A history of debt collection

The discovery and capture of affect  | 

Chapter 3 outlines how the collections industry first ‘discovered’ and then began to work out how best to ‘capture’ affect. It begins by moving far back in time, to examine the historical antecedents of contemporary collections practices and to see what they reveal about logics that may, or may not, have carried over into the present. What we find is a long standing concern with the body of the debtor, whether through its enslavement, torture, or imprisonment. However, following the abolition of debtors’ prisons, collectors in the twentieth century were confronted by a problem: how to convince debtors to repay without seemingly being able to threaten the debtor as an embodied subject. At this point, the empirical focus narrows down to the US, for it is here that this problem was explored earlier and with more intensity than anywhere else. The solution, I show, took time to emerge. It initially involved drawing on the promise of a new academic discipline—psychology. This ‘intellectual technology’, as I call it, helped collectors reframe their work and expertise as being concerned with emotion and how to manage it. As the century progressed, this interest became sidelined by the promise of more practical technologies, in one of which can be found the roots of some of the most sophisticated contemporary collections practices: the conduct of experiments with unwitting populations of debtors.

[Text adapted from the introduction of Lived Economies of Default]