UAlbany Study Explores Relationship Between Credit Scores, Self-Quantification, Identity

Beth DuFault, an Assistant Professor of Business, Researches the 'Datafication' of Society

Beth DuFault is an assistant professor of marketing.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 4, 2018) – A bad credit score can prevent someone from renting or buying a home, taking out a loan or making major purchases, among many other, less direct consequences.

A low score can also influence a person’s sense of identity and self-worth. In a study co-led by Beth DuFault, an assistant professor of marketing, researchers analyzed a decade’s worth of consumer posts in online, credit-rebuilding forums. The research team observed a phenomenon in which consumers developed and shared with others a personal narrative of changing identity based on the numbers, according to DuFault.

In other words, she said individuals began reconciling the metrics ascribed to them as reflections of their personal identity.

“What we saw happening is people who have had problems with credit go to market for resources to improve their credit scores, and then over time, feel that their numbers are themselves,” said DuFault, who examined forum posts published from 2007 through 2017 on public forums (the forums were given pseudonyms although publicly available). “These consumers did not see themselves as living in a dystopian, ‘black-mirror society,’ even though their credit scores created a lot of life difficulties. They appeared to accept this numerical identity willingly because they had a sense of control to improve them with these market mechanisms.”

A Culture Defined by Metrics

DuFault, who teaches in the School of Business, said the pattern the research identified is part of a broader technological trend of “datafication,” which scholars and market analysts define as the transformation of human processes and activities into metrics and other forms of quantifiable data.

“We live in a society that has complete trust in numbers. We see more and more datafied institutions assigning ‘scores’ to consumers with predictive analytics,” she said. “And consumers are internalizing these scores. Green scores. Health scores. Academic scores. Popularity scores. Financial scores. I think we need to problematize a little bit this assurance in algorithmic quantification.”

In addition to thinking about how institutions use data to score consumers, and how consumers incorporate these quantifications as part of their identities and self-narratives, DuFault suggested that a focus is needed on increasing consumer and student data literacy.

DuFault co-wrote the study with John Schouten, a professor of social enterprise at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

The study, “Self-quantification and the datapreneurial consumer identity,” was published the journal Consumption Markets & Culture in September 2018.

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