Tuesday, July 11, 2017

How to Talk about Money: Ethnographic Approaches to Financial Life

by Erin B. Taylor, Canela Consulting, former IMTFI Fellow and co-creator of the IMTFI Consumer Finance Research Methods Toolkit

Money changers in the bi-national market on the border
of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

On 1 June, 2012, I arrived at the British Museum to attend the opening of its newly renovated Citi Money Gallery. This was an exciting moment for me: inside was a display of money-related objects and images from Haiti that I collected with Heather Horst and Espelencia Baptiste for a research project. I couldn’t wait to see how our coins, phones, cards, and underwear with secret pockets for hiding cash would look inside this venerated institution.

It was a huge success. People were spending far more time in the new gallery, lingering over the displays. Why, all of a sudden, was money so much more gripping?

The answer, said curator Katie Eagleton, was the social aspect. Whereas traditional money galleries usually focus on coins, promissory notes, and other traditional forms of money, the new gallery includes a range of displays that focus on the social history and current practices of money. Not just for coin-collecting enthusiasts, the money gallery had something of interest for everybody.

By putting money-related objects in social context, the Citi Money Gallery challenges many of our assumptions about how people relate to money. Our approaches to researching money and finance need to change as well. What can we learn from ethnography?

It’s about Lives, Not Numbers

Popular culture tends to depict money as something that people are greedy for or afraid of. We are either trying to get more money to fuel our consumption habits, or we’re trying to avoid facing our financial realities. But in fact, people’s interest in money is far more diverse.

Most people, like ethnographers, view money as interesting for both its economic and cultural aspects—its utilitarian and symbolic functions. But conducting qualitative research into people’s financial behaviours can be difficult due to a range of money taboos, ethical issues, and practical matters. People can be very private about money and may be ashamed of their financial positions. Being wealthy can be as embarrassing as being poor, so asking people to talk about their financial positions is fraught with obstacles. Asking people to tell you their bank balance or how much debt they’re in strikes at the heart of people’s fears that they are using money incorrectly.

Even financial professionals face these fears: one economist recently told me that he avoids opening letters that will tell him that he’s losing money. If the professionals can’t generate the nerve to face their financial realities, what hope is there for the rest of us? If people seem inarticulate about money it’s fashionable to assume they’re financially illiterate—but the problem is just as likely to be fear, stigma, or other social issues. If researchers misunderstand these issues, our findings maybe limited or just plain wrong.

The key is in our approach to getting people to talk about it. When we started our research in Haiti, a number of people (including other researchers) told us that our project was doomed to fail: Haitians are wary of talking with foreigners at the best of times, and certainly wouldn’t be willing to talk about their finances with us. Our experience showed otherwise. We learned that asking people about what matters in their lives, and how money works for them as a social tool, is far more effective than asking people for numbers.

Our participants were more than willing to tell us how they sent money by boat to their children studying in other towns, complain about how long they spent standing in bank lines, demonstrate how they used the new mobile money service via their phone, show us the “symbolic money” they carried (such as foreign banknotes), and so on.

The technique we used was the Portable Kit Study. It was a challenging proposition, since it involved asking people to take all their possessions out of their pockets and bags, display them on a table, and talk about each object in turn. Coins, notes, bank cards, receipts, and identification cards were among the money-related objects we were shown. Asking about these objects allowed us to develop a picture of people’s financial behaviours without having confront people directly.

A research participant in our Portable Kit Study on the border of Haiti and the Dominican
Republic shows us what's in his bag, wallet, and pockets. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

For example, one young Haitian man we interviewed on the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic ran errands for a living using his motorbike, ferrying goods and passengers across the national border. His motorbike ownership papers led to a discussion of how his wife was able to get a loan to buy his bike because she had a Dominican passport and a full-time job.

This interview revealed the problems people face accessing credit, and how they can sometimes use services and social capital across the national border to solve financial problems. We ended up with quite detailed information about their incomes, debt obligations, and thoughts about their financial futures without having to ask them outright.

Read on for more about mobile money use in Haiti and innovative ethnographic approaches to money in the original article post part of the EPIC (Advancing the Value of Ethnography in Industry) Perspectives Series: https://www.epicpeople.org/how-to-talk-money/

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