Social-Material Aspects of Digital Consumer Finance: Findings from a “Portable Kit” Study in Hispaniola

Monday, 11 July 2016: 16:28
Location: Hörsaal II (Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG))
Oral Presentation
Erin TAYLOR, Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal
Heather HORST, RMIT, Australia
Financial management is a social-material activity that individuals and households undertake with a broad spectrum of voluntary and involuntary relationships in mind, including those with friends, the household, businesses, society, and the state. However, digital finance's “virtuality” poses challenges for researching and theorizing money management mechanisms within everyday contexts. Digital finance increases product diversity and mobility across borders, while decreasing the visibility of transactions and obscuring their social nature (Maurer 2015). There is a need to develop methods and theoretical frameworks to observe such ostensibly virtual transactions and relate them to people's social-material practices in their everyday lives.

We present findings from our qualitative research on the movement of people, money, and goods across the national border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where the use of digital finance products is increasing (e.g., mobile money, remittances, phone credit). In our “portable kit” study, we asked participants to discuss the contents of their bags, wallets, and pockets (Horst and Taylor 2014). Participants combined digital / non-digital and money / non-money objects (e.g., cash, mobile phones, SIM cards, and identification documents) to achieve short-run and long-run socioeconomic goals, such as navigating border crossings, negotiating with employers, sending money via mobile phone, paying bribes, and managing remittances.

The portable kit method's value lies in rendering the material and immaterial mechanisms of socioeconomic actions ethographically visible. This method is a promising way to observe changes in financial practices,especially when combined with a theoretical framework incorporating advances in material culture studies (Miller 1987; Ito et al 2006), digital studies (Horst and Miller 2015), the mobilities turn (Glick Schiller and Salazar 2013), and socioeconomics (Callon et al 2002, Hart 2006). Such a framework can help keep relationships and their social contexts front-and-centre of our analyses of financial practices in the “digital age.”