Undesirability of Debt

In her article titled "Debts and Indebtedness in Anthropological Fieldwork", the writer, Sanders, talked about how she was indebted to her "research subjects" during her anthropological fieldwork, and how this indebtedness was not to be seen in monetary terms, but rather social terms. Sanders explained that "...being indebted in Nepal means placing a social contract alongside the money. Resources are so scarce there, and conditions so harsh that villagers take on each others' debt in a loosely rotating system." The article very clearly demonstrated the idea of exchange as a social process, and its role in maintaining social relationships – exchange in the Himalayan village was overtly social, and as Sanders put it, “Being in debt is saying, "When and if I can, I will be there for you, too".” Such non-equivocal and delayed systems of exchange place the emphasis on social relationships, rather than on economic or pragmatic value. Debt is not seen negatively, but more as an essential part of life that contributes to the maintenance of social relationships and ensuring that help will always be available to members of a community from the others.
Undesirability of Debt - Anthropology & the Human Condition
I found this article rather enlightening, especially due to her comparison to the modern, current context of America, which brought up certain points that I had not thought about previously. In our modern society, as Sanders noted, such notions of exchange as social contracts are becoming increasingly rare, with market exchange being dominant. While debt remains an essential part in our lives, perhaps even more so now, with our lives being ruled by money and economics, there is a stark contrast to the Nepal society that Sanders described – debt is seen as undesirable in our modern context – "Debt becomes connected to shame and dependency." Such a statement is something we all can surely understand – problems of credit card debts and student loans are very real issues in our society, and the word ‘debt’ brings to mind these issues, of being dependent on and owing money to faceless institutions, rather than the social idea of indebtedness in Sanders’ Himalayan village. Sanders explains that "Debt is a decidedly social phenomenon”, and it has become “so complicated in the current American psyche because it is rife with social paradox." The social aspect to debt and indebtedness has been eroded in modern society, and with the “power differentials between debtors and creditors” being highly unequal, debt has become something undesirable and alienating rather than social and as a way of connecting to the community.

Through this article, and the course lectures as well, my eyes have been opened to how debt and economics were very much social, rather than merely seeing them in monetary terms. I have also been made to reconsider many aspects of life, such as the exchange of birthday presents and the giving out of red packets during Chinese New Year – I did not previously see them as systems of exchange that contributed to the fostering and maintenance of social relationships, and it is certainly interesting to see the underlying social meaning behind things we usually take for granted. "In the US, social debts are even more terrifying, perhaps, because of our inability to quantify them." The article ends with a point about how life has become so commoditised that it is difficult to relate to things in non-monetary, non-quantifiable terms – it makes us more nervous to owe someone a debt that is social in nature, and we are now more accustomed to and prefer the impersonal and alienating nature of monetary debt in our current context. Doesn't that sound depressing?

Sanders, C. L. (2012, Oct 17). Debts and indebtedness in anthropological fieldwork. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/american-anthropological-association/debts-and-indebtedness-in_b_1973589.html

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