Introduction to Cultural Anthropology through Debt

A class for 500 students, 29 sections, 10 Teaching Assistants… any suggestions most appreciated!

Objectives: Learn to read social science writing: understand how articles are structured, how data is collected, how arguments are made. Learn to think critically about social science concepts like cultures, practices, performances, economies, friends, family, timings, exchanges, debts, and gifts. Learn to interview, observe, and write carefully and critically about lived worlds.

Texts:  Graeber: Debt: The First 5,000 Years (available in Bookstore, Amazon, Kindle)


0. Pay attention to the smartsite and announcements – they will tell you what is happening!

1. Every class day there is an assigned reading or two. They will normally be 15-40 pages. You must do the reading and write up an analysis of the article (instructions below) as well as type out a paragraph or two 160-300 words discussing a passage (citing page number) that inspired you or frustrated you, how it did so, and posing two open-ended questions for the class. You must post by noon of the day of class.

Here is the form i use on Questioning a Text lightly adapted from Kim Fortun. I taught an undergrad medical anthropology class in which for each reading (one per class day) the students had to provide a paragraph for each box on this form. Such as:

This amount of writing constituted almost half your grade. Learning to read and answer these questions will make you a better writer in the same way that focused exercise helps you grow stronger.

The great part of having it as a Google Form is that their responses show up as a spreadsheet which i found super easy to look at (and show them as well) (Original and many other cool things can be found here on Kim’s site:

2. Most class days there will also be a required posting to the Smartsite Forums. You must post to them by noon as well. Some of these will be part of your final paper.

3. Attend class (unless you are sick and extremely contagious). If you need to miss class, please send me and the TA an e-mail ahead of time. Read or view the assigned materials for each day’s class and bring a copy of your writup. I will be randomly calling on you to help explicate the text or pose question for discussion so you better have it! Cell phones off, please. Laptops are fine but please do not do your e-mail in class, etc. Your full attention is requested.

4. Attend all of your sections. You will hand in a printed copy of your write-ups to your section leader. You will be responsible for teaching part of one section.

5. Interview paper – starting around week 5, you will start conducting an interview with someone about a debt experience. This will be a taped interview, and you will transcribe it, analyze it, comment on others’ interviews using the forums, and write it up. The final paper will be approximately 2000 words and discuss class readings.


Forms/Hand-ins and participation:
100 pts each * 16 = 1600Additional points for 15 perfect = 500

Forum/Interview/PopQu writeups:
60 pts each * 20 = 1200

Additional points for 17 perfect = 500

Presentation = 1000

Interview paper = 1600

Total points = 6400

Note that you need the Additional points
in order to get to an A

A = 6000

B = 5000

C = 4200

D = 3600


Overview of Class Topics

Jan 7: Intro
Jan 9: Bourdieu on timing
Jan 14: Mains on Friends
Jan 16: Graeber, Types of Exchange
Jan 21: Han: Symptoms of Debt
Jan 23: Graeber, Should Debts be Paid?
Jan 28: Kincaid and Life & Debt
Jan 30: Snead: Neoliberal Mongolia
Feb 4: Taussig: Debt Peonage
Feb 6: Coco: Student Debt
Feb 11: Williams, Meister: Student Debt
Feb 13: Cohen: Where it hurts, organs India
Feb 18: Graeber, Cruelty, Redemption
Feb 20: Roy: Microlending Culture
Feb 25: Kar: Microlending Labor
Feb 27: Schull: Gambled Away
Mar 4: Graeber, Games with sex and death
Mar 6: Roberts: Egg Economies
Mar 11: Sharp: Organ transplantation
Mar 13: Graeber: the beginning

Writing up a reading:

There will be specific questions posted to a GoogleForm every time. The following is a general guide to help you. Answer each set of questions with a paragraph. Type out a paragraph or two 160-300 words discussing a passage (citing page number) that inspired you or frustrated you, how it did so, and posing two open-ended questions for the class.

Grading rubric for GoogleForm Writeups and Forum Posts:

Writeups are 100 pts. Deductions:  -25 for late (per day), -25 for not covering each of the main questions, -25 for not being long enough, -25 for not trying.

Forum posts are 60 pts. Deductions: -15 for late (per day), -15 for not trying.


FAQ:  ( I will add to this as I get questions.)


  • So what is the actual due date? Your responses are late if they are posted to the googleform after noon on the day of class. That is your timestamp.
  • The form has so many little questions, do i have to answer them all? No. They little questions are a guide to the types of answers you should provide. Each cluster of questions (each box) needs a paragraph or so response (100-150 words). They require thinking about how the text was written. They will initially be strange but will become familiar and easier as the quarter progresses.
  • What is an open-ended question? These are questions that don’t have Yes/No answers, they are ones that relate the text to something we have talked about in class perhaps, or to a current event, or ask how one part of the text relates to another part.
  • I posted to the google form, do I also have to hand it into my TA? YES. Please type out your responses onto a word doc first, and cut and paste them into the form. Print your responses and hand them to your TA at your next section after lecture (whenever that is). The reason we don’t hand them in during lecture is that 500 of you can’t!
  • Why do both? I need to be able to look at your googleform, and your TA needs the hardcopies. The form is easy for me to use and hard for the TAs


  • Are there forum posts due every class day? NO, you will get an Announcement by Email (and posted to Announcements on Smartsite) when these are due. In any case, they will be due the day of lecture at 11 a.m.


More detailed Syllabus

Jan 9 –  Timing and Strategy

  • READ: Gusterson, Hugh. “McDonnell should beware of donors with gifts” Washington Post, Aug 16, 2013.
  • READ pp 4-9 of Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice” translated by R. Nice. Cambridge, 1977.
  • REC: Intro through Ch 2. Mauss, Marcel. “The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. WD Halls.” New York and London: WW Norton (1990).
  • REC: Weiner, Annette B. “Inalienable wealth.” American ethnologist 12.2 (1985): 210-227.
  • FORUM: what sorts of debts do you have with friends, and how do you manage them?

Jan 14 – Friends Indeed

  • READ: Mains, Daniel. “Friends and money: Balancing affection and reciprocity among young men in urban Ethiopia.” American Ethnologist 40.2 (2013): 335-346.
  • REC: Llewellyn, Nick. “The gift in interaction: a study of ‘picking‐up the bill’.” The British journal of sociology 62.4 (2011): 718-738.
  • Interviewing as method,
  • FORUM: respond to your own contribution with a more detailed account of how you manage your debts with friends

Jan 16 – Types of Exchange and Debt

  • READ: Graeber, Ch 5.
  • REC: Sandel – What isn’t for sale? Atlantic Monthly
  • FORUM: how does you family manage holiday gifts?

Jan 21 – Family Debts

  • READ: Han, Clara. “Symptoms of another life: time, possibility, and domestic relations in Chile’s credit economy.” Cultural Anthropology 26.1 (2011): 7-32.
  • Fieldwork as method

Jan 23 – Big questions of whether debts should be paid

  • READ: Graeber Ch 1
  • REC: Atwood, Margaret, Payback (selection)
  • FORUM: Research one of structural adjustment policies, austerity, neoliberalism, privatization – go beyond wikipedia – and discuss what you learned in the forum
  • MV: Fight Club

Jan 28 – MV: Life and Debt + Kincaid

  • READ: Kincaid, Jamaica. A small place. pp.1-37
  • REC: Ferguson, James “The Anti-politics Machine” The Ecologist, 1994.
  • We will watch Life and Debt in class

Jan 30 – Neoliberalism by the numbers

  • READ: Sneath, David. “The ‘age of the market’and the regime of debt: the role of credit in the transformation of pastoral Mongolia1.” Social Anthropology 20.4 (2012): 458-473.
  • Guest Lecture: Neoliberalism and Housing Activism in Barcelona
  • FORUM: Do some research. What caused the housing crisis?

Feb 4 – Debt Peonage

  • READ: Jane Collins “Deterritorialization and Workplace Culture”
  • REC: selections from Taussig, Michael T. Shamanism, colonialism, and the wild man: A study in terror and healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • FORUM: Map one or more of your own debt relations: who do you owe? who do they owe? who owns them? can you trace the entities? How should it be easier?

Feb 6 – Student Debt

  • READ: Bosquet “Student Workers”
  • REC: Coco, Linda E. “Mortgaging Human Potential: Student Indebtedness And The Practices Of The Neoliberal State.”Sw. L. Rev. 42 (2013): 565-737.
  • REC: Williams, Jeffrey, “Student Debt: Bad for the Young, Bad for America,” Dissent 2006,
  • REC: Hooks, Bell. “Moving beyond shame” in Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. (2003).
  • FORUM Read the following as starters on student debt. What do you think should be done?

Feb 11 – UC Debt – 

  • READ: Meister, Bob. “Debt and Taxes: Can the Financial Industry Save Public Universities?.” Representations 116.1 (2011): 128-155.
  • READ: Meister, R. “They pledged your tuition: An open letter to UC students.”Berkeley, CA: The Council of UC Faculty Associations. Accessed January 5 (2011): 2012.
  • REC: Diane Nelson
  • FORUM: Research what is going on right now in terms of UC debt – how should tuition be managed in the future?

Feb 13 – Organ Debts 1

  • FORUM: Description of Interview
  • READ: Cohen, Lawrence. “Where it hurts: Indian material for an ethics of organ transplantation.” Zygon® 38.3 (2003): 663-688.
  • REC: Graeber Ch 2 – Myth of Barter
  • WATCH: Iranian Kidney Bargain Sale

Feb 18 – Saving Debt, Jubilees

  • READ: Graeber, Ch 4: Cruelty & Redemption
  • REC: Peebles, Gustav. “Whitewashing and leg‐bailing: on the spatiality of debt.” Social Anthropology 20.4 (2012): 429-443.
  • FORUM: What do you think of the Rolling Jubilee? How else should things change, or not?

Feb 20 – Microlending Subjects

  • FORUM: Comment on two interviews
  • READ: Roy, Ananya. “Subjects of Risk: Technologies of Gender in the Making of Millennial Modernity.” Public Culture 24.1 66 (2012): 131-155.
  • REC: Elyachar, Julia. “Next practices: Knowledge, infrastructure, and public goods at the bottom of the pyramid.” Public Culture 24.1 66 (2012): 109-129.

Feb 25 – Microlending Labor

  • FORUM: Theorize your interview
  • READ? Adams on Katrina
  • READ: Kar, Sohini. “Recovering debts: Microfinance loan officers and the work of “proxy‐creditors” in India.” American Ethnologist 40.3 (2013): 480-493.

Feb 27 – Gambling, Debt by Design & Desire

  • FORUM: Help some else theorize
  • READ: Schull, Natasha. “Gambled Away.” AnthroNow

Mar 4 – Distributing Risks and Debts

  • READ: Graeber Ch. 6, “Games with Sex and Death”
  • WATCH: Sex Workers Strike

Mar 6 – Organ Debts 2

  • DUE: Paper Due

Mar 11 – Organ Debts 3

  • READ: “Egg Economies” in Roberts, Elizabeth FS. God’s laboratory: Assisted reproduction in the Andes. University of California Pr, 2012.
  • REC: Sharp, Lesley A. “Organ transplantation as a transformative experience: anthropological insights into the restructuring of the self.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 9.3 (1995): 357-389.

Mar 13 – Today

  • READ: Graeber Ch 12, “1971 – the beginning”
  • REC: Maurer, Bill. “Late to the party: debt and data.” Social Anthropology 20.4 (2012): 474-481.