EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Debt: a critical reflection based on people's debts
Location U6-27
Date and Start Time 22 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Hadrien Saiag (LAIOS/CNRS) email
  • Emilia Schijman (Lames-AMU-CNRS) email

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Short Abstract

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.

Long Abstract

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?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Musicians’ debts in the South African recording industry

Author: Tuulikki Pietilä (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

The paper examines what it describes as patronage practices between musicians and producers and record labels in South Africa. By showing how these practices often work alongside contracts and create situations of indebtedness by the musicians to the record producers, the paper discusses and adds to the theories of debt, gifts, money and moral economy.

Long Abstract

The paper examines certain long-terms features in the South African recording industry whereby some musicians become indebted to producers and record labels. It views these situations as cases of patronage relationships in which the producer or the label acts as the patron and the musician is the client. Nowadays patronage practices often take place in –and work alongside– contractual relationships. This raises the question of why such practices are cultivated. While there are several reasons for this –such as the lack of knowledge and/ or resources on the part of the producer or the label to handle musicians’ rewards according to the contracts– an important reason is the fact that a patronage relationship ties the musician to the record producer in a way that a contract and a monetary reward cannot do.

Whereas a contractual relationship clearly demarcates the rights, duties and rewards of the involved parties, a patronage relationship blurs the limits of the parties and their rights and rewards, forming a multifaceted and moral bind between them. The paper discusses the categories of musicians that tend to become such clients and the ensuing repercussions for them. A central outcome is the reality and the feelings of indebtedness by the musicians to their labels or producers. The paper discusses these practices by employing and adding to the debates on debt (Graeber 2011; James 2015), gifts and commodities (including money) (Mauss 1925; Gregory 1982; Guyer 2004), personhood and value (Comaroff 1985; Strathern 1991) and moral economy (Scott 1990; Glassman 1995).

Person as debt: personhood, social networks ant the role of debt in East Timor

Authors: Kelly Silva (Universidade de Brasília)  email
Daniel Simiao (Universidade de Brasília)  email

Short Abstract

Based on ethnographic observations in East Timor, we argue that being in debt is an important part of the constitution of person, as opposed to the category of slave. We propose the dissolution of the dichotomy between exchange and debts, analyzing debts as part of exchange regimes in East Timor.

Long Abstract

Based on ethnographic observations from more than ten years of research in East Timor, we explore the idea that being in debt is an important part of the constitution of person amongst Timorese people, as opposed to the category of slave - those who are not in a condition to be in debt to others. Focusing on debts established primarily, but not exclusively, through marriage exchanges, we argue that the value of personhood is strongly linked to an expanded network of relations. More than the notion of "person", the very notion of "relationship" is established through debts. In this sense, we propose the dissolution of the dichotomy between exchange and debts, analyzing debts as an important part of exchange regimes in East Timor.

Debt as a resource

Author: Rune Steenberg (Columbia University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the tension between debt as a liability and debt as a resource in northwest China. While debt increases individual households’ vulnerability it also forges networks of mutual obligation providing social security and opportunities. The question is: Which debt to whom?

Long Abstract

The high cost of marriage in an environment of rising inequality and monetisation is of grave concern to poor Uyghurs in Kashgar, northwest China. The government's reaction is to restrict spending at weddings, arguing that debt destroys household savings and endangers the local economy.

Yet, ironically, this debt is as much a resource as it is a liability for the afflicted families. Social security, economic opportunity and access to much-needed funds in an increasingly financialising economy, is provided by social networks woven through gift giving at communal celebrations. Thus, giving elaborate banquets and gifts, while straining the household budget, is an investment in social capital. Also, the debt accumulated is mainly private, interest-free debt which does not subject these families to the fancies of exploitative banks but actually strengthens their ties of mutual obligation with relatives and neighbours. Money is widely borrowed and lent as a way of negotiating social relations — besides being commercial, it is also used as a social currency (Graeber 2012).

This design might seem somewhat at odds with conventional Euro-American practice, where banks encourage excessive credit lending to profit from household members' toil before they evict them. Yet the underlying problem seems to be not the debt as such but to whom it is owed. This paper advocates analysing debt within the frame of a "gift model of value," focussing on the social relations involved, instead of a "barter model of value" focussed on the relations between objects exchanged (Strathern 1992).

Tracing gold ownership to study debt relations in a South Indian silk-reeling cluster

Author: Nithya Joseph (EHESS, Paris )  email

Short Abstract

This paper will present analysis of gold-based life-story interviews in order to understand debt-credit relationships, in a silk-reeling cluster in south India. Insight from ethnographic fieldwork in the study site adds to learnings from interviews that use oral history and material culture lenses.

Long Abstract

This paper will present analysis of gold-based life-story interviews in order to understand debt-credit relationships, in a silk-reeling cluster in south India. Extensive fieldwork made it clear that debt-credit exchanges need to be viewed both as financial transactions and social bonds in order to study this home-based industry where production and reproduction are explicitly connected. A significant part of wealth of all individuals in the town have been stored in the form of gold - surpluses go towards its purchase and it is liquidised regularly for working capital. In addition to being an important store of value in India, gold has a range of social, spiritual, and political functions. Social obligations create pressure to buy gold - and even to borrow to do so. The life-story interviews tracing gold ownership, served as a way to access memories regarding other financial transactions and to understand how debt-credit relationships associated with the domestic sphere relate to production in these family-firms. Studying markets for labour, raw materials, and finished products, through participant observation and surveys of histories of firms revealed the role of advance payments - from employers to employees but also from agents, brokers, and creditors to all parties - in mediating production. The diversity in the terms and nature of debt-credit relationships of firms and households points to the range of socio-economic factors controlling the ability of both employees and employers to earn a living wage. Hence, the terms of borrowing and repayment determine whether labour and capital invested in the industry generates a surplus.

Informal support networks as relationships of debt and their relevance for people's wellbeing in rural Kenya

Author: Silvia Storchi (University of Bath)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores support networks (i.e. “helping each other out”) as relationships of debt and their role for poor people’s wellbeing in rural Kenya.

Long Abstract

This research set out to explore the instrumental and intrinsic ways in which financial and economic strategies contribute to people's wellbeing. Among poor people in rural Kenya, networks of support represent one of the main financial and coping strategies in everyday people's lives and also a way to create and nurture social relationships through which people's wellbeing is constituted.

In particular, "helping each other out" seems to be a strong social and moral norm within community dynamics. People feel good when they can help others, while at the same time it is socially appropriate to ask for help. However, such relationships can also be recognised as debt relationships. Indeed, asking for help is often associated with borrowing and, respondents talked about borrowing rather than receiving help, even when refund was not required. This shows that relationships of debt are embedded within relationships of help, even when the person in need knows that refund will not be asked for.

Meanwhile, asking for help is not an individualistic and selfish behaviour. Indeed, people develop as a community and consider personal achievements in a collective perspective. In this way, support networks appear as long-term debts which may never be completely settled. Most importantly, when help is received it indicates mutual recognition and the presence of trust within a certain relationship. These characteristics make these debt relationships to be constitutive of people's wellbeing because they are symbolic of their belonging to a certain community/family, as well as of their social status and self-esteem.

Au revoir, the middle class? The paradoxes of financialization in Greece and Spain

Authors: Theodora Vetta (Universitat de Barcelona)  email
Jaime Palomera (Universitat de Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

This paper seeks to sketch the political economy behind the penetration of debt among ordinary people in crisis-ridden Spain and Greece, with a particular focus on the class relations that support it.

Long Abstract

This paper seeks to sketch the political economy behind the penetration of debt among ordinary people in crisis-ridden Spain and Greece, with a particular focus on the class relations that support it.

Drawing from ethnographic data on small construction firms and struggling households, we investigate the shifting regimes of production and consumption linked to the rise of financialization, as well as the kinds of inequality and exploitation they entail. Debunking the mainstream argument that "people lived beyond their means", our cases suggest that the rise of private debt hinges on the paradoxical interplay between labor precarization and enduring frameworks of mobility predicated on entrepreneurialism. Starting from this premise, the paper will discuss the following hypotheses:

1. In the productive sphere, financialization mechanisms channel profits upwards while concentrating risk downwards.

2. The logics of financial entrepreneurialism are traversed by ambiguous tensions between autonomy and dependency (e.g. proliferation of loans and guarantees, usually linked to extended family networks and properties).

3. The crisis of financialization implies a crisis of the middle class as an ideological project.

While problematizing top-down understandings of financialization, our analysis of the micro-settings of debt aims to be multi-scalar and multidimensional, including: a) the articulations between ordinary people's practices and moral frameworks, b) the transformations in (supra) state regulations, and c) the dynamics of capital accumulation. Steps which seem necessary if we are to explain the making (or unmaking) of finance capitalism.

Financialization from the margins: notes on the incorporation of Rosario's subproletariat into consumer credit (Argentina, 2009-2015)

Author: Hadrien Saiag (LAIOS/CNRS)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses how Rosario’s subproletariat has been incorporated into consumer credit, from 2009 to 2015. This situation is described as a complex process, portrayed by the juxtaposition of heterogeneous debt practices, the access to new forms of consumption, and a new form of exploitation.

Long Abstract

This paper discusses how Rosario's subproletariat has been massively incorporated into consumer credits, based on two field-works carried on in 2009 and 2013 in Rosario's (Argentina) main industrial district. Indeed, in this short period or time, Rosario's subproletariat's saving and debt practices changed dramatically. On the one hand, nonregistered workers' families have been incorporated into the national social protection system, from 2010 onwards, which resulted in massive cash transfers to people who did not previously receive formalized and regular income. On the other hand, financial institutions began offering new consumption credit instruments to this population (credit cards, credits in cash, and delayed payments for household electrical), through very aggressive practices. As a result, by the end of 2013, almost every household contracted at least one consumption credit to financial institutions, while almost no financial institution provided any kind of credit and saving device to this population until 2010.

This situation is understood as a complex process, portrayed by 1) the juxtaposition of a variety of complex and compartmentalized formal and informal debt practices, which express highly diverse kinds of social relations; 2) the access to new forms of consumption from which the subproletariat was previously excluded; and 3) a new form of exploitation, characterized by a profound feeling of alienation of people's time, because of the existing hiatus between the time of financial institutions (formalized on a monthly basis), and the time of people's work (made by erratic and non formalized payments).

Debt: Systems of dependence and bondage in Pakistani brick kilns

Author: Antonio De Lauri (Chr. Michelsen Institute)  email

Short Abstract

This paper - based on fieldwork conducted in Pakistani brick kilns in Jun/July and November 2015 and February 2016 - aims to report narratives of debt and bondage, using an ethnographic perspective.

Long Abstract

According to most international humanitarian reports, Pakistan is considered to be one of the states where bondage and labour exploitation are most deeply entrenched, affecting the lives of millions of people. Indeed, South Asian brick kilns have long attracted the attention of both humanitarian agencies and scholars as sites of slavery-like forms of labour exploitation. Nowadays, they represent an important case study to investigate the systems of dependence and debt-relationships that characterise Southern Asian capitalism. Through an ethnographic perspective, the paper will address the following questions: Is work at the brick kiln only a phase in the person's life-cycle, or is it the whole of the debtor/worker's life? How do workers describe brick kiln labour? What role do ideas of "future" play in the lives of the bonded workers?

An indirect debt: rent debts and the social structure of the low-income families' indebtedness

Author: François Camille (CRESPPA-CSU, Université Paris 8)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation tries to explain why, facing impoverishment or irregular incomes, rent tends to be sacrificed as a budget heading or to be used as a temporary adjustement variable by low-incomes families. The analysis contributes to a reflection on the social structure of these households' indebtedness.

Long Abstract

In France the number of households who fall behind in rent have considerably increased in recent years. For instance, the number of cases that came to court for rent debt reached 147 667 in 2012, representing a 25% increase since 2001. This evolution is generally viewed as a result of two combined factors : stagnant or declining incomes (due to a lay-off, a disease, etc.) and rising housing costs. This general perspective underlines the structural constraints which bear on households and facilitate the increase of rent debts. However, it ignores the different ways that low-income families react to impoverishment, and it underestimates the scale and the role of the households' budgetary practices in the emergence of this particular kind of indebtness. This presentation tries to explain why, facing impoverishment or irregular incomes, rent tends to be sacrificed as a budget heading or to be used as a temporary adjustement variable by low-incomes families. The analysis relies on an ethnographic research conducted among the debt recollection department of an important public-housing landlord in the Paris suburbs. Debt recollection work provides indeed an original point of view on budgetary practices of low-incomes households who fall behind in rent. By analyzing the specificty of rent arrears as a way for low-incomes families to gain some financial flexibility, this presentation contributes more broadly to a reflection not only on the amounts impoverished families owe, but also on the social structure of these households' indebtedness.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.