'After money, what is debt?': Indebted urban poor households in emerging cashless economies
New fiscal policies and anti-cash campaigns are being rapidly introduced both in the global North and South. They are eliminating cash transactions and replacing them with mobile and online payments, credit and debit cards, biometric payments, and virtual currencies.
Poised at this significant juncture in global economic history, this project explores the impact of this financial turn towards cashlessness on the currently cash-reliant and indebted urban poor in middle and high income countries. Focusing on financial debt (or the condition of owing money), we analyse the ways in which poor households, across different cashless regimes, respond to the diminishing use of currency in modernising cities.
Building on the emerging anthropology of digital finance, this project aims to (a) empirically study how do cash-dependent urban poor households experience the drive towards cashlessness economically and socially; (b) explore the new skills, associations and competencies forged by the urban poor as a response to cashlessness; and (c) contribute theoretically to economic anthropology by analysing how the fading material value of coins and notes can influence localised debt relations in the city. “Before there was money, there was debt.” So argues Graeber (2011) in his book concerning the social and moral history of debt. He suggests that reciprocity and exchange determined the nature of social relations well before the circulation of coins and printed currency. This project poses the subsequent unexplored question: “After money, what is debt?”
We will investigate the conceptual significance of economic transformations related to cashlessness in the larger context of theorizing money, as more and more communities are globally embraced as potential actors in digitalized credit economies. The project introduces the concept of ‘cre-debt’ to explore how the urban poor experience, utilise, and exploit cashless credit and debt (acquired through mortgages, credit cards, government subsidies for the poor etc) that have remained previously inaccessible to those at the periphery of the formal urban economy. We refer to the creative knowledge and skills that emerge and fizzle out around access, use and understanding of new and alternative forms of money as an in-between, transitional state between formal and informal, visible and invisible credit and debt. By highlighting the synergetic intersections between debt, urban poverty and cashlessness in various urban contexts, we explore how these interrelations can inform an important conceptual gap in economic anthropology on cre-debt and the ongoing ‘global war on cash’.
The project relies on ethnographic fieldwork among the urban poor in Denmark/Romania, Brazil and India. Field methods in all sites will also include studying state-led cashlessness through interviews with bank management, techdesigners and public officials (as expert interviewees) on offering formal credit to the urban poor.
Watch a video introduction to the theme of the podcast.
Case 1: Scrap money among Roma migrants
This sub-project focuses on Romanian Roma who travel to Copenhagen (Denmark) and live in homelessness. These families are often caught up in spirals of debt to local usurers in both Romania and Denmark. The project explores how cashless initiatives in both countries influence their economic possibilities for repaying their loans, and potentially change formal and informal debt relations among poor Roma households.
Contact: Camilla Ida Ravnbøl
Case 2: Biometric digital payments in India
This sub-project will examine how new financial transactions intersect with existing debt relations among the urban poor. It will trace the uses of these technologies in daily small-scale trade and household consumption, and highlight the creative ways in which urban poor use these new technologies to manage household debt and credit.
Contact: Emilija Zabiliute
Case 3: Digital money in Brazil
This sub-project explores how the urban poor juggle credit cards and other digital forms of credit that enable “anticipatory action”, and how these new modes of debt reshape local relations, characterized by asymmetry and instability as well as care and exploitation.
Contact: Marie Kolling
- Panel at the 2020 EASA conference titled 'Digital encounters, cashless cultures: Ethnographic perspectives on the impact of digital finance on economic communities'. Convenors: Atreyee Sen, David Birch and Camilla Ida Ravnbøl.
- Atreyee Sen, International Symposium on Gender, Migration and Digital Networking, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. '"My Drunk Husband Doesn’t Know": Informal Income, Phone-Banking and Female Migrant Workers in Kolkata, India' 20-21 February 2020.
- Marie Kolling, International conference, Oxford University, Latin American Centre. “Building life on credit. Precarious homes and credit economies in Salvador’s periferia”. Brazilian Studies Programme Annual Conference, 6-7 February 2020.
- Camilla Ida Ravnbøl contributes to Advisory Commitee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
- Atreyee Sen, Thomas Blom Hansen and Marie Kolling (convenors), Canadian Anthropology Society and American Anthropological Association (CASCA-AAA) Annual Conference Panel, “Changing climates of cashlessness: Ethnographic forays into digital finance and economic transitions” Vancouver, November 20-24, 2019
- Atreyee Sen, “Crisis & the Crematorium: Corpse-carers, entrepreneurship and the demonetization debacle in urban India”, CASCA-AAA Conference, November 20-24, 2019
- Marie Kolling, “Dreams and dirty names: Tracing cashlessness and urban marginality in Brazil”, CASCA-AAA Conference, November 20-24, 2019
- Atreyee Sen and Camilla Ida Ravnbol present at FKK research seminar ‘Cultures of Wealth, Poverty and Inequality’, December 10, 2019
- Camilla Ida Ravnbol, Marie Kolling and Atreyee Sen, Project Presentation on Debt and Cashlessness, 6 Dec 2019, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.
- Marie Kolling, “Remnants of progress? Social housing, urban decay, and changing urban policies“. International Conference, Brazilian Politics, Policies and Citizenship: Anthropological Perspectives on Current Challenges. 13-15 March 2019, Department of Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies, Radboud University, Neijmegen
- Atreyee Sen, Camilla Ida Ravnbøl and Marie Kolling (organisors), “Exploring Cre-debt: Ethnographic Perspectives, New Economic Theory and Contemporary Cashlessness” Workshop, 22-23 March 2019, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.
- Camilla Ida Ravnbøl, “(Im)material Revenue: Digital money and new debt relations among urban poor Roma in Copenhagen” Workshop, 22-23 March 2019, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.
- Marie Kolling, “Debt and Dirty Names: Tracing cashlessness and urban marginality in Brazil”, Workshop, 22-23 March 2019, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.
- Marie Kolling, “Cash, care and new credit regimes in Brazil” International conference, Frontiers of Accumulation. 13-14 May, Dept. of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies and Asian Dynamics Initiative, University of Copenhagen.
- Camilla Ida Ravnbøl, “Law and Life Among Homeless Roma in Copenhagen”, 27 May 2019. Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law together with Lund University, Faculty of Law.
- Atreyee Sen, “Undercover Enterprises: Pop-up Services, Urban Poverty and the Demonetisation Crisis in an Indian City,” 30th May 2019, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
Published in 2020
Atreyee Sen. post on the project blog: "My drunk husband doesn’t know": Informal income, phone-banking and female migrant workers in Kolkata, India
Camilla Ida Ravnbøl, post on the project blog: Financial inclusion for the Roma: Perspectives on access to digital finance
Marie Kolling, post on the project blog: Debt and reputational collateral on the fringes of Brazil’s credit economy
The project have received funding from Independent Research Fund Denmark.
Project: 'After money, what is debt?': Indebted urban poor households in emerging cashless economies
Blog on cashlessness
The researchers behind the project have launched a blog, which discusses the social consequences of the gradual global transition to a cashless economy.
The blog named 'After money, what is debt? - Indebted urban poor households in emerging cashless economies' can be reached here: https://aftermoney.dk/.
Also read the news story introducing the blog: New blog looks at social consequences of a cashless economy