AAA 2015 Preview: Rethinking the Household for the Age of Finance

Household rethink 2 Photo by nikcname.

By Ainur Begim and Mateusz Halawa, panel organizers

One of the sessions in the upcoming AAA meeting in Denver, sponsored by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology, looks at contemporary transformations of one of our most basic units of analysis, the household. Economic anthropologists have been long interested in households as fundamental social and economic units and sites of residence, production, consumption and distribution of resources. Ethnographic and comparative studies of households tracked gift and commodity exchanges, interplays of morals and markets, and gendered divisions of labor. With finance assuming greater importance in the global political economy, especially in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, anthropologists have begun to pay closer attention to emerging sites and spaces of high finance, but the place of the household in the process of financialization remains undertheorized. The goal of our panel starts from the premise that more conceptual work is needed to understand how these kinds of households, at once familiar and strange, 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.

Organized and co-chaired by two PhD candidates, Ainur Begim from Yale and Mateusz Halawa from The New School for Social Research, this panel brings together five diverse empirical papers, but aims to start a broader theoretical and methodological conversation about how we may study households today. It will examine how households produce new understandings of family and domesticity through consumption of financial products, often in pursuit of middle-class lifestyle. Contributors explore how the logic of finance informs urban housing as a material and architectural form; how new forms of financial advice and education are implicated in refashioning of subjectivities and personhoods; and how households rely on financial tools to secure their lives and homes. Building on recent contributions in anthropology of finance and economic anthropology more broadly, this panel seeks to revisit the histories of anthropological work on households, to reinvigorate the methods for fieldwork among domestic units, and to enhance our conceptualizations of the household in light of processes of financialization. To this end the presenters will be joined by distinguished discussants: Jane Guyer (Johns Hopkins University), Frederick Wherry (Yale), Caitlin Zaloom (NYU).

Ainur Begim’s paper, Life Insurance, Financial Planning and Personhood in Postsocialist Kazakhstan, is based on 15 months of field research in 2012-2013. She examines the emergence of life insurance as a savings device for multi-generational households. An oil-based economy, Kazakhstan enjoys one of the highest incomes per capita in the postsocialist region, but in the context of rampant inflation, a weakened post-crisis banking system, and uncertainty surrounding the political regime, Kazakhstanis struggle to find suitable savings and investment vehicles. Many have turned to illicit accumulative life insurance schemes, often 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. In her paper, Begim argues that financial advisers who peddle these schemes are in the business of creating new forms of personhood as well as new ways of conceiving, planning for, and living a good life in the state of pervasive economic and political uncertainty.

Nicholas D’Avella’s paper, “Architecture is for Everyone:” Design Practice and the Matter of Care takes us to Argentina. 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. This paper examines the politics of architectural education and production in Buenos Aires in this context. How might architectural design produce and sustain a set of values different from those of real estate investment? How are political histories surrounding economic life — including Peronism and neoliberalism — brought to bear in contemporary design practices? The paper traces the politics of architectural education in Buenos Aires from the dictatorship years of the 1970s through the neoliberal 1990s and into the present. D’Avella finds 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. His talk thus considers the household as an economic unit in tension with other visions of what the household could be by tracing the enactment of other forms of value in the production of urban housing.

Mateusz Halawa’s paper, Making a Living: How Young Couples in Warsaw Start and Practice a Household is co-authored by Marta Olcoń-Kubicka, with whom Halawa studies the economic lives of young family households in Warsaw, Poland. This paper explores 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, this paper treats the household as an ongoing process, not a ready-made thing, and attends 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. Seen from that perspective, the household is a fragile accomplishment and we should not take its existence for granted, but rather ask: how does a household come to be and how is it sustained through time? This paper seeks to answer this question theorizing from ethnography. It tracks 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. The paper focuses on: (1) intimate pair dynamic, in which young couples use money and finance to try out and achieve a negotiated vision of the good life together; (2) managing ties with parents and in-laws, in which some forms of intergenerational transfers are cut, but some others sustain the young household as a semi-autonomous domain; (3) domestic uses of software (Excel) in order to render the household visible, manageable, and solvent.

Georgia Harman’s paper, “Homes with Value:” Housing Finance and the Transformation of Homeownership in Mexico focuses 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. Until recently, the majority of homes were built incrementally – whereby homeowners built gradually as funds became available. The considerable capital investment necessary for this kind of construction prevented many middle and low-income Mexicans from owning homes, and an inability to regulate incremental construction made it impossible to ensure the health and safety of these structures. Widely available housing finance has 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. Key to designing a market for housing finance – a process Michel Callon refers to as marketization – has been the definition of people and things as appropriate receptors of credit. Infonavit has accomplished this by developing criteria that allow officials to define heterogeneous people, circumstances, and spaces according to an objective set of variables. This process has facilitated a reorganization of the relationship between people, household, and economy – and restructured urban geographies and the meaning of homeownership. Drawing on ethnographic research with Infonavit officials, this paper examines 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.

Hadas Weiss’s paper, The Making of Financially Literate Households starts 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. Financial literacy courses are the flagship instrument through which it is enacted. Critics identify the ideological function of these courses as responsiblizing households for financial dynamics far beyond their control. Meanwhile, numerous studies assess how successful these courses are in producing savvy risk-managers. But there has so far been no study of the actual reception of the messages that these courses promote. In this first stab at an ethnography of financial literacy Weiss draws on her fieldwork in Israel to locate and analyze the points at which the ideology of finance is effective, and those at which it is resisted. She examines the logic of household economics that finance sets about to transform, and trace the social and political implications of their mutual implication.

The session meets on Friday, November 20, 2015: 4:00 PM-5:45 PM. It is sponsored by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology and the Society for Economic Anthropology.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh:

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