The Social Performance of the Deserving Debtor

Frederick Wherry, Princeton University

This paper uses a comparative historical methodology to develop a theory of casting in social dramas by focusing on three debt-relief plays at the founding of the United States, the founding of Texas, and the re-founding of the United States, after the Civil War. National bankruptcy laws were enacted and rescinded based on changing understanding of debtors, creditors, and their deservingness. Synthesizing approaches in economic sociology, cultural sociology, and the sociology of race, this paper develops a novel account of the power of perversity in economic affairs by focusing on the social performances that embody those ideas and their opposites. Unlike Alexander’s cultural pragmatics, this paper’s theory of social performances focuses on period pieces as racialization projects. Bringing history in allows the assessment of historically specific constraints on the scripts that different actors perform. Rather than leave open the possibility that any excellent actor has an equal chance to be cast in the drama’s leading role, my theory of the performance of ideas treats each play as seeking a sense of authenticity to the characters of the time. This attempt to match a character to someone “real” sometimes ends in a casting mismatch, as the protagonist’s foil makes the casting decision of the deserving debtor seem more or less credible.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 211. Theory and Methods in the Study of Culture