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Sociology Professor Shares Microfinance Research in The Baffler

March 18, 2019

by Hanna Merzbach BA ’20

At Lewis & Clark, students not only learn how to do rigorous research but also how to communicate what they discover in ways that advance public knowledge of critical issues. Assistant Professor of Sociology Maryann Bylander exemplifies this dual focus in the classroom and in the field.

Her research centers on development and indebtedness, particularly in relation to microfinance and migration in Cambodia. During the summer of 2017, three Lewis & Clark students traveled with Bylander to Cambodia to investigate the impact of microcredit financing in a project called Loans That Change Lives: Interrogating Microcredit in Cambodia.” Microcredit refers to the practice of providing relatively small loans at low-interest rates to new businesses and individuals.

Bylander most recently collaborated with author Eula Biss on an article titled “A Conflict of Interest,” published last month in the political and cultural journal The Baffler. The piece grapples with the ethics of microfinancing and the ways investors profit off of their borrowers. Bylander draws on her previous scholarly research, along with personal experiences in the region, to appeal to an audience outside the academic sphere.

“It was really exciting because not only was it an opportunity to write in a different way than I usually get to as an academic, but also to share things that I have been thinking about based on my work more broadly,” Bylander said. “Academics have to write so narrowly that we’re usually making one singular argument and, actually, there’s a whole lot of related arguments about what indebtedness does and the question of who’s profiting off of debt.”

Over the past two years, Bylander has been looking for more opportunities to engage the public at large. One of the ways she has accomplished this has been through writing op-eds in local newspapers in Cambodia. Additionally, as a 2017–18 ASEAN Fulbright Scholar, she researched different types of migration policies in Thailand and their outcomes.

She drew on her Fulbright research in her recent consulting work with the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations-affiliated intergovernmental organization. Bylander traveled to Bangkok in January and made a presentation to government officials on how debt connects to migration in Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. She saw this as an important opportunity to share her academic research with policymakers.

“My job is research, but the missing link that I see in a lot of great sociology is actually bringing that interesting and important research into the public realm in more conscious ways,” Bylander said. “Sometimes we stay in this insular world and only share those ideas with other academics… and we miss this important opportunity to be relevant in the wider world.”

This semester, Bylander is teaching an upper-level sociology/anthropology (SOAN) course titled Debt and Its Discontents. It’s the first time she has taught the course, and while the class doesn’t explicitly focus on microfinance, it touches on many of the same questions Bylander asks in her research related to risk, rhetoric, and the law. She emphasized the relevance of the class to students, especially those with student loans.

“Questions of debt and indebtedness are going to impact your life in clear ways,” she said. “We all roll our eyes about it and cringe when we open our credit card bills… but I think it’s a really critical skill to be able to think about our financial lives and money in more sociological ways.”

Bylander also teaches SOAN courses on development and international migration. Her upcoming publications focus on financial literacy in Cambodia, as well as the connection between indebtedness and land sales. She is also writing a book based on her Fulbright work on how migration regulations are changing in Southeast Asia.

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