The Repo Pandemic: Cars, Collections, and the Socioeconomic Fallout of COVID-19

Awarded Scholars:
Spencer Headworth, Purdue University
Project Date:
Jun 2021
Award Amount:

Repossessions are how creditors seize private automobiles when individuals do not make their payments. For many households, vehicles are essential for getting to work. This constitutes a paradox: when people fall behind on their payments, their vehicles are repossessed, which in turn creates a new obstacle to financial solvency. Drawing on ethnographic observations of repossession agents at work and interviews with repossession agents (phase one) and repossession targets (phase two) in a Midwestern metropolis and a small town in a neighboring state, sociologist Spencer Headworth seeks to answer these questions: (1) How are new technologies shaping repossession? (2) How does repossession affect present and future socioeconomic disadvantage? (3) What might repossession teach us about the socioeconomic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic? The two sites represent different COVID-19 responses; both states placed moratoria on vehicle repossessions during their initial lockdowns, but one state enforced lockdown rules more stringently than the other state, which allowed repossessions to resume earlier. Conducting observations and interviews across both states will permit Headworth to explore the implications of these different policies. He will begin by conducting full-time, immersive ethnographic observation with repossession agents at work to capture the social realities of vehicle repossession during the pandemic. He will split his time roughly equally among the multiple repo company field sites. The rapport developed initially will facilitate subsequent intermittent visits. He plans two rounds of semi-structured interviews with 50 repo agents. In subsequent months, he will check in periodically at each site for further observations and conversations, to assess how repossession continues to play out.


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