Debt: Interdisciplinary considerations of an enduring human passion

12 May 2011 - 14 May 2011

Clare College, The Gillespie Centre, Cambridge / Mill Lane Lecture Rooms, Cambridge



Dr Holly High (Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge)


Debt is a foundational concept in the study of humanity. Mauss’ celebrated essay on the gift suggested that debt may even, in some circumstances, lay the basis for sociality itself. Thinking through debt, we can also acknowledge intellectual debts to Malinowski, Marx, and Freud. Today, when personal debts, national debts, the socialization of private debt and the personal burden of public debts have become general concerns not only among the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs, who have long suffered the crisis of debt) but also the so-called PIGGS and BRICS and indeed many of the rest, it is timely to return to consider debt as a foundational concept.

Debt, considered in interdisciplinary terms, expands beyond financial and economic definitions (although these remain salient) to include the often ambiguous terrain of what is owned and what is owed. It encompasses a consideration of humans as physical beings in relationship to material resources, as social and political beings in a struggle with one another over resources more generally, and as ethical beings engaged in evaluative debates and morally charged encounters. It characterises the intimacies of family relationships just as much as those of the market or the law enforcer. Debt implies compulsion of one kind or another, such as duty, obligation, or indeed force. However, conceptualisations of debt vary across historical and cultural contexts. Debt must be approached through considerations of particular cases of debt and its compulsions, moralities and politics. This conference thus brings together papers that engage with the theme of debt as a broad and enduring human passion via the study of particular debt formations.

Accommodation for delegates

We are unable to arrange accommodation, however, the following websites may be of help.

NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of accommodation.



The conveners are grateful for the support of The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge, the Wyse Fund and the Evans Fund, at the University of Cambridge.


Administrative assistance: Helga Brandt (Conference Programme Manager, CRASSH)



Thursday 12 May


17.00 - 19.00


Mill Lane Lecture Room 3

The Inaugural CUSAS Annual Marilyn Strathern Lecture, hosted by the Cambridge University Students Association (CUSAS)

Dame Marilyn Strathern
Gifts money cannot buy

19.00 - 20.30

Wine reception at CRASSH


Friday 13 May


8.30 - 8.50

Clare College, The Gillespie Centre, Elton-Bowring Room


8.50 - 9.00

Introductory remarks

9.00 - 11.00


Chair: Karen Sykes

Professor Tania Li (University of Toronto)
Debt and autonomy in agrarian Southeast Asia 

David Sneath (University of Cambridge)
The 'Age of the Market' and the Regime of Debt: The role of credit in the transformation of pastoral Mongolia

Deborah James (LSE)
Money-go-round: personal economies of wealth, aspiration and Indebtedness

11.00 - 11.30
Coffee and tea

11.30 - 13.00

Parallel panels

Panel A: Debt Cultures

Chair: Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov

Mateusz Halawa and Mikolaj Lewicki (Warsaw University and The New School for Social Research)
Living with debt in contemporary Poland: towards ethnography of a debt culture

Ivan Pavluytkin and Greg Yudin (State University-Higher School of Economics, Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology, Moscow)
To pay and not to pay: Symbolic meaning and structure of debt relationships in a Russian town

Louise Walker (New School for Social Research)
Consumer Debt and Economic Crisis in 1970s Mexico

Panel B: Debt and Health

Chair: Maryon McDonald

Bo Kyeong Seo (Australian National University)
Free Health Care as "Poisonous Gift": The Case of Intensive Neonatal Treatment in Thailand 

Pierre Minn (McGill University, Montreal)
Debts and Obligations in International Medical Aid to Haiti 

Larisa Jararevic (University of Chicago)
Insanely Generous in Bosnia

13.00 - 14.00 

Lunch provided

14.00 - 15.30 


Panel: Debt and the Morality of the Sate

Chair: Holly High

Nayanika Mathur (University of Cambridge)
Owing a Job: shifts in the conceptualisation of debt in rural development programming in India

Anthony Pickles (University of St Andrews)
Are Current Papua New Guinean Leaders Corrupt? Anthropological Ideologies of Gift and Debt versus the Moral-Money Landscape of Leadership in Goroka, Highland New Guinea

Chloe Nahum-Claudel (University of Cambridge)
What do debt and sacrifice have to do with hydroelectric damming in central Brazil?

15.30 - 16.00 

Coffee and tea 

16.00 - 17.00

Panel: The Regulation of Debt

Chair: Tania Li

Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell (Uppsala University)
Modalities of indebtedness in Cambodia

Antina von Schnitzler (The New School)
The Technopolitics of Debt: Mediating Citizenship after Apartheid  

17.30  - 19.00

Keynote address (Mill Lane Lecture Room 3)

Introduced by Dame Marilyn Strathern

Chris Gregory
(The Australian National University)
On money, debt and morality: Before Smith, Smith, After Smith

Conference dinner (Clare College)
Open to delegates upon registration


Saturday 14 May


9.00 - 10.30

Clare College, The Gillespie Centre, Elton-Bowring Room

Panel: Debt and Sovereignty

Chair: David Graeber

Michael Ralph (New York University)   
Debt, Sacrifice, and Democracy in Senegal

Anush Kapadia (Columbia University)
Monetary Sovereignty in Crisis

10.30 - 11.00

Coffee and tea

11.00 - 12.30

Panel: Debt and Social Construction

Chair: Deborah James

Laurence Ralph (Harvard University)
Debt AND Disability in a Chicago Gang

Sara Shneiderman (University of Cambridge/Yale University)
Debt as a Condition of Mobility: Preliminary Reflections from South Asia

Radu Umbres (University College London)
Building on trust: open-ended contracts and the creation of sociality around Romanian house construction

12.30 - 13.30 

Lunch provided

13.30 - 15.00 

Panel: New Debt in Melanesia

Chair: TBA

Karen Sykes (University of Manchester)
Mortgaging the Marriage: conjugal property and bridewealth in New Ireland

Keir Martin (University of Manchester)
Distinguishing debts and debts that distinguish: contested evaluations of 'credit' in East New Britain and beyond

Anders Rasmussen (University of Manchester)
It's never tomorrow: debt, 'dead-money', and the exploitation of moneyed relatives in Manus

15.00 - 15.30

Coffee and tea 

15.30 - 17.00


Chair: Chris Gregory

Gustav Peebles (The New School)
The Demise of the debtor’s prison

Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (University of Cambridge)
Gift debt, commodity debt and the gift of modernity

David Graeber (Goldsmiths, University of London)
Utopias of Debt

17.00 - 17.30

Open discussion/summary