Anthropologists on household in times of finance

How does the growing significance of finance in the global political economy reshape the contours of everyday economic life of one our most fundamental units of analysis, the household? How might we observe financialization in ethnographic fieldwork? These and other questions organized the conversation in the panel “Rethinking the Household for the Age of Finance” in the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver this past November.

The session, sponsored by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology and by the the Society for Economic Anthropology, featured five papers by graduate student and early career researchers and two sets of comments from distinguished discussants. The goal of the panel (organized and co-chaired by two PhD candidates, Ainur Begim from Yale and Mateusz Halawa from The New School for Social Research) started from the premise that more conceptual work is needed to understand how these kinds of households become embedded in global financial flows and networks through consumer loans, mortgages, investment instruments, and individual retirement accounts. As these financial forms and practices spread well beyond the Anglo-American context and as global financial crises and neoliberal policies create new conditions of uncertainty and precarity, the household as a financial unit becomes critical for the study of everyday life post-2008.

Mateusz Halawa’s paper, Making a Living: How Young Couples in Warsaw Start and Practice a Household was co-authored by Marta Olcoń-Kubicka, with whom Halawa studies the economic lives of young family households in Warsaw, Poland. They explored practices of handling money and financial instruments among the emerging middle-class in the first postsocialist generation. Many notions of the household reify it as a functional, bounded, and stable unit. In contrast, their paper treated the household as an ongoing process, not a ready-made thing, and attended to the practices of running a household in which individual desires and deeds converge and diverge, some resources are pooled while other are kept separate, and the very virtues and futures of living together are negotiated and, at times, questioned. The paper tracked the domestic uses of money and finance in order to argue that these intimate transactions not so much happen in the household, as they are constitutive of it.

Ainur Begim’s paper, Life Insurance, Financial Planning and Personhood in Postsocialist Kazakhstan, was based on 15 months of field research in 2012-2013. She examined the emergence of life insurance as a savings device for multi-generational households, focusing on often illicit accumulative life insurance schemes, peddled using multi-level marketing techniques, to protect and valorize liquid assets. To be insured, a policyholder makes annual premium payments and at the end of the policy term, typically in 10-15 years, he or she expects to receive both the premium payments and accumulated interest. Financial advisers, who sell these accumulative life insurance schemes, primarily market them as a savings rather than insurance device, appealing to both the idealized western standards of living with dignity and traditional Kazakh values of respecting elders and supporting close kin, in turn shaping new visions of what the Kazakh middle-class family and household ought to be.

Georgia Harman’s paper, “Homes with Value:” Housing Finance and the Transformation of Homeownership in Mexico focused on matters of housing and credit. Twenty years after the reform of Infonavit into a mortgage finance institution, Mexico’s provident housing fund for workers has transformed into the largest mortgage lender in Latin America. The explosion of available credit facilitated by the reform has dramatically restructured the predominant material and financial methods of household construction in urban Mexico. Widely available housing finance facilitated the creation of a housing market, stimulating the development of a residential construction industry and reorganizing people’s relationship to homeownership through 30-year debt obligations. Harman used ethnography to track how this process has facilitated a reorganization of the relationship between people, household, and economy – and restructured urban geographies and the meaning of homeownership. She examined the processes through which structures are defined as acceptable receptors of finance and individuals as credit-worthy homeowners, and the repercussions for urban space and the Mexican household.

Nicholas D’Avella’s paper, “Architecture is for Everyone:” Design Practice and the Matter of Care took further the concern with urban space and shifted attention from the dwellers to those who get to make dwellings for others with all the ideological, political, and ethical implications of that practice. In the aftermath of Argentina’s political and economic crisis in 2001, buildings became an important form of economic investment for middle class Argentines, resulting in a boom in investment-driven construction. D’Avella wondered about the economic and social imaginaries congealed in home designs. He examined the politics of architectural education and production in Buenos Aires and found in drawings and models the technologies through which students were invested with ways of caring for the built environment that extend beyond market value, offering the possibility to conserve particular human-building relations in the face of the economic priorities that threatened to overtake them.

Hadas Weiss’s paper, The Making of Financially Literate Households started from the observation that households today are implicated into global finance through a variety of means popularly referred to as “financial inclusion”. Most operate structurally: creating wide-ranging demand for credit and then supplying it profusely with multiple strings attached. But there is one project with a truly enlightenment bent: educating the public to be discerning consumers of, and shrewd investors in, financial products. In one of the first attempts at an ethnography of financial literacy Weiss examined the logic of household economics that finance sets about to transform, and trace the social and political implications of their mutual implication.

A number of themes came up in discussion, which included comments from Caitlin Zaloom (NYU), who is working on a monograph on the transformations of contemporary middle-class American households, and from Jane Guyer (Johns Hopkins) who extensively studied and theorized African households. If the households are ways of ordering material resources in space and time, how might we further theorize the materiality of the household? We discussed the intersections of finance, architecture, planning, and place-making and how shifting trajectories of capital generate spaces with particular qualities in different scales: the city, the neighborhood, the building, the home. Following Caitlin Zaloom we traced the origins of the concept of the household to Ancient Greece in order to appreciate how morality and materiality intersect in household production and consumption. A discussion around heteronormativity of certain household ideologies and instruments of household finance and financial education led us to consider Jane Guyer’s call to better account for legal frameworks which co-constitute not just global financial orders, but also enable and constrain household practice. We are hoping to continue these conversations next year, centering on mortgage instruments.


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