The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

Student Profiles

Gemma Bone

Project title: The Politics of Debt: the struggle for social utility

Supervisors: Professor Jane Pollard, Professor Danny Mackinnon and Dr Paul Langley (Durham)

My ESRC funded project examines the re-conceptualisation of “social utility” in the UK banking system through an analysis of the debt-credit relation, with a specific emphasis on current attempts to increase social utility by non-governmental actors. The research will focus on the debates surrounding the theory and practice of money, debt and banking, with primary research carried out in collaboration with the Finance Innovation Lab.

The theoretical approach taken by the research project is that in contrast to standard economic theory, debt is a social, political, and moral construct. Over periods in history the debt-credit relation has been constituted in different ways with different consequences for social utility, and that in modern history debt has been used as a political tool with specific measurable consequences. The economic crisis has opened up theoretical space both in academia and in the public consciousness to question the banking system and it’s usefulness for society. Debt is both a key function of banks and the stated raison d'être for mass austerity, yet there does not exist a thorough understanding of the persistent tensions and possibilities of debt.

In order to gain new knowledge of the reconceptualization of social utility, the research will compile primary data through case studies of the Finance Innovation Lab and their partners. The Lab is a collaboration between non-governmental organisations including the World Wildlife Fund, banking sector professionals including the Institute for Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and innovators and social entrepreneurs who are creating a new banking sector. It has recently been named one of NESTA and The Observers “50 new radicals” for its innovative approach to change in the financial system with the aim of increasing the value created for people and planet.

A key objective of the study is to compare and contrast socially useful practices such as retail and commercial banking, with socially damaging practices, such as speculative financialised risk-taking. The research, via the case studies, offers a measurable way to break down these different practices to make explicit those elements that may be socially damaging and how these practices could be reformed to better serve the interests of society. This knowledge will be of importance to those with a stake in the reform of the financial system, but especially to practitioners seeking clarity on the possibilities of ‘socially useful debt’.

Read my Political Economy blog.