Precarious Debt: Microfinance and Intergenerational Dependency in Cambodia

Authors: Jennifer Estes*, University of Wisconsin-Madison, W. Nathan Green, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Topics: Economic Geography, Development, Asia
Keywords: microfinance, debt, precariousness, social reproduction, intergenerational relations
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Napoleon A3, Sheraton, 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper tells a story of intergenerational relations of debt within a rural Cambodian family in order to understand how microfinance produces more-than-individual subjectivities that are entangled in changing social relations of dependency. We are informed by feminist and financial geographers who study processes of financialization and have identified the need to study finance at the scale of the household and in places beyond the capitalist core. We draw upon a year of joint ethnographic research in Cambodia, where the microfinance sector is the fastest growing and one of the largest per-capita industries in the world. We first show how microfinance is an intergenerational, family affair in which loans are used for a wide variety of social reproduction purposes and often repaid by multiple members of the family. We then draw upon Judith Butler’s social ontology of precariousness in order to argue that even in the context of deepening financialization, people’s lives remain dependent upon others, especially within the family. We analyze how these family relations of dependency are spatially stretched and reworked under precarious economic conditions of indebtedness, household migration, and inadequate state social services. We conclude that theorizing financial subjects through a social ontology of precariousness helps to reframe how we think about neoliberal subjectivity and market formation. Such an ontological reframing might inform an ethical politics of economic development critical of the hegemonic notion that financial inclusion is a solution for global poverty reduction.

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