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Understanding social issues

Inequality and violence are the two biggest issues in South Africa. What is the underlying cause? Could they be linked to rivalling groups, economic factors, government policy or all of the above? To understand social issues, it is important to study them within their context. The extended case study is a good method for this.

The effect of insurance companies on everyday life

The effect of financial products on everyday life is the subject of the research of economic anthropologist and developmental sociologist Erik Bähre. The policy pursued by insurance companies, for instance, can have unexpected consequences on insured persons and those around them.

Erik Bähre is particularly interested in the effect of economic change on personal relationships. He specialises in South Africa. In September 2016, he began the study Moralising Misfortune: A Comparative Anthropology of Commercial Insurance, for which he received a five-year grant from the European Research Council. With this project, he is expanding his research – which he has conducted thus far in his country of specialisation South Africa – to Brazil, France, India, the Netherlands and the US.

The research considers which issues arise when insurance companies define social aspects such as responsibility and solidarity. Here Bähre and his team are looking at matters such as how relationships in a neighbourhood or family change if an insurance company intervenes in everyday life.

Participating in daily life

The extended case study is the main method used in this project. It enables the researchers to gain the fullest possible picture of specific events. Extended here means extensive and inclusive. Anyone who is the slightest bit involved with the research topic is an object of research. Conversations often yield names of other people who are involved in the subject, allowing the researcher to follow the line of research. Of course, the researcher is dependent on people’s willingness to cooperate. This generally depends on the nature of the topic that the researcher is studying. It is fairly easy to conduct research into some topics, but others such as funerals, are more difficult.

Bähre: ‘There are various tensions between policy and practice, between neighbours and between insurance companies. We look at whether we can explain why different people have a different experience of an event.’ One of the methods he uses for this is participant observation in the townships of South Africa. He therefore participates in daily life. He also spends a lot of time with people who are in some way linked to the topic. ‘I visit them, preferably at home, if at all possible. I go to meetings and conduct open interviews and sometimes surveys. I also interview insurance experts about their considerations, and analyse websites and the policy documents of insurance companies. The aim of an extended case study is to study as many aspects of a phenomenon as possible.’

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