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Unpacking financial subjectivities: Intimacies, governance and socioeconomic practices in financialisation.


Existing studies on financialisation have used Foucauldian governmentality to examine how everyday consumers, shaped by state initiatives and proliferation of financial products, are transforming into self-reliant subjects capable of seeking out financial knowledge and products for future security. By bringing the idea of agencement into critical dialogue with governmentality, this paper incorporates lived and emotive elements of quotidian financial practices with political economic and organisational dimensions of market behaviour to uncover a broad bandwidth of financial subjectivities. The analysis is based on in-depth interviews with investors and participant observation at financial literacy events to explore financial knowledge and practices of everyday investors in Singapore. Findings reveal how intimacies, moralities and technologies are mobilised and entangled such that logics of financial governmentality could operate through multiple registers, harnessed for different means and with varied outcomes.


Agencement, financialisation, governmentality, investors, state, subjects


In analysing (Epstein, 2005), earlier studies on financialisation have sought to explain large scale economic processes in terms of the rise of shareholder value in corporate governance, accumulation of profits through financial channels rather than trade and commodity production, and increasing use of securitisation and financial derivative products as tools of risk management. More recently, other approaches to financialisation have focused on individuals and households as everyday lives and life cycles (e.g. housing, healthcare, retirement) become increasingly affected by the above large scale economic processes (Lai, in press; Langley and Leyshon, 2012). This approach reveals a much broader diffusion of financial power in which the biopolitical terrain of individual subjectivity, aspiration, and forms of conduct has become increasingly entangled with global financial markets and institutions.

Research on the financialisation of everyday life has been inspired by a predominantly (although not exclusively) (1) Foucauldian approach in explaining the shift towards financial markets for the provision of people's daily needs and long term security, especially within the context of dwindling state welfare provision (Cutler and Waine, 2001; Langley, 2006). Financial planning becomes a form of biopower whereby investor subjects are mobilised through state-sponsored narratives emphasising individual responsibility, normalisation of risk in financial management, and calculative assessment of life goals (Langley, 2008; Martin, 2002). The material outcomes of financialisation in terms of new growth markets in insurance and investment products are therefore bound up with the promotion of new financial subjects through calculative and competitive forms of economic behaviour in the contemporary neoliberal era (French and Kneale, 2009; Larner, 2012; Martin, 2002).

However, the exact constitution and positions of such financial subjects remain underspecified. How do everyday investors actually respond to government policies and campaigns, and increased marketing by financial institutions and financial advisors? Are their financial decisions and actions borne out of purposeful planning, accidental compliance or even rejection of prevailing investment ideology? Amidst uncertainty and increased anxiety, how do 'multiple practices and subject positions' (Langley, 2006: 932) emerge in the course of pursuing financial freedom and security? Moreover, understandings of financial freedom and security are constituted not only by economistic calculations of average life expectancies, but also socio-cultural constructs underpinning everyday attitudes towards money (Maurer, 2006; Zelizer, 1993, 1994). What might appear to be irrational, passive or contradictory financial practices, could well be appropriate and persuasive if one considers not just firm behaviour, organisational activities and government policies in governing financial practices, but also the more intimate and affective dimensions of socioeconomic practices (Deville, 2012; McFall, 2015; Zelizer, 2005). In this case, financial subject formation needs to be understood not just within the frame of rational and calculative acts but also through the intimacies and moralities of everyday life, in terms of what exactly constitutes desirable, acceptable and responsible forms of financial practices and outcomes.

This paper contributes to existing understandings of financialisation of everyday life by critically engaging the notion of neoliberal governmentality with agencement, thereby offering richer and more accurate explanation of multiple forms of financial subjectivities. Callon and Muniesa's (2005) account of markets as collective calculating devices rests upon the idea of agencement, in which there is no single mechanism but a dispersed and relationally hinged set of sociotechnical arrangements. In this sense, financial subjects (or rather, subjectivities in terms of their variegated configuration and possible outcomes) are agencements without inherent properties or a fixed ontology (e.g. being neoliberal investor subjects). The content, nature and effects of agencement are heterogeneous and diverse, opening up the range of possibilities for variegated subjectivities rather than just financialised or non-financialised subjects. Rather than focusing on logics of neoliberal governmentality, this approach brings into view other logics, calculative devices and market formations at work in the (re)configuration of financial subjectivity.

This study uses agencement as a conceptual tool to explore the financial knowledge and practices of everyday investors in Singapore. As one of the most developed economies in Asia and a significant global financial centre, Singapore has well developed capital markets, a diverse range of financial institutions, and substantive middle class with high levels of spending on education, housing and consumption goods. However, the consumption of insurance and investment products remains relatively low compared to developed economies like the USA, UK and Australia. Given the strong state-led efforts to encourage individual financial planning and investments over the past decade coupled with growing financial education of consumers, the Singapore context presents a timely opportunity for analysing the emerging configurations of financial subjectivities. Within the context of predominantly Anglo-American accounts in financialisation research, (2) this study highlights how the intersections of state, firms and everyday subjects in financialisation are shaped by uneven terrains of state narratives, socio-cultural constructs, and existing financial practices. Through an agencement approach, the analysis brings together economic and organisational dimensions of market formation with lived and emotive elements of quotidian financial practices in explaining the financialisation of individuals and households. It focuses specifically on the ways in which elements of intimacies, moralities and technologies could shape financial behaviour and practices, leading to a broad bandwidth of financial subjects and variegated outcomes of financialisation. The findings are also suggestive of further insights to be gleaned from a critical dialogue between a cultural economy lens focused on cultural forms, social meanings and care, and political economic concerns of governance and institutional development.


Most existing studies on the incorporation of financial products and investments into everyday lives have relied on representation by and practices of the media, financial institutions, regulatory bodies and policy-makers (Aalbers, 2008; Langley, 2008; Martin, 2002), or historical analyses of how quantitative data on credit have shaped consumer investment decisions (Marron, 2007; Montgomerie, 2006). There has been some recent move towards intensive qualitative research with individuals and households, and ethnographic work that examines lived relations to consumer credit, spending and investments to unveil actual processes, practices and impacts of financial behaviour and financialisation (Hall, 2015; Pellandini-Simanyi et al., 2015; Wilkis, 2015). This study utilises both approaches to pull together the various sociotechnical devices and configurations in following and unpacking financial subjects formation.

To understand the consumer financial landscape in Singapore for insurance and investment, secondary data were collected on the range of financial products and services available to mass market consumers, regulatory changes to the sale of financial products and financial advisory practice, industry reports, and government-sponsored financial literacy programmes. Primary data are crucial here in order to unpack the entanglement of sociotechnical devices and how they are interpreted and mobilised by financial subjects themselves. Participant observation was undertaken at 11 financial literacy workshops, seminars and road shows held in various locations such as public libraries and shopping malls. These events were organised by the government-sponsored 'MoneySENSE' financial literacy programme and were all free events aimed at the general public. Attendance ranged from 15 to 50 people at seminars and workshops, and hundreds of viewers and participants at road shows. Field notes (and photographs where possible) were taken during these events. Materials collected during the sessions (e.g. printed notes, pamphlets and worksheets) were combined with extended notes afterwards to produce a fuller picture of financialisation discourses and reactions from trainers, exhibitors, event organisers and participants.

Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with 22 investors to obtain deeper insights into their sources and networks of financial knowledge, who and what shaped their investment decisions, their interpretations of and responses to messages from government institutions and the finance industry, and how they understood and framed their own financial practices within a matrix of institutional discourse, personal responsibilities and monetary judgements. Interviewees were working adults evenly split between those below and above 40 years of age, in order to capture the concerns and attitudes of those in different life stages. Qualitative field research took place from May 2013 to July 2014. While these findings are certainly not meant to be representative of all investors and their financial decision-making and practices, they enrich current understandings of financial subject formation by unpacking the agencement of various sociotechnical devices and how everyday financial practices and decisions are mobilised, resulting in the emergence of a wide bandwidth of financial subjectivities in ways that could be rational and calculative but also contradictory, defiant or accidental.

Theorising financial subjects

The Foucauldian notion of governmentality has been particularly influential in financialisation studies regarding how states regulate behaviour 'at a distance' through discourses of 'personal responsibility' and 'self-sufficiency' (Barnett, 2001; Finlayson, 2009; Foucault, 2007). Neoliberal policies and associated banking practices, discourses and instruments frame people as rational and responsible subjects who would take care of their own welfare needs and financial security. Technologies such as credit scoring, financial profiling and pension fund reforms prompt consumers to internalise these market logics and become self-governing subjects. Even so, the ambiguity of financial subject formation has been noted by some scholars (Langley, 2007; Langley and Leaver, 2012). Instead of the investor as a clearly defined and unproblematic subject position that can be performed by rational and financially literate individuals, increased anxiety and uncertainty over investments and returns may drive individuals to retreat to the safety of savings accounts, or even a rejection of financial market investments (Leyshon and French, 2009). Based on their study of housing markets, Smith et al. (2006) also suggest that despite the proliferation of financial reasoning and products, they hardly transform people into their own image. In her study of households in rural England, Coppock (2013) noted that people 'inhabit multiple subject positions within a financial ecology in ways that conform, diverge and subvert neoliberal versions of the responsible, financially self-disciplined individual' (p. 479). Moreover, the precise nature of what actually constitutes responsible and selfdisciplined financial subjects could change over time with different political economic contexts, such as when the emphasis shifted from valuing saver subjects to encouraging investor subjects in the interest of international financial centre development strategies (Lai and Tan, 2015). Other than political economic considerations, shifts in everyday subjectivities also occur through embodied, emotional, and socially inflected processes rather than through rational and calculative practices (Deville, 2012; McFall, 2015).

This does not mean that the logics of financial governmentality are irrelevant in the evolving configuration of financial subjectivities. Indeed, governmental techniques are not only limited to specific policies and programmes but also pertain to diffused modes of governing conduct, such as through moral codes, family relationships and alternative financial arrangements. However, the neoliberal techniques of governmentality prominent in the financialisation literature have tended to focus on sophisticated analyses of institutional programmes and devices such as reformulation of state welfare, credit scoring technologies, pension reforms and financial literacy programmes in explaining the formation of entrepreneurial financial subjects. This paper takes a wider (and more entangled) frame of financial practices to consider not only neoliberal logics and practices pertaining to financial market solutions but also other motivations and calculating devices that might produce behaviour and practices that are sometimes, though not always, aligned with entrepreneurial risk-taking behaviour. Following Miller (1998, 2002), this more complex and entangled view of calculative financial practices goes beyond numerical calculations of premiums and returns to consider the normative, moral and intimate foundations of financial subjectivities, to reveal how financialisation knits into the fabric of everyday life in terms of its lived and affective qualities.

In order to draw together the constellation of agents and devices at work in the formation of financial knowledge and practices, and bring understandings of intimacies and moralities of everyday life into dialogue with financialisation, this paper draws upon the concept of agencement (Cah[section]kan and Callon, 2009; Callon, 2008; MacKenzie, 2009). In their theorisation of market-making, Callon and other scholars (Berndt and Boeckler, 2011; Callon, 2008; Callon and Muniesa, 2005; Hardie and MacKenzie, 2007) conceive markets and economic actors as shifting coalitions of human and non-human actors (such as technologies, theories and material devices). Callon (2007, 2008) terms these entanglements or sociotechnical arrangements 'agencement', as used in the French works of Deleuze and Guattari. Agencement refers to combinations of heterogeneous elements, along with their meanings and engagements, that have adjusted to one another but also having the capacity to put into motion further changes and shifts. The concept of agencement captures the dynamism of sociotechnical arrangements in presenting features of stability while also having the potential for contradictions, shifts and ruptures. A related term, assemblage, has become popular in developing relational thinking and the composition of socio-spatial formations (Anderson and McFarlane, 2011; Marcus and Saka, 2006). Many uses of assemblage also emphasise gathering and dispersal, distributed agencies, emergence rather than resultant formations, and fragility rather than stability (Anderson and McFarlane, 2011), in ways similar to agencement. While the concept of assemblage has its roots in agencement, it has a somewhat limited range of meanings in English in conveying more technical or structural terminology (Phillips, 2006). Like Mackenzie (2009) and others (Callon et al., 2007; Hardie and MacKenzie, 2007; Lovell and Smith, 2010), this paper favours agencement for conveying a more explicit sense of agency, the capacity to act and to give meaning to action (Calickan and Callon, 2010; Cochoy, 2014), which captures how relationships, configurations and socioeconomic practices are dynamically established.

In this paper, agencement functions as a conceptual tool to reveal the range of subjects, objects and practices implicated in the actualisation (or not) of whole systems (of financial practices and subjectivities). The focus is therefore not just on how neoliberal financial subjects are assembled but also on the multiple financial subjectivities and socioeconomic practices brought into effect amidst the financialisation of everyday life. The continual jostling between different forms of financial subjectivities and distributed forces amongst agents and devices mean that the content, nature and effects of agencement are heterogeneous and diverse, opening up the range of possibilities for different constitutions and outcomes of economic action.

The emphasis on agency and the 'capacity to act' (Cali[section]kan and Callon, 2010: 9) also shifts the analytical balance from technical and organisational dimensions (which has characterised the more object-oriented approach of market formation in science and technology studies (STS)) to the lived materialities and emotive elements of quotidian financial practices. This is aligned with more recent research on how individuals and households negotiate changing financial landscapes of credit and debt in terms of housing (Allon, 2010; Christie et al 2008; Munro and Smith, 2008; Stenning et al, 2010), consumption (Hall, 2015; McFall, 2015; Stanley, 2014), and work (Chan, 2013). While these studies vary in terms of their engagement with financialisation and subject formation, they all highlight the multiplicity of markets in their local variations and emotional qualities. In utilising the concept of agencement, this paper seeks to bring together neoliberal investor subjects along with the 'multiple practices and subject positions' (Langley, 2006: 932) that have been acknowledged in the financialisation literature but not deeply examined in terms of their actual constitution and outcomes. This approach reveals how the enactment of intimacy, value judgements, and their entanglement with broader technologies of government (e.g. pension fund reforms, financial literacy campaigns) are vital in the emergence, performance and jostling of multiple financial subjectivities.

Understandings of financial freedom and financial security are not only constituted by economistic calculations but also through socio-cultural constructs of everyday attitudes towards money and value judgments about the desirability or morality of financial investment (Maurer, 2006; Zelizer, 2011). The cultural economy approach has highlighted cultural forms and meanings as vital elements of productive strategies. In this sense, the ordinary practices of everyday life, including shared values, sentiments and emotions, are integral to economic and financial processes and their material outcomes. As shown in Deville's (2015) study of consumer credit and debt collection, 'calculation is just as felt and embodied as emotion, and often unfolds from emotive states' (p. 68). The ways in which financial 'freedom' and 'security' are understood and acted upon by financial subjects themselves thus require deeper interrogation in order to explain what might appear to be irrational, passive or contradictory financial practices, but which could well be appropriate and persuasive when viewed outside of a neoliberal governmentality frame. By bringing a cultural economy approach into dialogue with financialisation studies, this paper shows how values and expectations regarding life stages, social roles and responsibilities, and personal life goals can be folded into financial strategies, shaping the ways in which financialisation of everyday life unfolds. The rest of the paper uses the case of financial subjectivities in Singapore to examine the entanglement of state-sponsored financial literacy programmes with actual financial decision-making and practices of mass market consumers. The findings and analysis explain why the growing availability of financial products and public financial literacy programmes do not necessarily lead to the formation of neoliberal investor subjects but may in fact have varied and even contradictory outcomes in terms of economic action.

Intersecting individuals, firms and state in financialisation

The shift in investment practices of individuals and households, from routine saving practices to more extensive investment relationships, has been noted in neoliberal government programmes in the USA and UK (Langley, 2008; Martin, 2002). Similar programmes have been implemented in Singapore, although driven not by fiscal crises of the state but by national economic growth strategies, which have positioned the financialisation of households and firms as being an integral to the growth of the banking and insurance sectors, and for financial centre development (Lai, 2013; Lai and Daniels, 2015). Pension fund reforms implemented in the 1980s and 1990s permitted portions of pension savings to be invested in commercial funds; this was designed to boost the asset management industry. Banking liberalisation since 1999 also brought greater competition from foreign banks in the domestic market, which prompted banks to seek more fee-paying activities such as unit trusts, bancassurance (the selling of insurance products by banks) and other investment solutions, in addition to traditional deposits and loans services. In 2003, the Singapore government launched a financial education programme dubbed 'MoneySENSE' to 'foster more discerning, self-reliant consumers' (Cua, 2003) and to 'get people to understand and take responsibility for themselves' (Koh, 2003) in planning for their financial future. MoneySENSE sponsored the production of television and radio programmes on financial planning and investments, and held road shows in schools and shopping malls. An Institute for Financial Literacy (IFL) was later established in 2012 to conduct free financial literacy seminars. The goal was to educate Singaporeans on becoming investor subjects capable of meeting their financial and retirement goals (Shanmugaratnam, 2013).

The process seems to fit a governmentality framework that calls upon individuals to take responsibility for their current financial commitments and future needs. This message was made most explicit at a particular financial seminar (Event 1) observed in this study. When explaining the ways in which sound financial practices would enable enjoyment of retirement life, the speaker placed the responsibility for poverty in retirement years squarely on individuals' shoulders by declaring that people were poor due to two main reasons: being lazy or being ignorant. Individuals could be too lazy to do proper financial planning, or they were ignorant about proper financial management and investment. One, therefore, could not 'enjoy your life' (see Figure 1) without putting in the requisite effort for financial planning by identifying financial goals and developing core financial capabilities, as sanctioned by the MoneySENSE programme (Figure 2). This attitude of self-responsibility was emphasised in all seminars observed and normalised practices of financial planning as a necessary technology of the self. Individuals are thus required to map their own life course and commitments, translate them into quantitative financial terms of monetary investments and returns, and adjust everyday routines of spending and saving in order to safeguard or achieve desired lifestyles and aspirations.

However, financial subject formation is not only mobilised via state programmes and networks, it is also constituted and reworked through other agents and devices with different capacities to shape decision-making and actual outcomes. Interviews with investors, participant observation at MoneySENSE events and other secondary sources reveal the ways in which sociotechnical arrangements, their capacity to act, and potential for assembling and dispersal could shape the dynamic possibilities and impacts of everyday financialisation. The notion of agencement provides a useful lens through which to examine the uncertain and multiple subjectivities that emerge amidst broader discourses and policies promoting financialised practices. By emphasising the capacity to act and the agency of financial subjects, it brings into focus how the affective dimensions of life could be vital in generating an investor's calculative attention.

Three interrelated themes emerge in analysing the agencement of financial subjects. Firstly, financial subject formation occurs through the frame of intimacies as family and personal relationships, emotions and care become intimately bound up in decisions about financial commitments and the life course of not only individuals themselves but also family members and other dependents. Secondly, financial decisions and actions are guided by moralities and judgements regarding what constitute 'responsible' behaviour and the 'right' ways to handle money. Thirdly, various technologies mobilise other forms of (financial) discipline that shape conceptions of security and changing calculations of risk and rewards in ways that are not always consistent with neoliberal financial subjectivity.


Instead of making financial investments based on systematic analysis of risk and returns, financial decisions are highly driven by the relationships, emotions and intimacies of life. Existing relationships and social expectations domesticate finance by embedding it into the concerns of everyday life. Demands of a new life stage, new relationships and new jobs permeate the decision-making process and investment practices. Almost all interviewees started investing with no specific goal in mind in terms of expected monetary returns or how those would fit into broader financial planning. Most bought financial products 'by chance', due to a windfall (e.g. inheritance), having more disposable income working after graduation and securing a job, or due to influence from family members or friends who encouraged them to buy some insurance and/or investment products as a way to protect current and future finances. A large number of them also bought financial products solely for the purpose of supporting a family member or friend starting out on their career in insurance or banking, as a demonstration of family bonds and friendship rather than with their own financial security as priority. The rational, calculative and entrepreneurial investor who would seek product information and compare different options seems rather elusive as the majority of interviewees and many participants at seminars convey that their financial investment decisions are strongly relationship-driven rather than based on product comparison. Without sufficient financial knowledge (despite more than 10 years of financial literacy campaigns and increased product availability on the market), would-be investors often turn to people they know and trust for financial advice and implementation, which builds on existing relationships and personal networks developed through repeated social encounters. Due to the lack of professional recognition in the financial advisory industry, trust and personal relationships dominate in financial planning and investment practice (Lai, 2016). As explained by Investor3, 'If I know you for quite some time already, then when I think of buying some insurance or investment, I will find you. You know, based on relationship rather than compare here and there'. The translation work of making complex financial logics intelligible for everyday rationality is therefore largely done by family members, friends and personal contacts, rather than self-directed.

Even when investment decisions are purposeful and goal-driven, they are usually enacted through the frame of emotions and care rather than abstract calculations of financial risk and returns. The intimate bonds of family ties are of vital importance in shaping investment decisions as individuals scrutinise their financial commitments and responsibilities. Interviewees spoke particularly of the desire to take care of ageing parents and young children, to make sure that they are able to enjoy a certain level of financial security and comfort, far more so than personal retirement needs. Investor9 explains that 'you feel there is an obligation to take care of your loved ones around you, and your parents are getting older' (emphasis added). Investor2 is very clear in stating that the financial decisions and investment practices of her and her spouse are built solely around providing for their child: 'I mean, my biggest worry now is always who will look after [my daughter] if I am gone. That's the driving factor for many decisions that we make financially [...] our decisions are revolving around her. If she isn't around then we probably wouldn't have invested in anything'.

Investment decisions and practices, and the formation of financial subjects, are thus deeply bound up with familial roles and responsibilities, friendships and personal ties, and framed within particular roles and relationships built up over time. While such roles and relationships may lead to increased consumption of financial products that seem aligned with neoliberal governmentality, the motivations and performance of financial subjectivity are instead shaped by logics of care and intimacy. This means actual financial practices could result in less 'optimal' investments (e.g. buying investment products from trusted family or friends) compared to entrepreneurial logics of assessing risks and maximising returns. Financial decisions and practices are steeped in the quotidian world of bodies, intimacies, emotions and care. The disciplining rhythms of premium payments not only create investor subjects who are responsible for themselves (and not rely on state welfare provision or family support during financial hardship), but also create caring subjects through investment practices. These financial acts are inseparable from the habits, routines, dispositions and moods of daily living and regular encounters that build up those intimate relationships. The formation of financial subjects therefore involves more than just quantitative financial assessment but also unfold from emotive states in the configuration of calculative devices.


Investment decisions are also bound up with ideas of morality and value judgement regarding what are the 'right' and 'responsible' forms of action and behaviour. Within the financialisation literature, individuals are usually positioned as 'responsible' subjects by accepting elements of risk and uncertainty in seeking financial returns and taking an active role in comparing financial products and monitoring investments. However, the definition of what constitutes 'responsible' behaviour merits further scrutiny. In-depth discussions with consumers about why they invest or avoid particular forms of investments point towards specific understandings of 'responsibility' that shape their financial (in)action. As Investor2 explains:
   If I want to invest, I want to make sure that I can monitor my
   investments. I don't want to put money into something and because
   of my lack of monitoring or whatever reason [...] and I lose the
   money [...] I wouldn't want that to happen.

This sentiment is echoed by other interviewees who explain that they do not invest precisely because they see not investing as being more responsible than losing invested funds through negligence or ignorance. Another common response from non-investors is the view of investment as a form of gambling. The legitimacy of increasing wealth and future financial security is questioned by the moral ambiguity of investing as socioeconomic practice. For these individuals, the risk and uncertainty of investing in financial products is unacceptable rather than manageable (contrary to mainstream financial planning advice, which would advocate a balanced portfolio approach to managing risk and exposure), and therefore akin to gambling--a game of luck and chance. Investor12, for example, pegs financial investments to casinos:
   Any form of investment to me is not much different from gambling.
   As long as there's a risk, it's a gamble. So it's like going to the
   casino, just that casino is faster, that's all. You win or lose
   almost instantaneously. Any other form of investment, yes, [that
   takes place over] a longer period but it's still gambling.
   (Emphasis added)

Even amongst those who do invest, there is considerable effort to differentiate between investing for protection against inflation and against life's uncertainties (e.g. unemployment, illness, death) as compared to investing for financial gain. The former is deemed as involving more modest and reasonable goals whereas the later is deemed to be risky and even greedy, and therefore based on undesirable life principles and values. InvestorlO rationalises that 'to me it's not investment. I mean, if you say investment in the sense of investing in protection [then yes]. But I am not making a financial investing expecting [big] returns'. Moral judgement therefore plays an important part in defining what constitutes 'responsible' and appropriate forms of financial action, which in turns shapes the actual investment decisions of financial subjects. In this way, values act as another set of calculative devices in financial subject formation, and in explaining how people allocate financial resources.

At the same time, moralities and value judgements are also being reshaped and incorporated into financial education campaigns as instruments of biopower. This demonstrates the diversity of logics at play in the mobilisation of seemingly neoliberal governmental programmes, and the value of an agencement approach in bringing into view different sociotechnical devices and actors to explain socioeconomic practice and outcomes. The state's attempt to normalise financial planning and investment as desirable and part of the daily business of living was reflected in the road shows and activity booths set up by MoneySENSE. At the 10th anniversary MoneySENSE road show, one of its largest to date, a large public square was transformed into a giant game board, with different zones representing different life stages (e.g. full-time education, first job, marriage and children, buying a house, planning for retirement) and the types of financial considerations and actions deemed appropriate for those stages. Fairground game booths designed with themes of financial prudence, risks and rewards were stationed at various zones. With a Bingo-style card (Figure 3), the general public could participate in the games in exchange for a goodie bag containing more financial planning related materials (e.g. mini calculator, handbook on financial planning, playing cards, sticky note pads, and reusable bag all stamped with the MoneySENSE logo). In addition to financial planning and investment talks, a central stage with seating area also held cooking demonstrations by a local celebrity chef on preparing healthy meals based on simple ingredients and techniques (Figure 4). It made clear connections between taking care of one's personal financial wellbeing and taking care of one's physical body through healthy cooking and eating, both of which were presented as simple, desirable and achievable. Sociocultural constructs of what constitutes responsible behaviour and appropriate ways to take care of individual wellbeing and dependants were very much entangled with sociopolitical aims of grooming 'appropriate' and 'responsible' financial subjects who would contribute to finance sector growth in Singapore through personal financial practices. While beyond the scope of this paper, this points to further opportunities for closer dialogue between the politics of finance and affective qualities in understanding financialisation.


The politics of financial planning and investment are not just a matter of individual agency because of the distribution of calculative possibility across both people and devices. The idea of agencement is useful not only for its analytical weight on actors and their capacity to act but also for drawing in broader political economic processes and institutional platforms in shaping the possibilities and limitations of socioeconomic action and the unpredictable terrains of power. This section therefore examines how broader market formations could also serve as technologies of financial discipline, shaping conceptions of security, and changing calculations of risk and rewards. This reveals an interesting performance of entrepreneurial subjectivity, although not necessarily in approved or anticipated modes of investment.

The MoneySENSE programme is meant to encourage the formation of investor subjects who would bolster Singapore's banking, insurance and fund management sectors, thereby contributing to financial centre development (Lai and Daniels, 2015; Lai and Tan, 2015). Sponsored events therefore cover not only basic components of identifying personal financial commitments and future needs, but also more sophisticated topics like asset allocation, gold investments and exchange traded funds. However, actual financial practices are not always aligned with state visions of increased demand for financial products by everyday investors. Two important technologies of financial subject formation feature strongly in field research findings: the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and property market.

The CPF is a compulsory pension scheme for Singaporeans and permanent residents with automatic monthly contributions made by employers and employees. (3) Implemented in phases since the 1990s, the CPF Investment Scheme (CPFIS) is meant to encourage individual investment by allowing those with sufficient CPF funds to withdraw a limited amount for approved financial products. However, its impact in encouraging investment participation has been limited because different valuations are placed on CPF monies. For some, CPF funds are seen as 'extra money' that could be mobilised for financial gains, since those funds could not be withdrawn otherwise. Conversely, others view CPF monies as 'secure money' and are therefore unwilling to use those funds for investment even if they have been 'released' through regulatory changes. The relatively high interest rates of CPF accounts (of up to 4.5%) have significant impact on investment decisions. As Investorlo explains, 'I must make sure that this share is worth buying, and better than my CPF interest [rate] so I must get something more than that. If not, leave it inside'. Rather than having immutable and transcendental qualities, money is inscribed with meanings and purposes by individuals and communities (Leyshon, 1997; Maurer, 2006). Different types of money (e.g. wages, bonus, inheritance, money-for-a-rainy-day) are treated differently in terms of decisions about where and how to spend them (Zelizer, 1993, 1994). As such, CPF money is not treated the same as other kinds of money (e.g. savings or regular income stream) and subject to different interpretation and use by financial subjects in their calculation of risk and uncertainty.

Another significant technology of financial practice is the property market. While statesponsored financial literacy programmes do not endorse property investment (focusing solely on financial market products), many investors are more convinced by the attractiveness and 'safety' of property investment as compared to financial market investment. Set against a backdrop of recurring financial crises in various parts of the world and the bewildering proliferation of financial products, property is often viewed as a safer and more secure way to safeguard and grow one's savings, particularly given the steady growth in local property prices and rental incomes over the past two decades. Although there are many financial products available such as unit trusts and bond funds that enable individuals to invest with small sums of money (as little as SSI00 (US$71) a month), some investors would rather accumulate a larger sum that would enable them to invest in property, which is perceived as offering more certain and higher rates of return:

The safest bet is really property. If you can afford, you know. Property is a big-ticket item, so that small amount of money, you can't do much. So until you can afford that second or third property, (4) then you start looking at property. If not, then there's nothing to look at. (Investor 12; emphasis added)

When set against the option of property investment, financial products are deemed less attractive in terms of safeguarding principal capital and growth prospects. While there has been some levelling out following the 2008 global financial crisis and cooling measures implemented over the past few years, the overall trend and popular outlook remains buoyant for the property sector. When viewed in that frame, it is unsurprising that there would be investors who dismiss financial products as 'hopeless' and 'rubbish' for securing their wealth and meeting future financial needs. Investor9, for instance, was so convinced about property investment that he completely pulled out of all previous financial investments to concentrate on property: 'I killed the life plan, I killed the investment-linked plan, I killed everything [...] because I realised that it was all hopeless, it was all rubbish. [... So] I bought two properties, one in Singapore, one in Malaysia'. For some investors, the property market is not only a viable alternative but also a more attractive and secure option for managing risk and uncertainty and growing their money for future needs.

As such, those who do not invest in financial products are not necessarily risk-adverse or passive about financial planning and securing their life goals but could well have done even more research and planning in choosing to invest elsewhere, for instance, by leaving their money in high interest-bearing CPF accounts or in property investments instead. While these may run counter to state-sponsored messages of financial planning through insurance and investment products, they also capture the very performance of entrepreneurial subjectivity in directing considerable calculative energy towards maximising individual returns, irrespective of official recommendations. In highlighting the distribution of calculative possibility across both people and devices, the agencement approach reveals how the logics of financial governmentality could unfold through multiple domains with unanticipated outcomes of financial behaviour.


This paper has sought to problematise and unpack the financial subject to unveil the multiple narratives and sociotechnical devices that shape the financial practices of everyday consumers. The result is not just the creation of financialised/non-financialised subjects but also a much broader bandwidth of financial subjectivities. Rather than taking neoliberal market-based solutions and Foucauldian governmentality as the initial frame, I have incorporated the idea of agencement to investigate how different sociotechnical devices and framings interact and unfold to mobilise varied interpretations, actions and outcomes in financial planning and investment practices. Rather than countering governmentality with agencement, this paper demonstrates that the logics of financial subjectivity are distributed, configured and performed in much more complex and entangled ways that are not always revealed by focusing on logics of neoliberal governmentality. Mass market consumers do not only act as entrepreneurial investors in adopting neoliberal financial logics and practices, their financial decision-making and investment practices are also formulated through social roles and affective accounts as providers for family, as 'responsible' and 'caring' family members, and through the enactment of moral positions as 'sensible' stewards of money vis-a-vis gamblers or speculators. These different social roles and ethical positions shape the actual modes and degrees of engagement with financial products and investment markets in ways that may sometimes, but not always, fit the frame of the rational, calculative, neoliberal and entrepreneurial investor. Being attuned to these other registers of valuation and decisionmaking brings to the fore a much wider range of sociotechnical devices that shape actual financial knowledge and socioeconomic practices.

A key theme in the financialisation literature relates to the distinction between 'passive' savers and 'entrepreneurial' investors; there appears to be a transition from the former to the latter as individuals adopt particular mindset, regulate their behaviour, and increase their participation in financial markets in order to manage life's risks and uncertainties. The analysis in this paper calls into question this characterisation of 'passivity' in noninvestors. Investors in financial products are not necessarily 'more financialised' subjects, more risk-taking, knowledgeable or entrepreneurial. Those who do not invest in financial products might have done even more calculations or taken even more risks in other forms of securing lives and livelihoods, such as property investment. Moreover, the act of 'investing' is also revealed to be multifaceted and imbued with different objectives and desired outcomes. Other than investing for financial gains, people also invest to maintain or strengthen family or personal relationships, for protection (seen as distinctive from investing for wealth), or others may invest in their own businesses as a form of financial and social security. On a related note, while investment might be portrayed as a way to achieve (financial) freedom and security within the framework of neoliberal investor subjects, they might present a liability or burden to some individuals and households due to the pressure of making timely premium payments and monitoring investments. Different economic roles, institutional forces and social expectations thus intersect in dynamic ways to produce different forms of financial subjectivities.

Through the analysis of the MoneySENSE financial literacy programme, this paper contributes to a fuller consideration of how state power and institutions operate in the unfolding and mobilisation of everyday financialisation. In mobilising the concept of agencement to unpack financial subjectivities, we see how logics of governmentality could operate through multiple registers, harnessed for different means and with varied outcomes. While the state puts forward particular neoliberal narratives and practices to shape emerging financial subjects, investors could make investment decisions based on emotional or intimate logics, or engage in entrepreneurial behaviour in unanticipated forms such as investing in property or small businesses. At the same time, intimacies and moralities are actively folded into state-sponsored programs and goals, exercising and building on power of the state in financial governmentality, shaping what is deemed 'desirable' or 'responsible' in the financialisation of life and living (e.g. health, everyday living, retirement and death). All these point to the diffused nature of governmental techniques that are revealed by bringing together a range of agents and devices as relationally hinged set of sociotechnical arrangements, which present features of stability while also having the potential for shifts and contradictions.

Some critics have voiced concerns regarding how cultural economy and social studies of finance approaches have tended to overlook the political nature of financial development and market making (Engelen and Faulconbridge, 2009; Pryke and du Gay, 2007). Although this paper does not focus explicitly on the politics of finance, the findings point to the potential of bringing together a cultural economy approach with political economic concerns of governance and state capacity in order to demonstrate the multi-scalar unfolding of (financial) security at the individual, family and national levels. Alongside regulatory platforms and institutional developments, cultural forms, social meanings and logics of intimacy and care are also vital elements of productive strategies, financial behaviour and material outcomes. Through examining the financialisation of everyday consumers, this paper demonstrates how the dispositions of risk-taking and calculative investors are not always neatly aligned in producing neoliberal financialised subjects. Investments and financial behaviour are steeped in the quotidian world of bodies, intimacies and materialities, inseparable from habits and routines, dispositions and moods, and the disciplining rhythms of premium payments and government programmes (Deville, 2015; McFall, 2008). This paper thus highlights the importance of embedding familial relations and affective accounts in the analysis of financial development and market formation, of bringing together encounters between the financial and the mundane in explaining the processes and impacts of financial change. Such an approach presents more complex accounts and richer explanations of socioeconomic practices and the intersections of state, firms and everyday subjects in financialisation.

Karen PY Lai

National University of Singapore, Singapore

DOI: 10.1177/0263775817696500


Earlier version of this paper has benefitted from helpful comments of participants at the Fourth Global Conference on Economic Geography (Oxford, UK) and the Politics, Economies and Space (PEAS) research group at the NUS Department of Geography. Tan Choon Hang and Tan Xuan Kai provided excellent research assistance during the course of this project. I also thank three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments and detailed suggestions, which sharpened this paper considerably. However, all claims and omissions remain my responsibility.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This project was supported by a National University of Singapore (NUS) faculty research Grant (R-109-000-127-133).


(1.) See Langley (2014) and Lai (2016) for some discussion on the overlapping and simultaneous nature of disciplinary, biopolitical and sovereign modes of power in financialisation.

(2.) For some recent exceptions, see Gonzalez (2015), Ouma (2016) and Pellandini-Simanyi et al. (2015).

(3.) CPF funds can only be withdrawn (and subject to various limits) after official retirement age, and for specific approved purposes such as purchase of public housing, tertiary education, medical expenses and selected investment schemes.

(4.) Referring to buying property in addition to primary residence.


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Karen PY Lai is an assistant professor at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore (NUS). Her research interests include geographies of money and finance, markets, service sectors, and global city networks. Her recent projects examine how aspirations of households and financial centre development are intertwined through financialisation processes, and the global financial networks of investment banks in mergers and acquisitions, and initial public offerings. She is on the Standing Committee of the Global Production Networks Centre at NUS, executive committee of the Global Network on Financial Geography (FinGeo), and editorial board of Geography Compass (Economic section).

Corresponding author:

Karen PY Lai, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, I Arts Link, Singapore I 17570. Email:

Caption: Figure 1. Sound financial planning for protection against life's uncertainties and enjoyment of retirement life.

Caption: Figure 2. The MoneySENSE roadmap for becoming a responsible investor.

Caption: Figure 3. Game card for participants to collect stamps at themed game booths.

Caption: Figure 4. Cooking demonstration by local celebrity chef at MoneySENSE 10th anniversary road show.
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Author:Lai, Karen P.Y.
Publication:Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
Article Type:Essay
Date:Oct 1, 2017
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