Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

“Frugal or spendy?”: public accountability in an online debt support group

 “Frugal or spendy?”:  public accountability in an online debt support group

Robert A. Johnson

The credit score is a key numerical standard in consumer capital decision-making in early 21st century economics.  Home mortgages, car loans, long-term interest rates, rental agreements, and even hiring decisions are made using credit data collected by financial agencies.  However, few anthropologists have published research directly related to the credit score and its impact on local or individual financial decision-making.  Despite the copious amounts of attention paid to the causes of the Great Recession among popular media and academic sources, little – if any – ethnographic research has focused on coping strategies used in relation to the credit score.   While large, depersonalized financial institutions assign credit scores to individuals and the personal credit histories those scores represent, few individuals appear to take ownership of their credit scores.  Instead, other numerical standards – personal debt reduction and private financial budget keeping – are often employed to gain or regain access to economic capital in times of economic crisis.  For the iVillage.com debt support group, socially private strategies are turned into public discourses of accountability.  This paper surveys and analyzes the posts of the users of the iVillage.com support group using Bourdieu’s concepts of practice theory and cultural capital.  This paper shows that public accountability is the habitus in which the users of the debt support group establish their creditworthiness.  Contrary to lending agencies, which use credit scores and credit reports as an index of worthiness in the gatekeeping of cash in the American economy, the users of the debt support group use their budgets to establish frugality as a means of proving their creditworthiness.

Keywords:  Credit; credit score; creditworthiness; frugal; accountability; habitus; social capital; cultural capital


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April 18, 2012 - Posted by | abstract

2 Comments »

  1. Very promising-sounding application of Bourdieu. Do you get the distinct sense that the debt support community is, through practice, creating the habitus of responsible debt management from within, or are they modeling their behavior on a social prototype (a debt guru like Suze Orman, for example)?

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 23, 2012 | Reply

  2. Robert: this sounds solidly put together. Maybe I’m having a bonehead moment, but one thing I can’t track is exemplified by the phrase “the users of the debt support group use their budgets to establish frugality as a means of proving their creditworthiness.” Who are they establishing frugality with or to? People in the support group? Lending institutions? Themselves? Is that data you are pulling from here meant 9at least implicitly) as an alternative that large lending institutions (or any institution that looks at credit scores) might pay attention to (rather than the credit score)?

    In abstracts, one frequently encounters statements emphasizing the necessity of the paper’s research in question because of a paucity of existing research. As a conventional gesture, it rings, of course, conventionally. So “Despite the copious amounts of attention paid to the causes of the Great Recession among popular media and academic sources, little – if any – ethnographic research has focused on coping strategies used in relation to the credit score” sounds a bit empty to me. It also seems rather unlikely that anyone would reduce the Great Recession to an analysis in terms of “coping strategies used in relation to the credit score.” There has probably been little if any ethnographic research into how fire hydrants relate tot he credit score either. The sentence has the effect of diminishing the potential importance of your research, because it unintentionally seems to trivialize it or make it seem non sequitur. The issue seems less to be coping strategies and the credit score, but perhaps the disparate impact of credit score on diverse socioeconomic communities. Or the disconnect between the day-to-day financial realities of real people in the real world versus the constructed, unreal significance afforded the credit score number. Etc., etc. This was a long way of perhaps just saying “you can delete that sentence and merely claim the significance of your research, regardless of whether anyone has studied it before or not.”

    Comment by Snow Leopard | June 13, 2012 | Reply


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