Debt, consumption and freedom: social scientific representations of consumer credit in Anglo-America

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Abstract

The article explores a range of social scientific representations of credit and debt in the United States and Britain and how these have been organized around the problem of freedom. On the one hand, credit is projected as productive, embodying and securing liberal values of individual autonomy and self-determination. On the other, debt is portrayed as consumptive, ensnaring the individual, subverting her or his will and undermining the capacity for self-determination. The classic cultural injunction against consumer borrowing is captured under the rubric of the Puritan ethic which portrays indebtedness as contrary to the values of individual freedom and autonomy; however, it is shown here how the meanings attached to credit and debt have always been ambiguous in practice. Over the 20th century, and continuing today, a number of economic writers have attempted to legitimize the development of consumer credit by demonstrating how it contributes towards freedom and security. However, it is shown how these accounts shift in response to changing economic discourses as well as credit’s growing pervasiveness. In contrast, sociological writers have tended to criticize the accumulation of debt as damaging to both individual autonomy and societal welfare. Again, these accounts also manifest a notable change in emphasis over time in response to shifting constructions of the problem of social change. Finally, recent empirical work is drawn upon to demonstrate the ways in which freedom itself can be a contingent and contextual element in the production of consumer credit.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-43
Number of pages19
JournalHistory of the Human Sciences
Volume28
Issue number4
Early online date13 Aug 2015
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2015

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