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Microfinance as poverty-shame debt

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In an excellent anthropological study of microfinance in Bangladesh, Karim (2008: xviii) argues that it operates as ‘an economy of shame’. That is to say, microfinance is not the benign tool for financial inclusion and empowerment that mainstream development organisations proclaim. Rather, it unintentionally (perhaps) but nevertheless actively deploys shaming techniques in order to maximise loan repayment rates. Karim, however, does not employ an explicit analysis of shame; instead she emphasises its disciplining power for rural women in Bangladesh. Our article builds on this insight but applies a specific psychosocial approach to shame that critically examines a number of the emotion’s harmful practices and outcomes, especially when deployed within microfinance practice. It highlights that microfinance personalises and socialises people’s debt relations, making them a matter for group concern, but that at the same time money-debt’s impersonalising nature results in coercive and disciplinary actions that would otherwise be seen as intolerable. We demonstrate how the active shaming of microfinance participants all too often degenerates into human rights abuses, including violence. The shame of debt and the active shaming that facilitates microfinance’s high repayment rates harms the psychosocial wellbeing of those being shamed as well as their families, and can be linked to a range of concerning outcomes including self-harm and suicide. To conclude, we explore whether the coercion by shame and shaming of microfinance may be linked to its growing use in other areas of development programming.
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Keywords: debt; emotions; microfinance; psychosocial wellbeing; shame

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: November 1, 2019

This article was made available online on October 3, 2019 as a Fast Track article with title: "Microfinance as poverty-shame debt".

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  • Emotions and Society aims to publish high-quality, original peer-reviewed articles which advance theoretical and empirical understanding of emotions in social life. It is associated with the European Sociological Association's (ESA) Research Network on Sociology of Emotions (RN11), but seeks submissions from a wide range of international authors writing in this area. The sociology of emotions has developed unique perspectives on emotions that attend to their social construction and the ways in which they are embedded in social structures and inhere in social processes. The Journal seeks to expand the largely unexhausted potential for developing innovative approaches not only to emotions per se, but through it to the social generally. All methodological approaches to studying emotions are welcome, but they should demonstrate rigour and be framed in ways that will be of interest to sociologically inclined scholars.

    A key feature of the Journal will be to develop both a uniquely sociological perspective on emotions, while also engaging in interdisciplinary exchanges. This interdisciplinarity will emerge not only from the character of present scholarly debates on emotions, but from the diversity of disciplines represented in the ESA Research Network. We welcome submissions from neighbouring fields, especially cultural studies, history, philosophy and social psychology. Psychology of emotions is quite well represented in existing journals and papers will be considered only insofar as their focus is interactional rather than biological. The Journal seeks to publish articles based on original research into the social aspects of emotions and emotional life. This may include contributions to theoretical debates in the area. Substantial review articles may also be considered. Principally we are looking for theoretical or theoretically informed empirical papers that engage with key concepts and debates of interest to sociologists of emotion, even if they do so from outside the discipline.

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