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Working paper

Recording the ambiguity: the moral economy of debt books in a Russian small town

In this paper we draw upon important distinctions suggested by classics of anthropology in order to develop a theoretical approach to the phenomenon of debt. Building on the opposition be-tween the logic of the gift and that of the market, we elucidate moral tensions that call debt rela-tions into being. However, instead of reducing debt to either of these rival principles, we inter-pret it as a combination of both that allows for mediating between them in a highly ambiguous moral context. Using evidence from a small Russian town, we analyse how interest-free debt functions within face-to-face interactions in local shops and how it structures the ordinary lives of shopkeepers, salespeople and consumers in the community. We discuss a moral situation that turns the fram-ing of everyday purchases into a problem and demonstrate how a material device — a debt book — enters into a transaction in order to resolve it. A debt book turns out to be a specific graphic technology, a destructive device that subverts both marketization and communitarian aid by sus-pending the framing of interaction. In the resulting atmosphere of ambiguity, debts become an object of strategic manipulation for the members of community that demands good negotiation skills and use of moral arguments. Although the constitution of debt economy is highly dependent on the dynamics of marketization and economization, it can in fact accommodate very different moral regimes.