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Anthropologial Analysis

Debt as a social phenomenon most probably even precedes the introduction of money as formal medium of economic exchange. In broadest terms, debt could be paraphrased as the relation of one subject owing an object or an action to another subject. Debt in that general sense is a basic relation of every more complex human society.

Indeed, each of these more complex societies developed also rules for debt default and debt relief. Debt could be seen as a very basic element of human living-together. Nonetheless, debt relations and debt relief have assumed various cultural forms. Over the past millennia, the social dealing with debt has drawn a map of cultural diversity and development.  

Adopting a comparative anthropological perspective, we seek to explore diverse approaches to debt relations, debt enforcement and debt relief. We hope not only to better understand some of the cultural diversities in debt treatment which are still present today. We also strive for alternative conceptions distinct from our current (dominantly financial) perception of debt.

And yet ‘alternative’ does not always imply more desirable. Debt relations and enforcement were often taking violent dimensions like severe punishment or debt slavery in ancient Babylon or among Germanic tribes. On the other hand, some debt relation traditions offer debt relief through symbolic rituals or exchange-in-kind practices like those observed among the Maori in New Zealand. In any event, all the alternative approaches transcend pure financial treatment and thus open the field of reflexive debt.

Funded by the European Union (ERC, RESOLVENCY, 950427). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.