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Moralising Misfortune: A comparative anthropology of commercial insurance

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - MoralisingMisfortune (Moralising Misfortune: A comparative anthropology of commercial insurance)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-02-28

This is a study of the morality of insurance. What moral issues are raised when commercial companies define responsibilities for misfortune and the appropriateness of entitlements? What are the concerns about the financialization of life and intimacy?

The insurance market was heavily criticized after the global financial crisis of 2007, which was caused in part by the sale of risky insurance products and their derivatives. The moral issues raised by the insurance industry are central to financial globalization of insurance and credit products and expectations of market mechanisms. The rise of insurance and its associated financial products raises important questions regarding the financialization of private life and people being governed by market mechanisms.

First, this study examines the morality of bureaucratic classifications produced by the insurance industry. Classifications reveal particular perspectives on the world and are at the heart of defining the risks covered by life insurance policies, as well as defining exclusionary clauses and who is allowed to take which policies; in addition, they are central to the exploration of consumer markets. What are the moral implications of classification and its associated bureaucratic procedures?

Second, the study explores the questions life insurance raises about the value of life. Life insurance literally prices death. How much is a life worth? What lives can be compensated and who can receive compensation? Moral obligations and the allocation of blame may depend on whether financial support is given by commercial companies, kinship, or voluntary associations. This project examines the morality of the integration of life insurance into wider financial systems.

The study is on Brazil, India, Italy, The Netherlands, the United States and South Africa. The objective of the research is to gain insight into:
1. Public discourses on the role of insurance in everyday life;
2. The ways in which insurance gives rise to particular notions of responsibility and compensation.
3. The ways in which the morality of insurance is intertwined with explaining misfortune, and with organizing care through kinship and voluntary associations.
The PhD researchers in the project have completed the Desk Research phase of the project, including the courses and training that were part of it. They have written Paper 1 and this has been approved by the committees that supervise the PhD researchers. At the moment, the PhD researchers are on fieldwork in their respective countries. I have visited two researchers in their respective fields (the United States and Italy), we communicate during fieldwork over skype and e-mail as well as the Virtual Research Environment that is set up.
In preparation of the fieldwork, Tim van de Meerendonk went for a brief fieldwork visit to India and Irene Moretti went for a brief fieldwork visit to Italy. These short fieldwork visits were not anticipated but were crucial for a good preparation (see also the approved amendment on change from France to Italy).
My own fieldwork planning had to be changed somewhat. The reason was that I wanted to stay in Leiden longer before the first fieldwork period as to make sure that the PhDs were well on track and because of teaching obligations in my department. I went to Brazil for fieldwork for three months in November. The book manuscript on insurance in South Africa is complete and has been evaluated positively by an academic peer review publisher. I need to make some changes and can then submit the final manuscript. In addition, the research team has several papers in progress for publications in academic journals.
We had two visiting researchers from the University of Brasíia (Antonádia Borges and Marcelo Rosa) and two MA students from the same university are also participating in the project (Stephane Guimarães and Natália Alves).
Around the visit of the two visiting researchers I organized a workshop with Rivke Jaffe on comparison, one of the key themes of the project. In addition we invited Sian Lazar (Cambridge University), João de Pina-Cabral (Kent University and ethics advisor to the project) and Benoit de L’ Estoile (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique). Following up on this event I have written a paper on ethnographic comparison that is now being reviewed.
The five members of the project team attended the course on the legal and economic aspects of insurance. Such training was anticipated but was initially not envisioned as a course. The course proved to be very fruitful for our understanding of insurance.
Together with Tazuko van Berkel, Faculty of Humanities of Leiden University, I organized a small and very inspiring workshop on morality and economy in classical Greek philosophy. The members of the project team participated in the workshop.