Conference Agenda

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Session Overview
RN09_01b_H: Sociology of Debt
Wednesday, 30/Aug/2017:
2:00pm - 3:30pm

Session Chair: Natalia Besedovsky, University of Hamburg
Location: HB.3.19
HAROKOPIO University 70 El. Venizelou Street 17671 Athens, Greece Building: B, Level: 3.

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How do young family households manage nonmarket economic transfers from their parents?

Marta Olcon-Kubicka, Mateusz Halawa

Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland

Based on 28 ethnographic case studies from Warsaw, Poland, this paper offers an empirical study of the practices of relational work around inter vivos downward transfers of money, gifts, and property from parents to their adult children. Based on multiple home visits, interviews, observations, and financial diaries, this paper tracks the domestic uses of money and finance among young middle-class couples in Warsaw who are starting new households, but do so with significant assistance from their families. All under the age of 35, our interlocutors grew up after the social and economic reforms of 1989 and are now going on their own in social and economic realities that would be unrecognizable to their parents in their youth. Our analysis will explain how young adults match their understanding of social ties with appropriate forms of money and property in context of enduring and rearranged moral frames. We will describe these in terms of moral meanings, distinctions and justifications, and show how money and property is variously qualified as gift, entitlement, loan, compensation, or inheritance by different actors in the family. Case studies fall into two broad categories: (A) repeated, smaller transactions in a short-term cycle, including cash gifts, food or small loans; and (B) large, long-term cycle transactions, including housing or participation in the mortgage. Ethnographic descriptions include wedding preparations, which include expectations of cash gifts to be converted, dowry-like, to mortgage down payment.

Spiralling debt. The time regimes of debt collection

Elias Storms

Universiteit Antwerpen, Belgium

Over the past years, various authors have established that the notions of debt and time are inherently linked. In its essence, a debt is a quantified promise to pay at some point in the future, which leads some authors to argue that debt closes (e.g. Lazzarato) or conversely continuously reconfigures (e.g. Adkins) the debtor's future.

This contribution will explore another and hitherto neglected role of time in the everyday economic lives of debtors: the specific *time regimes* imposed through debt. To explore this dimension, I will look at the point at which debts at the household level become most tangible: the moment of collection, especially via judicial enforcement. This paper will focus on how debts can grow and 'spiral' out of control when different time regimes clash with one another. Empirically, I will pay close attention to the tools with which time regimes are deployed, such as administrative and calendric punctuality, and pecuniary punishment of deviation from standardised payments.

Pertinent to the topic of this session, this contribution looks at the interconnectedness of time, collection and over-indebtedness. By doing so, I hope to accomplish two things. First, to explore the general relevance of time regimes as technical and power-infused configurations impacting the over-indebted. Second, but equally important, to help understand how the time regime of debt collection, through its spiralling effects, is a part of the social problem of over-indebtedness.

Life After Debt: a critical analysis of the engagement/non-engagement of debtors with the Insolvency Service of Ireland

Zach John Roche

The University of Limerick, Ireland

The Insolvency Service of Ireland (ISI) was established in 2013 to respond to a crisis situation involving more than 150,000 mortgages in long-term arrears, and €157bn of personal debt (the third highest in the OECD). The ISI's strategy has been to teach financial skills to insolvent debtors, combined with up to 6 years of financial supervision, after which some debt is written off. Through this institution the aftermath of the economic boom and crisis is being dealt with, and life after debt has become possible for some Irish debtors. However, although debt is prevalent in Ireland and has been linked to stress (Mind 2008), food poverty, and financial/social exclusion (Combat Poverty Agency 2009), only 5,675 debtors (out of an estimated 200,000 who qualify) have applied for the ISI's services.

The ISI's internal research states that the reason behind this gap is primarily due to a lack of awareness by debtors of its services (Insolvency Service of Ireland 2014). Some scholars (Stamp 2013) and NGOs (Society of Saint Vincent de Paul 2013) have disagreed, arguing that the ISI is creditor focused, and overly complex.

This research goes beyond these explanations by providing a qualitatively driven sociological explanation for why the ISI has failed to persuade the vast majority of debtors to use its debt relief programmes. This project adopts a novel theoretical approach which offers new insights into indebtedness. This project synthesises micro (interviews) and macro-level data (policy analysis) by utilizing governmentality theory to analyze the power relations inherent in debt and the impact debt has on everyday life by examining the coping strategies debtors utilize to survive.

Debt as Power? Rethinking the politics of the debt state

Sahil Jai Dutta

University of Warwick, United Kingdom

In the current age of austerity, the idea that states subject to too much debt are vulnerable is ubiquitous. The revival of fiscal sociology that accompanied the publication of Wolfgang Streeck’s Buying Time, has focussed on the regressive political outcomes of a state overly dependent on debt. But what happens when public debt can function as money? The ‘moneyness’ that some debts can acquire transforms its political dynamics, because debts that circulate as money do not need to be repaid. This paper examines how the moneyness of British public debt allowed the state to amass levels of debt well beyond what it could ever realistically repay. Far from a burden, the state’s ability to issue its debt as a form of money provided it significant social power in neoliberal times. It gave the state a readily accessible pool of financing and established a monetary infrastructure through which it could govern the broader economy. Consequently, I argue that the British state does not have to be a passive recipient of creditor agendas in raising public finance. This shifts the perspective on the politics of monetary governance. The 'debt state' is often cast as one where democratic power is ceded to financial markets as the state strives for the ‘credibility’ necessary to support its growing debt. Instead, I show how the state uses the place of public debt securities in the banking system to adjust flows of liquidity in the economy more broadly, empowering the state with a potent mechanism of economic governance. In the neoliberal age where financial markets seem all empowering, the moneyness of debt helps to recapture a crucial agency of the debt state.

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