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Dr Matthew Sparkes, Lucy DoS and Fellow, shares his thoughts on the award and his research

This year, Dr Matthew Sparkes won the College’s Dame Anne Warburton Award. Established to fund research, the award memorialises Dame Anne Warburton, former President of Lucy Cavendish College. Matthew won the award for his work researching the intersections between social class(ification), consumption, debt-based finance, and political economy. We spoke to him about the award, what it means to him, what it will allow him to do, and the impact his research will have.

What did you win the Award for and what does it mean to you?

I have been very fortunate to receive the Dame Anne Warburton funding to support my current research project, which aims to examine how credit scoring systems in the UK have class-like effects on people’s life chances. 

Let me provide a little context to the project. In 2017, the credit reference agency Experian launched their ‘Data Self’ media campaign; they describe the construct as a ‘version of you out there made up entirely of your financial data’, which they believe plays a ‘positive’ role in people’s lives (Experian Website, 2019). The advancement of statistical credit scoring technologies by Credit Reference Agencies (CRAs) to classify borrowers, exemplified in Experian’s “Data Self” classification, has played a crucial role in the expansion of personal credit in the UK; where total levels outstanding have now surpassed the total owed during the 2008 financial crisis. However, credit scores are not only used to determine access to credit markets, and the terms and volumes of the loans, they are increasingly being used in employment, rental and housing decisions; and are thus shaping people’s lives by operating in markets outside their original scope. I want to examine why is it necessary for people in the UK to be seen and be persuaded to see themselves through their credit scores.

The funding will allow me to interview people across different credit score classifications to gain a more in-depth understanding of the way credit scores influence participants' perceptions and sense of self, and probe whether they experience them as an 'obstacle' or a 'resource'.

It is a real privilege to be awarded the Dame Anne Warburton funding for this research. Since receiving the award, I have read about her life and work, and was humbled by her extensive work in the public sector and for the College. Becoming aware of this has created a strong desire to utilise these funds in a way that honours her work and values. 

Can you tell us about your research and how did you become focused on your current area of research?

I have always been drawn to the way classifications of social phenomenon and individual behaviour are produced and circulated through political arenas, the media and more recently through markets, how they shape people’s behaviour, perceptions and life chances, and what political and economic objectives they serve. I have often studied these processes through a class lens.

In a paper titled ‘Borrowed identities’ (The Sociological Review, 2019) I try to unravel the way credit is sometimes used by people to acquire, often mundane, possessions and to engage in cultural activities in an attempt to enhance their class position as a response to perceived and felt class inequalities. In a forthcoming chapter in the book Austerity and Debt (published by Edward Elgar in 2020), I first examine how debt stigma was mobilised by certain politicians, think tanks and the media after the financial crisis to advocate the morally correct way people with debt should deal with their problems, and second to examine the personal costs of this stigma.

These projects led me to consider credit scoring classifications as a pertinent example of a classificatory system. I was surprised to find that little is known about how they not only entrench inequalities but help re-shape and generate them anew. I am intrigued by the way credit scoring models infer that economic and financial actions should be understood as the result of personal choice and an indicator of individual moral worth, and how this system rewards or punishes people depending on digital traces of their past behaviours. 

How is this important for society and what impact might it have in the longer term?

Credit reference agencies own reporting describe credit scores as of crucial ‘importance’ to the functioning of ‘the UK’s financial system’. To access credit markets, individuals cannot escape involving themselves in these processes of valuation and classification, but this is increasingly the case when they also try to access housing and employment markets. However, individuals have little control over these processes or how they are scored, raising questions about transparency, consent and fairness. Indeed, Experian found that 46% of people felt they could not influence their financial data, with 45% caring a great deal about what this data might say about them. 

I do have quite lofty ambitions for the project. I aim to provide a detailed evidence base from which to contribute to policy, practitioner and public debate on how credit scores can be used to create opportunities for precarious and disadvantaged borrowers without exacerbating biases and discrimination against them.

To achieve this, I have arranged to work closely with a varied range of partners, such as CRAs (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion, Aire), and a financial educational charity (MyBnk). These stakeholders will, respectively, assist with research design and participant recruitment, and use the findings to increase public awareness of the importance of improving access to and positive use of credit score classifications. 

What does being a Fellow at Lucy mean to you, and what are your roles?

Since joining Cambridge in 2014, one of the things I am most proud of is being asked to become a member of the Lucy Cavendish fellowship. I became a director of studies in HSPS in 2015, in part because I felt a strong affinity for the College’s values, and its commitment to providing an access point to mature women from non-traditional educational routes into Cambridge. 

My work at the College continues a long tradition throughout my academic career of engaging in provisions that tackle inequality and support people who experience discrimination, stigma, and injustice, including work for the Sutton Trust and Realising Opportunities programme. I am really excited by the privileged opportunity I have to help with the College’s transition to a mixed-entry college, and I am eager to continue supporting students from under-represented backgrounds access Cambridge and reach their potential.

About Matthew Sparkes

Matthew has a first degree in Sociology, a master’s in Social Research and a PhD in Economic Sociology from the University of York. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA). He is Director of Studies Human, Social and Political Sciences and Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College. He has engaged in several widening participation initiatives, including work for the Realising Opportunities programme, the Sutton Trust, and StepChange Debt Charity. Read more about Dr Matthew Sparkes