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Social patterning of economic subjectivities and the digital transformation of retail finance in Switzerland

English title Social patterning of economic subjectivities and the digital transformation of retail finance in Switzerland
Applicant Pellandini-Simanyi Lena
Number 197547
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Institute of Marketing and Communication Man Faculty of Communication Università della Svizzera italiana
Institution of higher education Università della Svizzera italiana - USI
Main discipline Sociology
Start/End 01.08.2021 - 31.07.2025
Approved amount 587'050.00
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Keywords (6)

economic subjectivities; digitalization; economic sociology; class; financialization of everyday life; qualitative methods

Lay Summary (Italian)

Lead
Questo progetto mira a studiare come i servizi finanziari digitali di recente sviluppo riproducono, approfondiscono o assottigliano le soggettività economiche esistenti tra le diverse classi sociali in Svizzera.
Lay summary

Soggetto e obiettivo

In sociologia, è un concetto consolidato che diverse classi sociali promuovano lo sviluppo di diverse soggettività economiche, rapportandosi in maniera differente ad operazioni di budgeting, financial planning e savings ed utilizzando diverse logiche nell’utilizzo quotidiano dei diversi strumenti finanziari. Tali soggettività sono influenzate dalla crescita e dal tipo di condizioni di vita affrontate dai diversi individui. Oltre a ciò, le stesse interazioni con prodotti ed istituzioni finanziarie, nonché il crescente utilizzo di siti web ed applicazioni finanziarie, contribuiscono a creare soggettività economiche.

Questi strumenti difficilmente consentono ai propri utilizzatori di effettuare liberamente le proprie decisioni finanziarie. Solitamente, sono programmati per offrire opzioni predefinite, evidenziando e rendendo più semplice svolgere certe operazioni rispetto ad altre. In questo modo, l’utilizzatore è incoraggiato a prendere determinate scelte, scartandone altre, ad esempio preferiendo una pianificazione di lungo piuttosto che di breve periodo. Molto spesso, tali strumenti arrivano anche a “sollevare” l’utilizzatore dal peso di prendere effettivamente una decisione, prendendo e suggerendo direttamente quella che si presume essere la “miglior” scelta. Conseguentemente, app e siti web finanziari ricoprono un ruolo chiave nelle decisioni e nelle soggettività che si sviluppano nei consumatori. Ne consegue che siti e applicazioni diversi tra loro contribuiranno alla creazione di soggettività economiche differenti in base ai gruppi sociali per i quali sono stati progettati e ai quali appartengono i propri utilizzatori.

Questo progetto mira a studiare come i servizi finanziari digitali di recente sviluppo riproducono, approfondiscono o assottigliano le soggettività economiche esistenti tra le diverse classi sociali in Svizzera. La metodologia comprende tre step, basati sull’utilizzo di metodi qualitativi. In primo luogo, verrà approfondita la metodologia con cui le istituzioni finanziarie e il settore fintech concepiscono i propri utilizzatori e sviluppano prodotti finanziari digitali in base alle diverse classi sociali di appartenenza. In secondo luogo, esamineremo come determinati prodotti finanziari digitali incoraggiano la formazione di diversi tipi di soggettività economiche in base al gruppo sociale di appartenenza dell’utilizzatore. Infine, approfondiremo le differenze di utilizzo dei prodotti menzionati da parte dei consumatori nonché il cambiamento delle loro soggettività attraverso le interazioni con essi.

Contesto socio-scientifico

Il progetto si basa sulla sociologia economica (in particolare sul lavoro di Fourcade e Healy), sugli studi sociali finanziari (letteratura sulla finanziarizzazione della vita quotidiana, studi scientifici e tecnologici, performatività), su studi di mercato interdisciplinari e sulla "Consumer Culture Theory”.

 

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 03.05.2021

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Abstract

While economic theories of the homo economicus assume an innate, universal sense of rationality, sociological and anthropological research suggests that economic subjectivities and actions are shaped by socio-cultural and material processes. Rationalities, in the plural, are produced, rather than innate. Indeed, a long tradition of economic sociology theorizes the processes that produce differences in economic subjectivities (economic habituses, to use Bourdieu’s term) across social groups and over time. In the context of everyday financial practices, recent studies in the financialization of everyday life, market studies, the French sociology of conventions, digital sociology, economic anthropology and geography have suggested that contemporary economic subjectivities are increasingly co-produced by digital devices (such as financial apps, websites, and the algorithms that underpin them), by prefiguring rational subjects and even making ‘rational’ choices on their users’ behalf. While these studies provide key insights into how digital financial devices perform specific economic subjectivities, they have paid less attention to how they shape social patterns of economic subjectivities - a question that has been central to the sociological tradition on the topic. One notable exception is sociological research on credit scoring and eligibility algorithms, which suggests that by delineating who gets access and who is denied particular credits, mortgages and investments, these devices produce social groups with different objective financial chances - and thus become a new structuring force of society. This research explains how digital financial devices structure society by producing groups with different financial opportunities; however, it says little about how they shape groups with different economics subjectivities, habituses and rationalities. The proposed project fills this important gap by unpacking the processes - not limited to eligibility - through which the digitalization of financial services reproduces, deepens, flattens or rearranges social differences in economic subjectivities. I am applying for the SNSF Project Grant to carry out two interconnected qualitative research projects. Project I. (1) compares the economic subjectivities that are scripted into three types of digital financial products, targeted traditionally different social classes: digital wealth-management (targeted at the upper class), mortgage (targeted at the middle and upper class) and consumer credit (targeted at the middle and lower class) apps and websites; and (2) examines the social categorizations that underpin their segmentation, targeting and customization practices. Project I. uses 50 expert interviews with product managers, digital consultants, IT and marketing professionals involved in the development of these digital financial products at fintechs and banks, and focuses on processes through which they designed their choice architecture, personalized advice and pricing algorithms, consumer interface and consumer segmentation. The interviews are complemented by a comparative analysis of the products themselves (15 in each of the three categories), using observations and discourse analysis of the conception the consumer conveyed by the website’s/app’s texts, images and functionalities and reverse engineering. Project II. focuses on the consumer side of the processes through which classed economic subjectivities are developed. It looks at how the economic subjectivities called forth and scripted into the products studied in Project I. are appropriated by consumers themselves and the way the three types of products attract and deter consumers of different social backgrounds. This project is composed of (1) 30 interviews and participant observations with existing users of the three product types; and of (2) 30 lab observations of how consumers of different class backgrounds interact with financial devices (both with those that are targeted at them and with those targeted at other classes). The project will make a key contribution to (1) the financialization of everyday life field by examining how the subjectivity-formation processes identified by this literature form social patterns; (2) economic sociology debates on contemporary processes shaping inequalities and social divisions; and (3) market studies by providing a deeper understanding on the social effects of segmentation and product design in the digital financial realm.
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