Practiced Promises

A Sociology of European Money

This project treats the present economic state of emergency – which after five years has almost become normality – as occasion to restore the competitiveness of the sociological understanding of money. In this context the sociology of money means not such things as a comparative survey of the acceptance of the euro among European Union citizens or a participant observation of the organization of monetary contingents within families, but a reflection on the contemporary manner in which credit money is created.

First of all, building off important proposals from contemporary economic sociology and cultural theory, the formal conditions of a sociology of contemporary credit money must be clarified. That is necessary because not only the public interpretations and political argumentations but also the very sociological terms themselves are shaped by a commodity theory of money that can ultimately be traced back to Aristotle: money is understood as a stock of autonomous means of exchange. While this functionalist reduction may be coherent in the context of classical economic theory, it cannot meet the requirements of sociology in the face of the present crisis of the monetary institution. In our society money is a debt-constituted rather than autonomous means of exchange. A bank balance is created as credit (i.e. through the bank's promise of repayment) and depends for its continuance on the reproduction of various temporary lender/borrower relations. So sociology is falling short of the mark if it discusses money merely under the aspect of distribution of a reserve. If we wish to move beyond the Aristotelian legacy, the sociology of money must become a critically contemporary undertaking probing the conditions of the regime under which monetary means are produced.

Factually the existence and persistence of a monetary balance is contingent on an ongoing web of promises, their rejection, acceptance, and fulfillment. This process requires mutual trust in the continuity of the practice itself. If we understand money thus as an ever-reproducing fabric of temporarily interdependent lender/borrower relations, a sociological theory of money must supply empirically reconstructive insights into the modes that sustain this "bad infinity." The concept of social trust is an obvious option for the formal description of such modes. Accordingly, the second phase of the project will examine examples of the architecture of real debt relationships, the regimes, techniques, and actors that facilitate and sustain them, and the stabilizing interpretation or legitimization discourses, and interpret them as communication about normality.

(Last modified August 2012)