel? Is debt always a vector of exploitation? In some contexts, can it also contribute to people's emancipation or protection? 3) Due to the diversity of debts observed, how can we think about debt in the singular? Should we drop this concept because of its vagueness? Or should we deal with it as a general concept referring to something more than the juxtaposition of debts? 4) What are the implications of shifting anthropologists' focus from exchange to debt? Does exchange necessarily imply atemporal relationships among equals while debt highlights processes shaped by powers and hierarchies?