SESSION 24. Negotiating Futures through Insurance

24. Negotiating Futures through Insurance.

Geoffrey Clark (State University of New York). clarkgw@potsdam.edu
Jerònia Pons Pons (Universidad de Sevilla).


Paper 1

Risk, Religion, and Rationality: The Past and the Future of Automobile Insurance in Iran.

Zohréh BayatRizi (University of Alberta)

Insurance, in the Weberian sense, involves rational, bureaucratic social action, most importantly in the form of actuarial calculations with the expectation of making profits in a regular market. In that sense, insurance is a future-oriented business. But, even in this industry, the past often weighs on the present and on the future. As Viviana Zelizer has shown, the business of insurance goes beyond rational actuarial calculations, and encompasses cultural beliefs that help or hinder the popularity and profitability of the industry. We examine this theory in the context of the automobile insurance industry in Iran. This case study reveals complexities that stem partly from cultural beliefs and partly from official religious rules. Islamic rules regarding compensation for the loss of life and limb are rooted in the time-space of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century AD. Specifically, in accordance with the customs of that time-space, the price of life is tied to the price of livestock (most commonly, camels). This creates headaches in places like Iran where camels are more rare and where significant declines in their population have driven up the price and posed serious problems for insurance providers. In addition, Islamic rules regarding retribution are individualistic: the person who has caused harm reimburses the victim. Insurance, on the other hand, is premised on the socialization of risk. This has created significant mental and moral obstacles for many victims: they do not consider insurance money to be legitimate and refuse to accept compensation. In this paper, we examine how the insurance industry, as a rational, bureaucratized and future-oriented form of social action, has dealt with these moral, religious, and cultural obstacles.


Paper 2

Social Mathematics and Insurance in the Creation of a Modern Future.

Geoffrey Clark (State University of New York at Potsdam)

Mikhail Bakhtin long ago explored the ways that literary narratives were embedded in a distinctive topology of time and space, what he termed a “chronotope.” Although he recognized the concept’s applicability to “other areas of culture,” to date such studies have been quite limited in the social and historical sciences. In order to help fill this gap, I examine the chronological topologies employed by Renaissance humanists, by religious reformers and utopian writers of the of the early modern period, and then by Enlightenment thinkers whose conceptions of time and the future were subtly but steadily reshaped through the growing influence of probabilistic thinking from the later 17th century and its broader transmission by means of aleatory contracts like annuities and insurance.

The expectation of a more predictable future behind probabilistic thinking helped underwrite a new, optimistic temper that suffused Enlightenment culture. In place of earlier assumptions that the human lot was as fixed as the world at large was subject to caprice and catastrophe, there emerged in the century of the Enlightenment a kind of “historical uniformitarianism.” The probabilism employed by the technicians of risk dovetailed with the optimistic future prophesied by the philosophes, who assumed a configuration of space and time that contained the regular and predictable outcomes of intelligible natural processes and aggregate human events. That assumption underlay both a scientific approach to the study of the future, first spelled out in Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795), and in his expectation voiced there of the unlimited human improvement made possible through the establishment of insurance, annuity, and pension schemes that would remove the cause “of inequality, of dependence, and even of misery, which ceaselessly threatens the most numerous and most active class” of citizens.


Paper 3

The Rise of Runoff.

Tom Baker (University of Pennsylvania Law School)

Over the last twenty years, insurance run-off has become an increasingly distinct part of the insurance business. Most visible in relation to legacy asbestos and environmental claims, this new insurance sector manages insurance claims made under policies sold in the past that the issuing insurer no longer supports, whether because the insurer is out of the business of writing new policies entirely, the insurer is out of the business of writing that kind of policy or, as in the case of most asbestos and environmental run off arrangements, the insurer long ago decided not to sell new policies covering those kinds of risks. This project explores the genealogy of insurance run-off, from its origin in the Lloyds’ insurance market, through its transformation in the actuarial literature and profession, to its application today. Questions addressed include:

  • “How has the social meaning of run off changed over that long period?”
  • “What is the run-off experience like for insurers, policyholders and the run-off managers?” “How does that experience differ depending on the line of insurance (e.g. life insurance as compared to liability insurance) and the circumstances that led to the run off?” “How has that changed over time?”
  • “What does it mean for our contemporary understanding of the insurance relationship to know that any insurance policy can be put into run-off?” “Does that differ according to line of insurance and the circumstances that could lead to run off?”