'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.

Vendor shop

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?”

















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 














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








Name Title Phone E-mail
Search in Name Search in Title Search in Phone
Atreyee Sen Associate Professor +4535333882 E-mail

Funded by:

Independent Research Fund Denmark

The project have received funding from Independent Research Fund Denmark.

Project: 'After money, what is debt?': Indebted urban poor households in emerging cashless economies
Period:  2018-2021


Atreyee Sen
Department of Anthropology
Mail: atreyee.sen@anthro.ku.dk
Phone: +45 35 33 38 82

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

External members:

Name Title
Marie Kolling Postdoc at Danish Institute for International Studies