Accepted Paper:

Life or debts: the moral economy of thrift  


Silke Meyer (University of Innsbruck)

Paper short abstract:

TV shows on living with debts are a popular format in con temp. media. These formats give manifold advice, financially and morally on 'reasonable and appropriate ways of being in the world'. Within this discursive framework, I will analyse the production of the indebted self between debts and guilt.

Paper long abstract:

TV shows on debtors and on living in debt are a popular format in contemporary media (for example, "Raus aus den Schulden" in the German broadcaster RTL or "Life or Debt" on the US database IMDb. The experts in these media representations give manifold advice, financially and morally on 'reasonable and appropriate ways of being in the world'. While monetary suggestions help to balance income and expenses on the way out of debts, the popular media representations also offer moral guidelines to find the way out of guilt. The moral economy of debt relies on the hydraulics of debts and guilt: by balancing self-responsibility, agency and self-initiative and by demonstrating thriftness as well as the will to work more and cut back, the indebted self can learn to cope with outstanding bills and to actively negotiate its position in society.

Thrift and consumption are key concepts in these representation of lives in debts, visualised in conditions of dwelling (i.e. number of rooms recommended, distinction between the necessities and luxuries of everyday life) and narrated in debt biographies (for example, socially ratified reasons and motivation to go into debts). A discursive content and image analysis of the TV representations show how the ‚appropriate way of being in the world' when in debt draws on historical middle-class virtues and neoliberal ideas. Both contribute to a moral economy which reproduces an inner industry of the indebted self and suppresses transitions of economic structures like the employment market and in the state welfare economy.

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Thrift and dwelling: popular media representations of 'appropriate' ways of being in the world