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Moralising Misfortune: A comparative anthropology of commercial insurance

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - MoralisingMisfortune (Moralising Misfortune: A comparative anthropology of commercial insurance)

Reporting period: 2021-03-01 to 2022-08-31

This is a study of the morality of insurance. What moral issues come up when insurance companies define entitlements and responsibilities? What concerns do professionals in the insurance sector, clients and policy makers have about the financialization of life? How do insurance products and services become part of everyday life and how do people make decisions about how to insure themselves against future adversities and risks? These and other moral issues are central to financial globalization of finance. The rise of insurance and its associated financial products raises important questions about the financialization of everyday life, people being governed by market mechanisms and financial technologies, as well as regarding the lifeworlds that influence how people deal with insurance in everyday life.

First, this study examines the morality of the classifications that insurance companies use. Classifications are central to assessing risks and, at the same time, reveal particular perspectives on the world. What are the moral implications of classification and its associated bureaucratic procedures?

Second, the study explores the questions insurance raises about the value of life. How much is a life worth and to whom? 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. The study is on Brazil, India, Italy, The Netherlands, the United States and South Africa.
The PhD researchers and the PI undertook extensive fieldwork in Italy, The Netherlands, India, the United States and Brazil. Key methods were open interviews with professionals in the insurance sector; interviews with professionals whose income depended on insurance (such as undertakers), interviews with clients and their family members; case studies of events that related to insurance; analysis of policies; and the analysis of public discourses. During this period, five short documentary films were made. The films were used to disseminate findings to a broader audience, but also included in the informed consent procedure. The films can be viewed here:

Part of the project were an international workshop and an international conference. The international workshop focused on questions of comparison in ethnographic research: How to compare ethnographic findings without returning to comparative categories that have been criticized for being Eurocentric and unreflexive? The international conference was entitled 'Moralising Misfortune: Anthropological Perspectives on Finance, Care, and Morality'. It focussed on how financial services and products shape care and morality. What moral issues are raised when financial services and products define misfortune (who or what is responsible) and shape the way in which people organise care? See the programme for details:

The project invited approximately a dozen scholars as visiting researchers at Leiden University and cooperated with researchers, MA students, and PhD students. These were from a wide variety of countries but with a particular focus on Brazil and India.

An important aspect of the dissemination strategy was to write blogs. The members of the project team have published over 20 blogs that have been viewed widely. These, and other blogs, can be found on:
Dissemination took place on Dutch national and regional radio, by giving presentations to legal experts and actuaries, and by participating in and organizing panels at a wide variety of conferences and workshops.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, the PhDs had already completed fieldwork but an extension was granted to allow the PI to do more fieldwork, as well as to give the members of the project the opportunity to attend international conferences, workshops, and other events. At the end of the project, the members published approximately two dozen scholarly articles; a monograph on insurance in South Africa has come out of which a Brazilian edition (in Portuguese) is under contract. More is to come: A special issue on finance and care has been accepted by the Journal of Cultural Economy, PhD thesis are in their final stages, and a book manuscript on insurance in Brazil is being prepared. For an up-to-date list, please check the webpages of the members of the research team:
This project has made it possible to have a much better understanding of people’s experiences with insurance products and services, particularly how these experiences matter to moral questions regarding the value of life, the limits of solidarity, and the way in which private companies are intertwined with care provided for by the state, kinship networks and voluntary associations. The ethnographic focus, particularly the case study approach, has made it possible to understand how the experiences, narratives, and moral evaluations of clients relate to these products and services, and how these products and services are also the outcome of decisions that are made by the professionals working in the insurance sector, politicians, and public debates about who is responsible for which adversities.

The theoretical contribution is particularly salient in revealing the value of an ethnographic approach to finance. More infrastructural and Foucauldian approaches to finance have highlighted how financial products and services produce moralities while development and policy oriented approaches highlight how financial products and services can be used to change or introduce moralities that benefit societies. The project contributed to an alternative analytical framework that puts people’s live worlds center stage. This, we show, offers new ways to analyze structural power, and individual decision making in relation to particular worldviews. The project’s approach has made it possible to gain a better understanding of how these worldviews shape insurance and how to analyze insurance as a dynamic sight of struggle between insurance professionals, political actors, professionals that depend on insurance for their livelihood, as well as the clients and their personal networks, especially kin. The project has thus importantly nuanced universalizing claims about what insurance is, what it does, and what moral issues it introduces. The project has contributed to a comparative approach that is reflexive of the categories that are used for comparison. It developed an approach where the case study, and the different experiences, views, decisions that people make within one and the same case, can be fruitful ground for a serendipitous comparison. These insights are crucial to our understanding of how insurance, as a form of solidarity, as a place where professionals evaluate how to develop financial products and services, and as a site of struggle over resources, ideologies and moralities, has become fundamental to our understanding of risks and adversities in everyday life.