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Moralising misfortune: the ethical side of insurance

How do you gain access to insurance? With whom are you willing to share the risk? And when does an insurance policy pay out? These and other moral questions are what Erik Bähre, an anthropologist at Leiden University, and his research group study.

This is part of a series about the societal impact of scientific research.

Erik Bähre and his team are carrying out long-term fieldwork in the Netherlands, Italy, the United States, South Africa, Brazil and India. They are working with researchers from these countries on a five-year project that is funded by a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant. The project started some three years ago.

‘‘Insurance is technical. It’s about calculating and collectively covering the risks so that in the event of loss your insurance covers you,’ says Bähre. ‘There is always a moral aspect to this technical side, and that is what we are researching.’ The Leiden researchers look primarily at insurance that relates to the value of life, such as funeral plans and life insurance, but the research is wider.

Crop insurance

Tim van de Meerendonk, one of the four PhD candidates on the project, is conducting research into crop insurance in India. Farmers there are sometimes unaware of how they can insure themselves or are unable to read, which means they don’t understand the insurance. ‘It’s quite tough to sell insurance to people,’ says Yogeshwat Wattamwar, an Indian financial advisor, in a film made by the researchers. ‘Farmers ask how much they will get in return, but insurance is a product designed for securing financial health. It’s not an investment tool.’ Later on, farmer Rajabhau Kundga says: ‘We don’t know how to reach the insurance company, so what can we do?’

Researchers who study insurance in Brazil and India don’t just see inequality in insurance: the research itself can also create inequality. This is something they should be aware of, and they should act as ethically as possible. ‘That complicates the research. You have to make sure to work ethically in an unequal world,’ says Bähre.

Ethical research

Ethical committees from the ERC and Leiden University also assess this ethical side of research collaboration. Bähre: ‘As a researcher from a rich university, you must ensure that such power disparities do not increase. We try to do this by collaborating with others, inviting guest researchers to Leiden and reserving funding for students in Brazil and India so that they too can participate.’

Bähre ensures that account is also taken of the people that they are researching. ‘It is customary to get people to sign a permission form,’ he says. ‘But if they aren’t very good at reading, this is a problem. Fortunately, there are other ways to do it, for instance with a short film or by explaining what you are doing throughout the research and asking if people still agree to you being there and if they still want to participate in the research.’

‘The research shows that insurance changes social relationships,’ says Bähre. ‘Insurance means that people look after one another in a different way. It changes the responsibility that people feel for one another. How this changes differs significantly per society, but we see it everywhere.

Text: Dorine Schenk
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