Who Are we?
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?”
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.
Listen to our podcast
To complement our podcast concerning the impact that cashless transition has on urban poor Roma at the Roskilde Music Festival in Denmark, we provide two additional interviews about cashlessness and anthropological theory. The first is an interview with Atreyee Sen, associate professor in anthropology at the University of Copenhagen and principal investigator on the project “After money what is debt?”. The second interview is with Gustav Peebles, associate professor in anthropology at The New School in New York.