Debt: an enduring human passion

The process of giving and receiving (and being in debt) is an inescapable part of human experience. From sub-prime lending and student loans to organ donations and gift-giving in ancient cultures, a conference at Cambridge this week will explore how debt is a central feature of the way in which societies think about and organise themselves.

Debt is the grease and oil of economies, societies and history. The challenge of understanding debt is the challenge of understanding how humans construct their worlds.

Dr Holly High

Around the world levels of debt are rising to record highs with a growing number of nations teetering on the brink of financial crisis. As individuals we are in debt as never before: in the UK average personal debt (not including mortgages) now stands at around £10,000.

Until the 1960s being in debt was frowned upon as irresponsible. That all changed with the advent of the credit card and the need for large loans to buy homes plus galloping consumerism. Today, young people wanting a university education are taking on major debts even before they secure jobs. Money worries are thought to be partly responsible for a big increase in the prescription of antidepressants.

It is not surprising that debt is a hot topic for economists today. More surprisingly, it’s also subject of fascination for anthropologists. While economists are concerned with financial instruments and prediction, anthropologists dig deep into the human constructions of debt to ask questions like: what are our moral valuations of debt, what role does debt play in our social relationships, and how does the concept of debt apply in non-capitalist economies?

Later this week a three-day conference organised by the University of Cambridge's Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) called Debt:  an enduring human passion will bring together anthropologists from nine different countries to share their research and discuss how classical anthropological theories of debt can be applied to current debt scenarios.

Anthropologists have been talking about debt since the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski conducted his pioneering study of gift exchange in the Trobriand Islands off the coast of New Guinea in the early 1900s. In particular they have looked for explanations of why people feel obligated to one another and what motivates them to give, receive and make a return.

Seen in these over-arching terms, debt is inescapable. It runs through every aspect of our lives – our family relationships, workplace, social and political transactions, our moral codes and religious beliefs – and has a powerful influence on the choices we make in our daily lives. Debt implies states of ownership and states of owing – and with it come notions such as duty, obligation, compulsion and freedom.

The conference is being organised by Dr Holly High, Research Associate in the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge. “For me, debt is fascinating because understanding debt in any given society means also understanding the politics, morality and cosmology of that society. In the west, we tend to assume that economies around the world are always based on trade or barter – but it’s only one model and there are alternatives,” she says.

“While some societies measure status by how much their members are able to gather or accumulate, others have measured status by how much their members are able to give away or disseminate. On the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America, ‘potlatchs’ were held to distribute wealth. In Papua New Guinea there is a political practice known as ‘Moka’ at which Big-Men seek status through giving the most lavish gifts.”

Early in the 20th century the French academic Marcel Mauss tried to use examples of gift economies like these to ask ‘What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?’  As Dr High explains: “In essence, he argued that the gift is never separate from the social relationships from which it arose. Inspired by Mauss, many anthropologists went on to claim that whole economies could be thought of as ‘gift economies’.”

In the 1970s Australian-born Dr Chris Gregory, then teaching in the political economy department at Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea (PNG), noticed that two economies were working side by side in ways that challenged both political economy means of understanding capitalist expansion and anthropological understandings of “gift economies”. He saw that capitalist expansion in PNG did not obliterate earlier gift economies: it enhanced them as ever greater wealth was accumulated for gifting.

Dr Gregory’s observations spurred him to take a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Cambridge and his subsequent work has focused on the distinction between gifts and commodities and how these two categories relate. He will be attending the conference to present a keynote address which questions the moral valuation of debt and credit today, using this to develop a new means of understanding sub-prime lending.

Other talks will address aspects of debt that are less commonly debated but nonetheless still relevant. Debt bondage, once common throughout the world, is a real and persistent problem in parts of South-East Asia. Tania Li from the University of Toronto will discuss the role these and other debts are currently playing in “land grabs” and resource politics in the region. Sara Shneiderman from the University of Cambridge will discuss the important role that debt plays in migration in South Asia.

Dr Graeber will draw on his research into 5,000 years of debt to investigate the moral contentions of debt. He points out that debt has been at the heart of most popular insurrections and has consistently presented a moral problem over time and across societies. Controversially, he will argue that contemporary economics is utopian, as it attempts to ignore or wipe away these inevitable moral aspects.

One of the most striking gifts is organ donation.  Mauss argued that gifts are by definition always embedded in social relationships and tend to demand thereby a kind of return. It might seem that in the case of organ donation, no return is possible. Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern of Cambridge University, another of the keynote speakers, will investigate the surprising role that money plays in debates about organ donation, noting that no matter how much people seek ways to conceive of a “free gift”, idioms of return always hover in the debate.

As Dr High notes: “Once you start thinking about debt in these fundamental terms, you see debt everywhere. From the big picture of global finance to the intimate exchanges with loved ones: we are indebted through and through. Debt is the grease and oil of economies, societies and history. The challenge of understanding debt is the challenge of understanding how humans construct their worlds, and do so with such passion and conviction.”

The conference, "Debt: Interdisciplinary considerations of an enduring human passion", will take place from Thursday, 12 May, 2011 to Saturday, 14 May, 2011. Further details can be found on the CRASSH website:

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