Santiago Mandirola, a Sociology and Historical Studies PhD candidate, has been awarded the competitive National Science Foundation Science and Technology Studies Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (HEGS-DDRI) for his dissertation “Markets in the Making: Financial Technology and Socio-Economic Life in Latin America.”
Mandirola’s research explores the role of consumer credit scoring systems and Financial Technology (FinTech) in the socio-economic lives of people living in South America’s Southern Cone.
While credit scores have become cornerstones of socio-economic life in the U.S., determining who can afford to buy a house or go back to school, large-scale credit scoring systems have not been able to take hold in Latin America in the same way. The most obvious reason for the disparity, Mandirola says, is that far fewer people there engage with formal banking systems — only about half of the population has access to a bank account, and they generally have enough resources to meet their needs without credit.
Mandirola is particularly interested in the methods FinTech companies have adopted to fill that gap since moving into Latin America’s credit industry in the 2010s. “I’m trying to look at what programmers, engineers, and risk analysts do in order to take information that is traditionally non-economic, like a certain person’s browsing patterns…and how they refine that information so they can make economic predictions about whether or not that particular buyer is credit-worthy,” he explains.
With the NSF grant, Mandirola hopes to travel to agencies developing new methods for credit scoring to observe their processes and conduct interviews with staff. He also plans to attend FinTech conferences and seminars to learn about innovations in the field. While COVID-19 may change his methods, Mandirola says his research style will remain the same. “I’m always concerned about trying to get as close to the subject as I can, and to try to use that information in a way that is as faithful as possible to the source.” he says. “There’s time later to analytically interpret the data collected.”
The topic is a personal one. As a sociology undergraduate in his home country of Argentina, Mandirola became “interested in the processes that try to impose a certain order to that uncertainty, and reliance on that order to make plans, calculations and estimations of how things will go in the future.” When he moved to New York for graduate school at The New School for Social Research (NSSR), he found that every lease he applied for required a credit score — something he did not have — and his interest in that magical three-digit number ignited.
In the 2018-2019 academic year, Mandirola developed and presented the first iteration of his research as part of his fellowship at NSSR’s Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies. Mandirola says the Integrative PhD program, where he was a fellow from 2018-2020, helped him expand his research into the field of Science and Technology studies, broadening his scope to include FinTech. He also has workshopped this project and others at the Janey Program in Latin American Studies, where he is a 2020-2021 fellow. In addition to the fellowship, Mandirola helped operate the Janey Program as a student assistant to the director, Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History.
Mandirola says two NSSR faculty members in particular, have played an integral role in this research. Carlos Forment, Associate Professor of Sociology and Mandirola’s doctoral advisor, has provided important guidance that has helped the project evolve. Forment is the Principal Investigator for Mandirola’s project, and has had a pivotal role in supporting his application and in crafting and improving the project itself.
“Working with Santiago over the years has been immensely rewarding. He taught me what I know about the current debates on FinTech,” Forment says. “Once I had a basic understanding of them, I encouraged him to break with the standard accounts that, not surprisingly, remain focused on the ‘Anglo-European’ world. In studying the particularities of FinTech in Argentina, Santiago is in uncharted territory and joining a small group of scholars who are seeking to rethink the terms of the debate. Santiago is eminently qualified for the task he has set himself.”
Emma Park, Assistant Professor of History and a 2020-2021 Heilbroner Center Faculty Fellow, has supported Mandirola by closely and thoughtfully reading his proposal, and helping him perfect his writing.
“Working and thinking with Santiago over the past couple years has been tremendously gratifying,” Park says. “I have no doubt that his research will not only contribute to our understandings of how the market for credit has been assembled by FinTech firms in the Southern Cone, but is poised to make important contributions to the growing scholarship within Science and Technology Studies that takes sites outside of Euro-America as their point of departure. The research is timely and politically consequential. I couldn’t be more thrilled!”
Ultimately, Mandirola aims to de-mystify credit scoring tools and determine what influence they have on people’s lives.
“I think this is a moment in which we have to focus more on the impact that these elements can have on our economic lives, our social lives, and especially the lives of more vulnerable populations, who are the ones usually resorting to alternative financial services,” Mandirola proposes. “Is it an impact that’s improving the lives of the people affected by it or not? Just as simple and complex as that.”
Read about how The New School’s Office of Research Support worked with Santiago Mandirola on his dissertation here.