The shifting controversies of consumer credit

February 10, 2009

What is a controversy? And what is the nature of the publics that are involved in controversies? These are some of the questions that were posed by Bruno Latour on Saturday, at a highly engaging event organised by the Columbia Communications School PhD programme (many thanks to Rasmus Nielsen in particular). Publics are, argued Latour, not a singular pregiven entity (‘The Public’) that we can assume to simply exist, ready to be consulted when, and if needed, but an entity whose visibility is variable and intermittent: blinking into view only when, and if, the lighthouse beam of a controversy falls on them, or to use a different metaphor, when finding themselves entangled within one. And we should be careful, continued Latour, to assume that these publics are necessarily the same as those who are spoken for, whether by governments, companies, activists and NGOs. Because publics ‘blink on’, only when a particular controversy escapes the ability of these very spokespersons to adequately resolve them. Part of our job as researchers becomes to remain attentive to the ‘coarse signs’ that signal towards the existence of, or transformations in these controversies.

What consequences might this apparently abstract debate (whose detail I have only sketched) have for the objects we study? I want to open up this question by looking at my own object of study, consumer credit, and how its visibility, and its publics, may have changed over period over which my attention has been directed onto it, beginning in late 2004.

As a researcher, one very coarse ‘coarse sign’ of the visibility of your object of study is others’ reaction to you when introducing your topic. In that respect, there has been a broad (I should say, this is purely anecdotal – as this is a blog, I feel I can be a bit more methodologically loose) shift away from seeing consumer credit as private attachment, usually manifest along the lines of ‘oh, consumer credit, interesting. You should definitely speak to me / my best friend, I have / s/he has loads of credit cards’, and towards attaining the status of a Public Issue: ‘oh, consumer credit, interesting. That’s very topical’.

So, consumer credit has become topical, a Topic, an ‘argument suitable for debate’. In other words, consumer credit appears, in the popular (I hesitate to say Public) imagination at least, to have achieved the status of a Controversy, a subject upon which divergent opinions exist, to which academic expertise can add its own, but upon which agreement is, it seems, unlikely.

But what then, was it before? The object certainly exhibited some of the coarse signs of controversy. Take the following headlines in the UK from 2004:

‘CREDIT KILLS A FAMILY MAN: … father of two committed suicide over £70,000 debt from 19 credit cards … ’ (The Daily Mail, 11/04/04)

‘CREDIT CARD MADNESS: Spend spend Britons run up 75% of Europe’s entire debt on plastic’ (The Daily Express, 17/04/04)

‘CREDIT CARD MELTDOWN: Spend now, pay later binge may force interest rate rise’ (The Daily Mail, 04/05/04)

In addition to these high profile news stories, academics, economists, politicians, activists, particularly in the US and the UK, were certainly all debating the rights and wrongs of consumer credit, some highly presciently (the now much lauded UK opposition politician Vince Cable is cited in the last of these articles, warning against the crash). And yet, did this controversy really have a public? It is tempting to say that, to a ‘large’ (I’ll come back to the importance of scale) extent it did not. The case referred to by the first headline is a tragic one and did not exist in isolation. Yet, as a coarse sign, this and other similar cases blinked only infrequently. The remaining two are more peculiar, in their very attempt to speak for and to a public that appears not to be listening: ‘experts have warned that Britain’s reliance on credit card borrowing is spiralling out of control’ continues the Daily Express. But are experts’ warnings signs of controversies?

Part of my own interest in consumer credit at the time was that its use was, despite these headlines, for most, undeniably mundane, unspectacular, and ordinary. Consumer credit had become, for many, an everyday ‘fact’. And headlines, however prescient, foretelling a ‘meltdown’ or proclaiming the ‘madness’ of Britain’s spend spend spend culture did not, and perhaps could not, create the public that they wanted to. Warnings such as the above (themselves often highly internally contradictory) were, to a large extent, not heeded, spending continued, and real hardship for thousands is now a result (not, I should emphasise, ‘the’ result – its causes are too manifold for such simple narratives).

But, as I argue in my working paper, consumer credit does have, and has always had, controversy rolled up in it as part of its operations, particularly as translated through its processes of debt collection. These processes, which consumer credit depends on are, and always were, extant in the background of the operations of consumer credit, ready to be unfolded in relation to a particular debtor should their situation take a turn for a worse. And as such they are, I suggest mini-controversy generators. In making this claim, I do not mean to make a moral judgement, but an empirical one: debt collection is controversial, in the sense outlined above, because of its ability, in a highly localised context – often a family home – to render itself visible and to pose problems to an individual and those in his/her close proximity, which others (the state, activists, NGOs) cannot ultimately solve – partly because repaying consumer debt is, by definition, the responsibility of the consumer alone.

It may be, as I argue, and as Daniel commented on, that expert advice can help reframe a household-level controversy that results from technologies of debt collection, putting an individual in a position where economic calculations become relevant once again, back onto a path where the debt, or at least an agreed part of it, can be repaid. However, this expert knowledge – indeed it is not in their remit – deal with the various and complex ‘externalities’ of defaulting on debts, such as the worries associated with being overindebted, or its impact on the shape of a debtor’s relationships with others. Consumer credit therefore is and always was controversial, in Latour’s sense, not because newspapers headlines make it so, but because, even before the credit crisis, debtors were defaulting and being asked questions which were beyond the limits, or remits, of expertise to fully answer.

The transformation in its status to an apparent ‘Public’ controversy is as a result of these mini-household controversies have enrolled more actors to their cause: whereas before, in the above examples, newspapers were trying, and to a large extent failing, to attach the dangers of consumer credit to actors such as a potential immanent (0.5%) rise in interest, or to experts’ macro-economic worries, or even to isolated personal tragedies, now, struggling with consumer debt can with some ease be tied to the consequences of house price deflation, job losses, high inflation, to name a few. Moreover, the current crisis also meets another of Latour’s coarse signs: the state, NGOs, experts seem, by and large, to unable to agree on what to do about it. What was a series of highly affecting household mini-controversies have therefore ‘gone big’, and ‘gone visible’, becoming connected to the global spectacular, incorporating a vast range of actors, that is the current economic crisis.

However, the scale of controversies alone should not determine the direction in which our attention is focused (even if the way a controversy attains this scalar reach maybe should – I argue something similar elsewhere). This is because, for the individual defaulting debtor, the questions being asked of them may still be very similar in 2009 to 2004. For some controversies do not ask for engagement, they demand it: Noortje Marres [1] argues of the productivity of the term, borrowed from Science and Technology Studies, of ‘attachment’, which attempts to capture an ambiguous relationship of ontological commitment and dependency in relation to some controversies. This does I think speak well to the experience of being a defaulting debtor, which is one of being in a state of deep ontological (and, as I argue in the paper, bodily) attachment to debt: a debtor has to constantly interact, and become committed to, a variable network of financial institutions, advisors, and services, whilst constantly facing the implied wholesale threat to, or endangerment of, her existence if she opts out interaction with them. This personal controversy may not be global, but it is a controversy nonetheless. That is, in Latour’s terms at least.

[1] Noortje Marres (2007), The Issues Deserve More Credit: Pragmatist Contributions to the Study of Public Involvement in Controversy, Social Studies of Science, 2007; 37(5), p.774. Available online here (if you have access to a subscription).

19 Responses to “The shifting controversies of consumer credit”

  1. […] My first guest post on Socializing Finance looks at the status of consumer as a controversial object. You can have a read here. […]

  2. danielbeunza Says:

    I am not sure that consumer credit has a controversy built into it. Even if I agree that repossession and taking people out of their homes is “controversial” in the lay meaning of the term.

    But here’s what I find fascinating about your post. Your emphasis, I believe, lies correctly on Latour’s coarse signs. What you seem to be implying is that the consumerism that overtook Britain (and other countries) may have been a consequence of the lack of coarse signs that the apparent wealth (high house prices) might be illusory. And I could not agree more — one defining characteristic of economic bubbles is the absence of heterogeneity in perspectives.

    Which takes me to two tentative ideas. First, the benefits of conceptualizing bubbles as peculiar forms of controversy. Second, the need for sociologists to engage with “personal finance.” That is, how do consumers make spending, investment and saving decisions? What tools do they use? What coarse signs might be available to them to avoid entering again into the same mess they’re in?

  3. joedeville Says:

    Perhaps ‘built in’ (or ‘rolled up’ as I say above) is too deterministic. But what I am suggesting is the value of paying attention to the ways in which consumer credit, as with other issues that demand an ontological attachment by the publics they enrol, at least parallels descriptions of ambiguous attachments to public controversies in the STS literature. And that an apparent difference in scale (‘private’ vs ‘public’) is not sufficient reason to treat them as wholly different.

    Perhaps this longer extract from Noortje’s article, in discussing the advantage of the concept of ‘attachment’ over ‘frames’ might help clarify things:

    ‘The notion of ‘attachment’ enables us to appreciate that actors may be implicated in issues through ontological associations. A particular combination of ‘dependency on’ and ‘commitment to’ such associations characterizes actors’ involvement in issues: the ‘endangerment’ of associations brings dependency into relief, and may be productive of commitment. Indeed, I can suggest that if we wish to
    appreciate the ‘endangered’ status of associations highlighted by public controversies, then a focus on ‘attachments’ has advantages over the analysis of frames’ (Marres 2007: 774).

    As for your second point, I agree. Or, to put it another way, it is perhaps not only the lack of a heterogeneity of perspectives, but the differential power of some perspectives to enrol support from other perspectives. To make themselves ‘matter’ sufficiently to, as you say, enter into an economic calculation.

    And then finally, as to the two important questions you raise, both I think are interesting. In answer to the first, as to which tools consumers use, in relation to my own research, I can only say that that’s something I’m going to be working on over the coming months!. The second, bubbles as controversies, I think that certainly may be productive and worth thinking about further.

    Perhaps also, to be a little playful, controversies could also be thought of as bubbles… always in process, shifting shape depending on the directions they are pulled by a range of (in a bubble’s case microscopic) actors, engaged in a struggle to retain some form of structural coherence. But then maybe I am ‘stretching’ this particular metaphor too far…?

  4. danielbeunza Says:

    Noortje lost me. But on the importance of market devices for personal finance. Here’s a fascinating article on the relationship between tools (or, more important, the lack of them) and performance:

  5. joedeville Says:

    Interesting stuff – what comes first, chicken or egg, messy folder, or taking pride/becoming organised because of engagement with a particular subject? Or is the improvement amongst these boys simply because they are suddenly subject to the attention of a well meaning educational expert? A causal knot that certainly needs unpicking (as well as complicating no doubt).

    That aside, as someone who, when I was a kid, always had a messy backpack and folders, I think I’d be a little suspicious of kindly teachers demanding to rummage through my stuff to see if I was adequately performing as an organised (and by implication, eventually economically organised) citizen to be!

    By the way, I just couldn’t help notice this invocation of the authority of lay expertise: ‘…some educators think the tutors are on the right track, whether or not there is science to back them up’.

  6. danielbeunza Says:

    Regardless of whether one thinks of order as personally liberating or a sign of subjugation to society, I would say we agree that material objects constrain and enable what you can or cannot do. The issue at hand, then, is whether there exist simple heuristics in the use of these objects that enhance the capabilities afforded by them. And if they do, some people may not know them. Why assume that everyone knows what those heuristics are?

  7. […] 11, 2009 As Joe Deville explains in his recent post, Bruno Latour did indeed give a remarkable presentation at Columbia this past weekend. His talk, […]

  8. joedeville Says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more! If I suggested otherwise, then please just take it as due to blog-induced flippancy. The affordances offered by material artefacts of all sorts are certainly worthy of study and there is certainly plenty of scope to ‘translate’ these findings into practical solutions. The last thing we should be doing as social researchers is confining ourselves to analysis alone and avoiding interventions in the worlds we study.

  9. […] artefact, one perhaps quite simple point here (and this relates to previous posts here and here), is the historical persistence of controversy around forms of borrowing, as well as the need for […]

  10. ailsa Says:

    I enjoyed your post, I like the way you wrote of the ‘public that blinks on’ only when there are controversies pp Latour.

  11. joedeville Says:

    Thanks Ailsa! Glad you liked it

  12. Noortje Marres Says:

    Here is a response to some of the questions raised by Joe. He refers to work on public controversies that I have been involved in, and triggered some memories of discussions I’ve had with people in Paris, about the usefulness of the public/private distinction in this respect.

    I think it may be important to resist framing personal issues like debt or places like the home or as ‘private’, not only because these settings and things have everything to do with publicity media, but also for reasons that are related precisely to the wish to understand better how actors are implicated in controversies.

    Indeed, authors like Walter Lippmann, as well as Latour in his recent work on controversy, both propose to shift attention to another distinction, namely that between ‘public’ and routine. From this standpoint, something becoming topical, as Joe calls it, is not only, or not necessarily about it shifting from the category/domain of a ‘merely’ private concern to that of public good. Rather, the critical point is that a matter that is already affecting/implicating/disturbing social actors comes to be articulated as an affair that may include many more actors, and potentially ‘everyone.’ It is thus more about a shift in the scope and
    form of implication, that a shift from one domain into another.

    Importantly, from such a perspective there is no reason to dismiss the household as a site for the articulation of issues, and our entanglement in them – to the contrary perhaps, as the sites that tend to
    be thought of as “private”, are often the very sites where we are most intimately implicated in affairs – from debt to resource politics.
    Secondly this suggests that we should think about controversy in process terms too (as Joe suggests with regard to debt). Ie a controversy is about stuff happening, unfolding through time, with the extent to which it makes a difference to actors that are differently located in space/time (ie ‘captures’ them) being variable. That is, the question is then not only whether a given object is or is not controversial, but rather how the modes of our implication in them are/become emotionally, politically, etc. charged.

  13. joedeville Says:

    Many thanks for that comment Noortje. I think the points you raise are very valuable in this discussion.

    I agree, it seems absolutely key to me to resist rearticulating/reifying a public/private opposition, with ‘issues’ placed in a hierarchy in relation to (apparent) ‘scalar’ reach at a particular ‘moment’ in time (which, as you suggest, implies the existence of different domains).

    I think, in light of this, a focus on tracing the varied (temporal and spatial) articulations of controversies (which you imply) is crucial. This leads me to consider in relation to my own research how this might mean tracing some of the ways in which, despite the home being a key ‘passage point’ through which, for example, collection technologies have to pass, remaining attentive to the ways in which these technologies become ‘attached’ to (or, to use a different metaphor, leak out into) other spaces through which debtors pass in their day-to-day lives.

    Plenty of food for thought, certainly…

  14. […] and of the material devices that they use to accomplish them, in the fashion of Martha Poon and Joe Deville. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Wising UpNo TitleThe State of the Union Bush […]

  15. Don Draper Says:

    There is a lot of debate when it comes to the public and their handeling of credit card debt.

  16. […] the sociology of finance, interest in personal finance has been led by the work of Zuzsi Vharga and Joe Deville — both contributors to this blog. And many more issues remain: interface design, financial […]

  17. That is why I tell my readers at to get out of debt now and insulate yourself from any potential fallout of a failed world economy.

  18. […] like other risk screening processes studied by Deville and Poon, this is an exchange that apart of human beings, involves many other type of actors, such […]

  19. Great entry, and thanks for taking the effort to publish it; I’m sure otheres benefited as wel. It really opened my eyes for some new ideas that I hadn’t thought of before.

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