Making markets, representing risks: An ethnography of life insurance in Mumbai

Elson, Mark Koops

     Life insurance, I was often told during 14 months of research in Mumbai, is never bought, but always sold. Nevertheless, it is one of the most common financial investments made by middle-class Mumbaikars. A primary goal of this dissertation is to explore this dynamic, examining the massive efforts of companies, their agents, and the Indian state to make the market for life insurance in the city.
     The state nationalized the life insurance industry in 1956 as the financial centerpiece of its modernization project, and now, in the wake of economic liberalization, private and multinational insurers compete with the long-time state monopoly, the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC). This dissertation compares the LIC with two of these new companies, making several interconnected claims.
     While life insurance enables individuals and their families to hedge against the financial risk of early death and make long-term investments, it generates new risks for consumers that can overshadow the potential benefits. To various degrees, Mumbaikars fear that they or their families will struggle to recoup their investments many years in the future, and worry that explicitly preparing for an early death makes it more likely to occur. I found that life insurance agents play a critical role as cultural and economic brokers in this context, skillfully maneuvering within local market norms and converting their social relations into natural markets for life insurance. The new private companies eschew much of this model, seeking to train their agents in international best practices, hoping this will appeal to their target segment of urban professionals, which conveniently maps onto the underwriting category of first-class lives.

Kelly, John D.