This post builds on the research article “Homeownership in Israel: The Social Costs of Middle-Class Debt,” which was published in the February 2014 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has previously published numerous works on homeownership, credit, and debt, including: Krisztina Fehervary’s article “From Socialist Modern to Super-Natural Organicism: Cosmological Transformations Through Home Decor” (2012) as well as Clara Han’s work on the “Symptoms of Another Life: Time, Possibility, and Domestic Relations in Chile's Credit Economy” (2011).
Earlier articles that examine the impacts and negotiations of debt include Karen Ho's "Situating Global Capitalisms: A View From Wall-Street Investment Banks" (2008) as well as Peter Cahn's "Consuming Class: Multilevel Marketers in Neoliberal Mexico" (2008).
About the Author
Hadas Weiss is a postdoctoral fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Her work interrogates social and political manifestations of contemporary forms of capitalism in Israel. Her growing concern with financialization has led to her most recent ethnographic research on pension savings and investments, in the context of the liberalization of pension funds and the insinuation of risk-management into household economics.
Weiss also has an abiding interest in the middle class, and she is currently working on a book project, tentatively titled We Have Never Been Middle Class, where she demonstrates how financialization, with its erosion of contractually secured incomes, lays bare the ideological foundations of the middle class as eliciting investments that are excessive in terms of consumption by holding forth the promise of future rewards proportional to the sacrifices made.
Stacy Topouzova: Can you speak about why and how you chose to write about Israeli homeownership?
Hadas Weiss: I’m a native anthropologist in a double sense: being Israeli and working on Israel, but more significantly, I think, is that I try to make sense of the same kinds of middle-class insecurities that I struggle with in my own life. My first informants are usually my immediate social circle, and the themes I focus on are inspired by our conversations. Homeownership was an obvious choice because in recent years, every time I’d go back to Israel, I would hear my friends there complaining about how much it would cost them to buy a home. Then I starting reading about homeownership and discovered the depth of its entanglement in issues of class, welfare, and financialization, which are lingering concerns for me. I started preparing the groundwork for a fieldwork project about it and then a huge social uprising erupted in Israel, with housing prices at its core. The uprising and its aftermath steered my project in the direction of political agency, which was a new concern for me.
ST: You note that you “observed twenty-some mortgage transactions at two banks (Le’umi and Tfachot) and a private mortgage consultancy (Matan)” (136). Can you speak about this fieldwork experience?
HW: This part of my fieldwork was by far the hardest to accomplish, but it ended up being so helpful that, despite the difficulties, I repeated it the following year for a different project, when I sat in on pension transactions. The problem was that the financial institutions I approached had no interest in having an anthropologist snoop around and it was very easy for them to say no on the grounds of client confidentiality, my assurances about privacy-protection notwithstanding. After many failed attempts, I found my way in by achieving rapport with some banker, consultant, or agent, who would be doing me a personal favor under the radar, or sometimes the favor was to a friend of a friend who had made the introduction. Once “inside, ” the process was fairly straightforward: sitting in on meetings and taking notes. I always asked permission and was gratified to see that clients had far less reservations than officials, and were generally more curious about my observations. By then I was familiar enough with both professional and public discourses to see where their logics coincided, clashed, or broke down in the process of negotiation. All that remained was to figure out why.
ST: Has your perception of homeownership changed since you wrote the article? How so?
HW: Housing prices are still rising in Israel and people are still buying homes on mortgage, the only difference being that it’s not talked about in the media and public forums quite as much as it had been in the wake of the protests, when I had conducted my fieldwork. So no, my perception hasn’t changed, but I was forced to confront the implications of my research very recently. A good friend was considering whether or not to buy a home with a huge mortgage loan and, knowing that I had researched to topic, called to ask my advice. I told her what I had learned about the implications of mortgage debt, but could not argue against her frustration with the rental market or sense of urgency in the face of escalating prices. All I could really do was to show her that she would be trading one form of insecurity for another, thus making her less happy with whatever she ended up deciding.
ST: You describe three core paradoxes: “politics eclipsed by the market,” “economic irrationality,” and “society undermining itself.” How are the three linked in shaping the formation of new “homeowner communities” in Israel?
HW: The thread that runs through the three paradoxes is financialization, a change in social reproduction whereby necessities like housing are neither public provisions nor entirely private purchases, but rather leveraged investments whose value fluctuates with the financial market. I show that it undermines the political agency of indebted homeowners, makes their inevitable investments appear as irrational choices, and implicates society in an accumulation process that favors a continuous rise in housing prices. I wouldn’t say that it shapes new homeowner communities per se, but it does make new homeowners less secure then, say, their parents had been in the ownership of their homes. The communal aspect enters the picture in two senses. First, that homebuyers fret over who their neighbors might be, sensing that they might affect the value of their investments; and second, that they are acutely aware of a disparity between homeowners and renters, which they conceive of in competitive or even exploitative terms.
ST: You challenge previous assumptions proposed by Yaakov Sheinin and others who assert that new homeowners are simply seeking to maximize their capital returns. Rather, you point out that new homeowners invoke notions of “security” (141) and “stability” (142) to justify their investments. Can you elaborate on the importance of the notions of stability and security for homeowners? How are these notions linked to homeownership?
HW: Economists model financialized interdependencies as outcomes of multiple investments choices by economic agents out to maximize their returns. This makes it far easier to blame homebuyers and homeowners for the perceived irrationality of their investments when they turn out not to be to their advantage. What my study shows is that financialization is imposed on individuals as a constraint, irrespective of their needs and desires. One of its effects is to exacerbate instability and insecurity, putting a premium on security and stability as values worthy of pursuit, particularly by those responsible for families. In places like Israel, where there are very few social protections and a virtually unregulated rental market, these values are associated with homeownership. Yet homeownership itself is financialized such that, in purchasing a home funded mostly by credit loans, households are made vulnerable to market volatilities they have even less control over than they had over the rental prices and continuity of incomes that had jeopardized their security before the purchase.
ST: You describe how investing in a home purchase through credit is marketed as a moral imperative. Does this moral imperative complicate or shape the enduring relationship between homeowners and financial institutions? How so?
HW: Very much so, and that to me was one of the most surprising discoveries of fieldwork. You hear so much about populist rage against bankers and financiers. But when I took a close look at the actual practices of funding, I discovered something completely different. Even as borrowers were aware that banks were charging them interest on their loans, they considered banks their allies, empowering them on their quest to become homeowners. To be sure, they resented the reality of exorbitant home prices—which they most often blamed on the government—forcing them to rely on banks for funding. But given that these prices drove homes almost beyond their reach, they seemed to appreciate the efforts that their mortgage providers were making to bring them back within their reach. The moral imperative was propagated on behalf of their children. Because adequately providing for their future appears to necessitate credit-leveraged home purchases, investments for the children’s sake link homebuyers’ fortunes with accumulation at large, while financial institutions are the intermediaries facilitating this entanglement.
ST: You connect your work to broader trends of increasing reliance on mortgage credit and “the demise of state-run housing construction” (144). How are these trends changing the provision of public housing? What are the implications for individuals who cannot become homeowners?
HW: I’m glad you asked me this question because it allows me to say a few words about a population I don’t discuss in the article. My focus is on the middle class, directly implicated in financialization, but there are many who are not eligible for funding and cannot afford to buy homes at all. They are prey to the very instability that the others are anxious to escape from. For decades, their housing needs have been met by public housing, but increasing cutbacks on social services have brought the demise of public housing. Not only is new public housing not being constructed, but existing units are neglected and made to deteriorate. Privatization policies have encouraged the purchase of public housing units by their inhabitants, replaced public housing provision with subsidies for rents on the open market, and raised the bar on eligibility for housing assistance. Predictably, public- and low-rent housing is also in the worse neighborhoods, condemning already disadvantaged households to reproduce their disadvantages to their children. Their predicament serves as a further incentive for anyone who seeks to avoid it to go into debt trying.
Other Publications by Hadas Weiss
2013. Mobility, Meaning and Transformation of Things, coedited with Hans Peter Hahn. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
n.d. “Toward an Anthropology of Financialization.” (in review).
2014. “Israeli Ultraorthodoxy: Credit and Credibility.” Social Analysis 58, no. 2. (forthcoming in March).
2013. “Security and Finance.” Anthropology News 54, nos. 7–8: 9.
2011. “Gift and Value in Jerusalem’s Third Sector.” American Anthropologist 113, no. 4: 594–605
2011. “Immigration and West Bank Settlement Normalization.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34, no. 1: 112–30.
2011. “On Value and Values in a West Bank Settlement.” American Ethnologist 38, no. 1: 34–45
2010. “Volatile Investments and Unruly Youth in a West Bank Settlement.” Journal of Youth Studies 13, no. 1: 17–33
2013. “Biographies, Travels, and Itineraries of Things.” In Mobility, Meaning and Transformation of Things, edited by Hadas Weiss and Hans Peter Hahn, 1–14 Oxford: Oxbow Books.
2009. Review of Itineraries in Conflict, by Rebecca Stein. Israel Studies Forum 24, no. 2: 31–32.
2009. Review of Settling in the Hearts, by Michael Feige. Cultural Anthropology 24, no. 4: 755–57.