book project | unsettled accounts:
contention and compliance in the “age of austerity”
About my book project
September 15, 2018 marks the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the precipitating event of the 2008 financial crisis. Although most affected economies have since recovered in macroeconomic terms, their inhabitants are living with a legacy that includes larger international financial institutions, more debt, and more wealth inequality than there were ten years ago.
How did global finance manage to become even more powerful over the last decade? I approach this problem by investigating the more specific question of how losses are distributed in the wake of a financial crisis. Financial crises are defined by acute losses of value in the financial sector that threaten the stability of financial institutions, systems, and economies writ large. The process of post-crisis accounting raises a number of politically charged questions such as: who gets bailed out? Whose assets are guaranteed? Who loses their home and livelihood, and who doesn’t?
Conventional wisdom holds that losses are distributed as a function of quantitative accounting and policy processes that hew closely to financial logics. In contrast, I argue that financial losses are distributed through multilayered accounting processes that are intrinsically political and ethical. As the field of critical accounting studies suggests, accounting is not just a quantitative practice of reconciling assets and liabilities. It is also an intersubjective process of storytelling.
As policymakers and financial institutions attempt to identify and reconcile financial losses, they construct causal narratives about the crisis that become inscribed in public and private balance sheets. Causal narratives might seem secondary to the actual work of accounting, but they have long-range political consequences like unemployment, debt, and inequality.
However, precisely because accounting is a process, political interventions can challenge dominant financial imperatives. Through my ethnographically-driven fieldwork in Iceland, Scotland, and Ireland, I connect seemingly disparate processes of post-crisis accounting with patterns of protest—and compliance--on the part of ordinary citizens.
‘“This is a democratic question:” contested meanings of independence in Scotland’s 2014 referendum’
‘“You’re asking the wrong question:” member-checking during field research’
‘The heritage of financialization in Iceland’
‘The power of sovereign credit ratings’
I received methods training through the Culture and Heritage in European Societies and Spaces (CHESS) program through the anthropology department at UMass Amherst. The program is a three-course sequence that provides training and early-stage fieldwork guidance in ethnographic methods, with a particular focus on the study of Europe. You can read more about the program, and the research theme I participated in (Crisis, Culture, and Heritage), here.