Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Ethnographies of Insurance

How do insurance products transform intimate and personal relations? What are the consequences of the classifications that insurance companies use and how do these affect solidarity, morality and inequality?

2016 - 2021
Erik Bähre
European Research Council Consolidator Grant European Research Council Consolidator Grant
ESRC project on ‘popular economies in South Africa’ at the London School of Economics

NIAS (Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies), Political Sciences
Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics

Insurances and solidarity

Commercial insurance is sometimes seen as a threat, as an industry that is driven by selfishness and where financialisation causes us to define morality and value only in monetary terms. At the same time, insurances offer forms of solidarity to make it easier to help each other. How does the solidarity of commercial insurers relate to other sources of solidarity, such as the family, voluntary associations or the state? Why do people buy insurance products and what has changed since the financial crisis of 2007?

Entering people's private lives

An important premise of this research is that people are not calculating machines driven solely by their own interests and their own happiness. The death of a family member or loved one is usually a personal and emotional event. At the same time relatives are faced with technical and sometimes bureaucratic procedures of insurers. How do people perceive the intertwining of privacy in the financial sector? Do they experience insurers as a help or burden, or perhaps both?

Ethnographic methods

Ethnography and the extended case study are key methods in this project. These methods make it possible to examine how a wide range of sometimes contradictory moralities and experiences are part of everyday life. This approach makes it possible to carefully analyze salient events and situations, such as a funeral or a specific case involving an insurance product.

Economy more than maximising profit

The aim is to understand how and why people who are involved in the same event can have very different readings of what happened. With this approach, it is possible to go beyond the notion that the economy is shaped by individuals trying to maximise profit and happiness. This project tries to understand how the economy is the outcome of power relations and socially situated moralities.

International research project

The research is carried out in five countries; Brazil, Italy, India, the Netherlands, South Africa and the United States of America.






  • Bähre, Erik. (2015), “Ethnography’s Blind Spot: Intimacy, Violence, and Fieldwork Relations in South Africa.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 59, no. 3 : 1-16.



  • van Est, Diny, and Erik Bähre. (2013), “Cash for Care in The Netherlands: Markets, Bureaucracies, and Personal Relations in Post-Cold War Healthcare Reform.” Etnofoor 25, no. 2: 99-118. pdf file (139.27 KB)


  • Bähre, Erik, The Janus Face of Insurance in South Africa: From Costs to Risk, from Networks to Bureaucracies." Africa 82(1): 150-67.


  • Bähre, Erik, ‘Liberation and redistribution: social grants, commercial insurance, and religious riches in South Africa’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 53(2): 371-392.


  • Bähre, Erik, ‘Redes de inclusão e burocracias de exclusão: Riscos e seguros de responsabilidade civil entre mais pobres na África do Sul’, Etnogràfica 14(3): 465-485.


  • Bähre, Erik, Money and Violence; financial self-help groups in a South African township, Brill Academic Publisher: Leiden and Boston.

Postponed due to Covid-19 regulations

This international conference on July 4 and 5 examines how financial services and products shape care and morality. How does finance give rise to moral discourses on and practices of care? 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? 

Related research

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