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).