Debt: Experience and Critique

2 Mar 2016

The University of Warwick held an event on 24 February on the sociology of debt, entitled Debt: Experience and Critique. Attended by PhD students and professors, the event explored the ‘lived experience’ of indebtedness through an academic lens.

First to speak was Professor Lisa Adkins at the University of Newcastle (Australia) who spoke about debt not just as a relationship between a creditor and a debtor, or the situation in which one person owes another person something (typically money), but rather as something that encompasses someone’s whole life.

Debt, Professor Adkins argues, is related to many other aspects than just money relations. Mental health is something affected by debt, as is one’s confidence and the way in which we relate to other people. In short, Adkins would suggest, debt cannot be separated from our social lives.

As such, it’s too easy simply to suggest the only way of ensuring debt isn’t a problem in society is by regulating financial services businesses, or by creating individual plans for debt reduction.

It’s important to note that Professor Adkins doesn’t necessarily dismiss the work of those regulating services, nor does she deny the value of individual interventions such as debt advice. Rather, she suggests that in order to start to understand debt in society, we must first see it as a societal issue, as well as a historical one (certain groups have historically been more indebted than others). Only then can we start to appreciate debt as more than just an individual’s problem.

During the Questions and Answer session, attendees agreed that debt absolutely cannot be separated from societal factors. However, experience tells us that debt, and the ‘lived experience’, can often be understood in rather interesting and non-obvious ways. Debt – especially problem debt or over-indebtedness – isn’t always understood as being something “vulnerable people” experience.

It was also mentioned the fact that a very small number of people who take on payday loans to smooth over incomes earn upwards of £70,000, according to recent figures published by one UK trade body, disrupts our typical thinking about high cost credit customers.

Professor Adkins responded saying this is what’s so interesting about digging deeper into how people experience debt, not as something that compares to a set of previously held assumptions, but as something that can often surprise us and challenge preconceptions of “vulnerability”.

After Professor Adkins’ talk, Joe Deville from the University of Lancaster spoke about his recent book ‘Lived Economies of Default’, published recently by Routledge.

Deville talked about the development of predatory debt collection methods and how emotion and psychology came to be so important for rogue recovery companies to essentially scare indebted people into stopping everything, no matter their circumstances and other commitments, and to see debt repayments as the most important outgoing they have.

He talked about one company in the US during the 1960s who were very open about their methods by saying in a paper: “What we wanted was a system of demands that would be psychologically effective … something that would, through a psychological effect on the average mind, automatically create a maximum average money reaction”.

The audience then heard from Samuel Kirwan from the University of Bristol, who has studied debt advice services in detail, exploring attitudes to debt and morality.

Kirwan warned against the extent to which debts can often “derail life”, and the extent to which debt advice agencies need to be mindful of the myriad ways debtors experience financial problems.

The event made it apparent that being able to engage with academics looking at indebtedness and the agencies that work with those struggling with debt proved extremely useful; to see another view of frontline work. Examining the ‘lived experience’ of debt, in an avowedly creative and theoretical way, really adds value for those working at the coalface.