Living under the vigilant gaze of creditors is no fun—the nerve of these creditors, expecting us to pay back money loaned to us! Fortunately, not everyone feels guiltless toward credit. In fact, contrition over debt is fairly typical, and our relationships with money are rarely emotion-neutral: money is always moralized.
In fact, in new work, researchers find debt weighs as heavily on our consciences as our wallets. In the most recent issue of Sociological Forum, Franceca Polletta and Zaibu Tufail study the moral relationships between creditors and debtors by accounting for the intervening influence of debt settlement agencies. Through field observations at two debt settlement agencies and interviews with 17 agents, the researchers aimed to understand whether and why clients are willing to settle certain forms of debt.
Their observations showed that debt settlement agencies were instrumental in shaping what the authors call “equality matching relationships” between creditors and debtors. Within such relationships, debtors see their relationship with creditors as “reciprocal and ongoing.” Therefore, the receipt of adequate service from a creditor obligated debtors to respond in kind by paying off their debt. Thus decisions about whether debt must be paid back in full or could be settled were made based on perceptions of the moral character of the creditor. Since debtors were most willing to settle credit card debt and least willing to settle medical debt, Polletta and Tufail’s findings suggest that debtors see little integrity in credit card companies, but hold greater trust in the moral worth of medical providers and feel they must pay the entirety of what they are billed by doctors.
All debts being equal—in dollars—does nothing to equalize our perceptions of moral obligation. In other words, when we choose whether to pay off or settle outstanding debt, we are not only making good with creditors, but with our consciences.