16th November 2015

Debt Trails: Workshop in Budapest 3-4 March 2016

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Debt trails: Mapping relations of debt and credit from everyday actors to global credit markets

A workshop with Paul Langley and Liz McFall

3-4 March 2016, Budapest, Hungary, ELTE University

The 2007-8 global financial crisis was interpreted by many as a challenge to mainstream economics and as an opportunity for social sciences to provide alternative explanations. This opportunity has hardly been realised, even though the crisis has given further impetus to studies looking at credit and debt outside the economics discipline. One of the reasons lays in the disciplinary variety and theoretical lenses used by social sciences, ranging from economic sociology to economic geography, political economy and social studies of finance, which arguably do not provide a uniform, let alone universal explanation as economics does.

One of the main division among social science takes on credit and debt is between what can be termed as microscopic vs macroscopic research agendas. The application of Actor-Network Theory, Science and Technology Studies and practice-theory approaches to economic phenomena, particularly in the interdisciplinary field of Social Studies of Finance, has been celebrated for describing the very concrete, material processes that make up the Economy (cf. MacKenzie 2006; McFall 2014; Deville 2015). This work resonates with Latour’s (2005) program to follow the actors and with Christophers’ (2011a; 2011b) call to ‘follow the money’ by applying the commodity chain approach to money, and credit in particular, in order to reveal ‘the social and economic relations both underpinning and occasioned by money’s creation and circulation’ (2011a:1069-70). Critiques, on the other hand, saw these accounts as merely providing ‘all cogs and no car’, getting lost in empirical detail, being devoid of politics (Winner 1993; Mirowski and Nik-Khah 2007) and ignoring the most important sites of credit and debt relations: institutions, regulation, and ultimately, social relations (Gilbert 2011). More macroscopic approaches (cf. Langley 2008; Crouch 2009; Krippner 2011), developing larger theoretical and empirical claims, in turn, were praised for actually proving the car rather than merely the cogs; and were at the same time accused by critiques of missing empirical detail and filling the resulting gaps with concepts and the untraceable operations of larger forces, such as Power or the Social.

One way of approaching this divide is to suggest that different scales require different theoretical lenses. If one is to study everyday debt or a smaller local site, microscopic concepts, such as ‘practices’, and microscopic methods, such as ANT,  are useful; whereas the study of the global financial system requires a ‘bigger’ lens, such as a political economy approach. Others, in contrast, see these approaches as reflecting different ontologies and choices implying trade-offs between detail and generality of the argument. According to this view, the same theoretical and empirical tools can be applied irrespective of the ‘size’ of the phenomenon; size is seen as a matter of scale. This question is one of the key concerns of this workshop.

The second concern relates to the fact that most empirical work and derived theories on credit and debt are focused on Western contexts, despite some notable attempts to counter the trend (cf. Deville and Seigworth 2015). To some extent this phenomenon is an unintended consequence of the approaches described above. If meeting the imperative of a clear ‘theoretical contribution’ is a challenge for all microscopic studies, it is all the more so for those carried out outside Western contexts, in ‘less interesting’ places. For macroscopic studies, in turn, a theory based on data on these ‘special’ cases is simply not general enough. As a result, the study of credit and debt in non-Western contexts is more developed in comparative studies (cf. Schwartz and Seabrooke 2008; Bohle 2014), and ironically, in economics, where – thanks to its universalistic ontology – context hardly matters.  The second aim of the workshop is to reflect on the plurality of debt and debt trails, and to open up questions not only about local-global connectivities and variations, but also about how these variations can actually be constitutive of the nature of the debt relation itself (cf. Ossandón forthcoming).

The workshop seeks to bring these diverse theoretical lenses and area focuses into conversation and features an exchange between Paul Langley and Liz McFall exploring the challenge of practice focused studies. The aim is to foster a more thorough understanding of debt and credit and to open up theoretical exchanges across disciplinary boundaries. To do that the workshop focuses on the following questions:

  1. Do we have to change our theoretical lens when we look at different actors of the credit/debt phenomenon? Or can the same theories that we use to understand everyday borrower practices be used to understand international regulation? What are the trade-offs that are involved in our choice?
  2. Which analytical terms suit best to describe the relationship between different actors? Why and how do these relations matter? What do we gain by connecting different actors of the credit and debt market compared to focusing on one or two actors?
  3. What do we gain by studying contexts outside Western countries and in what ways these studies be brought into dialog with the existing body of knowledge? Are variations mainly interesting from a comparative angle, or are these connections and variations central to the debt relations themselves?

The workshop welcomes participants working either on a specific actor of the credit/debt market or on their interconnections, broadly conceived. Participants will be asked to send a short (3000 words) piece reflecting on the theme of the workshop based on their own research.

The workshop will take place in Budapest, and is hosted by the Department of Media and Communication, ELTE University with support from the Journal of Cultural Economy and the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund.

To apply please send a 300-words abstract by the 14th of December 2015 to debttrails@gmail.com. 

Paul Langley is Reader in Economic Geography at Durham University. His research combines cultural economy and economic geography approaches to understand financial markets, including everyday credit and savings, sub-prime mortgages, financial regulation and alternative forms of finance. He is author of the books World Financial Orders (Routledge, 2002), The Everyday Life of Global Finance (Oxford University Press, 2008) and Liquidity Lost (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Liz McFall is Head of the Department of Sociology at the Open University and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Cultural Economy. Her research has traced the making of diverse consumer markets, including the market for health insurance and payday loans, using pragmatic, historical and cultural economy approaches. Her books include Advertising: A Cultural Economy (Sage, 2004), Conduct: sociology and social worlds (Manchester University Press, 2008), Devising Consumption: cultural economies of insurance, credit and spending (Routledge, 2014) and Market and The Arts of Attachment (Routledge, 2016).

Workshop organizers: Léna Pellandini-Simányi (ELTE), Ferenc Hammer (ELTE), Zsuzsanna Vargha (University of Leicester)


Bohle, D. (2014). “Post-socialist housing meets transnational finance: Foreign banks, mortgage lending, and the privatization of welfare in Hungary and Estonia.” Review of International Political Economy 21(4): 913-948.

Christophers, B. (2011a). “Credit, where credit’s due. Response to “Follow the thing: credit”.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29: 1089-1091.

Christophers, B. (2011b). “Follow the thing: Money.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29: 1068-1084.

Crouch, C. (2009). “Privatised Keynesianism: An Unacknowledged Policy Regime.” The British Journal of Politics & International Relations 11(3): 382-399.

Deville, J. (2015). Lived Economies of Default. Consumer Credit, Debt Collection and the Capture of Affect. London, Routledge.

Deville, J. and G. J. Seigworth, Eds. (2015). Special Issue: Everyday Debt and Credit of Cultural Studies. 29 (5-6).

Gilbert, E. (2011). “Follow the thing: Credit. Response to “Follow the thing: Money”.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29: 1085-1088.

Krippner, G. R. (2011). Capitalizing on Crisis: The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Langley, P. (2008). The everyday life of global finance: Saving and borrowing in Anglo-America. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press.

MacKenzie, D. (2006). An engine, not a camera: how financial models shape the markets. Cambridge (MA), MIT Press.

McFall, L. (2014). Devising Consumption: Cultural economies of insurance, credit and spending. New York ; London, Routledge.

Mirowski, P. and E. Nik-Khah (2007). Markets Made Flesh: Perforrnativity, and a Problem in Science Studies, Augmented with Consideration of the FCC Auctions. Do economists make markets? On the Performativity of Economics. D. MacKenzie, F. Muniesa and L. Siu. Princeton, Princeton University Press: 190-254.

Ossandón, J. (forthcoming). “Sowing consumers in the garden of mass retailing in Chile.” Consumption Markets & Culture, special issue, “consuming finance”, edited by P. Langley.

Schwartz, H. and L. Seabrooke (2008). “Varieties of Residential Capitalism in the International Political Economy: Old Welfare States and the New Politics of Housing.” Comparative European Politics 6: 237-261.

Winner, L. (1993). “Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding It Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology.” Science Technology Human Values 18(3): 362-378.