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Accepted Paper:

An ethnography of unsettled debt. Cashlessness and betrayal in Brazil  


Marie Kolling (Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS))

Paper short abstract:

The paper explores the pursuit of credit and betrayal among women in northeast Brazil. It takes an onset in all things left unpaid, despite the intentions to pay, to develop an ethnography of unsettled debt, that is situated in a context of new digitized credit markets and 'feminization of finance'

Paper long abstract:

For Brazil's urban poor, access to credit has become a life condition and a necessary means to 'progress', a desire frequently expressed during fieldwork among impoverished families in Salvador, Brazil. Debts were paid in cash, but a lack of cash often forged exchanges in which people obtained goods without cash at hand. Water and electricity are goods that are commonly consumed and not paid for. But food, clothes, perfume, ceramic tiles and furniture are also bought on credit at stores across the city, from local vendors, or by using a credit card, or on someone else's credit card, and left unpaid despite the intentions to pay. This paper portrays the debt practices of black women in Salvador and explores the impact of this on community life, as people undermine the future aspirations and opportunities of others in their pursuit of credit. This ethnography of unsettled debt is situated within recent developments of expanding credit markets and the 'feminization of finance' (Allon 2014), and a growing analytical attention to the female labour of juggling debt (Harker, Sayyad and Shebeitah 2019; Schuster 2014; Roberts 2015; Strathern 1988). It further addresses how this unsettled debt might unsettle the concept of cashlessness, as these economic exchanges become cashless in a literal sense, as well as the common notion of credit, defined as an agreement of lending concrete resources and demanding a return in the future (Peebles 2010).

Panel P057
Digital encounters, cashless cultures: Ethnographic perspectives on the impact of digital finance on economic communities