18th November 2013

Life Insurance as Technology of Care


Life insurance is a market device that entails a multiplicity of social and cultural phenomena of different scales. The present article aims to illustrate the way policyholders and their families experience the life insurance market, living through kinship ties of care in London, in order to harness the uncertainties and limits of mortality and loss.  A life insurance policy is a private contract people subscribe to, along with paying monthly premiums, to get money if the policyholder dies unexpectedly.  For Londoners, taking a life insurance policy is an anticipatory action that helps families cope with the irreducible possibility of early death, controlling and sustaining caring relations across time among intimate kin.  Through the transformation of the policyholder to an immortal (monetary) figure that extends relations beyond death, life insurance becomes a “technology of care” that mediates and bonds intimate kin in absence.  These findings contribute to the understanding of life insurance as a significant practice that transforms Londoners’ lives beyond the economic and actuarial reasoning behind it, specifically its temporal constitution and experience as well as the kinship assemblages that underpin it.

My findings are based on fieldwork experience in London during 2012 and 2013.  In London I met Susan, mother of two children who were already in college. When Susan and her family moved away from their hometown and her extended family years ago, she felt alone and by herself raising her two baby boys. The thought came to her that if she died she did not have any backup to fill her absence when the kids where growing; now that they are in their 20s, she cancelled it.  She talked it through with her husband who works in finance, he viewed it from an economic angle, while she thought of life insurance from an emotional angle, seeing the adverts and thinking, “that could happen to me, maybe I need it.”

Marketing schemes use different techniques that touch people’s emotions rather than their financial rationale, appealing to the risk of broken down families, abandoned children, poverty and homelessness.  The idea of “what if the worst would happen” emanates from every discourse present in the selling of a life insurance policy. Some of the policyholders know the logics of the financial market and what it entails to take life insurance and pay premiums.  However, the majority of the insured people I met in London felt it was better not to think about the finance behind it, having it as a direct debit made this an easier thing to do, skipping the reflexive step of actually having to pay for “a death benefit” each month.

Thinking of death

Roughly, a life insurance policy is a contract a person signs in order to receive a certain amount of money upon death before a certain age. When the contract is signed, the policyholder must choose the beneficiaries, the age until which to be covered, as well as the amount of money the beneficiaries will receive.  All this is calculated according to the policyholder’s age and health condition, and a premium is settled.  In order to calculate the premiums paid, the amount given to families, and the risk associated to the investment of insurance, life insurance companies use actuaries, which are numbers based on demographical mortality tables and rates of the overall population.  Also, within their calculation, they assess the behaviour of the policyholder as an individual who takes rational decisions based on incentives.  The risk of dying can be thought of as probabilities of physical harm, confined to mathematical and statistical outcomes (Boholm 2003; Beck 2007). Nevertheless, these actuarial probabilities have limited importance for explaining how people in London think of the chance of dying unexpectedly, and why do they take a policy to safeguard their families from economic strains in the case of death.  Life is risky, their future is uncertain.

The precipitation of mortality makes people realise the existential problems of human finitude and the irreversibility of death.  For many of the people I met in London, becoming mortal –i.e. the “problem” of the possibility of unexpectedly dying –comes along with becoming parent, becoming adult, and becoming a middle-class homeowner.  Death means the person will disappear from daily life and his or her relationships will come under threat and even vanish completely (Hallam & Hockney 2001). The chance of dying and leaving behind children and spouses is emotionally intensified and existentially problematic, which overlaps with cultural values of family reproduction, care and nurture.  Life insurance serves as a mechanism that gives peace of mind in front of this possibility, working as a future-oriented practice whose narrative incorporates temporal aspects transforming the experience of intimate kin relations in London. Life insurance is part of an incomplete (risky and uncertain) present, orienting itself towards a secure future; hence, taking a life insurance policy is anticipatory action that overcomes the finitude and irreversibility of human existence.

Technology of care

As it has been suggested, the practice of taking a policy stresses ideas of kinship and economic relations in contemporary society, and how relationships of care among intimate kin can be extended temporally and be developed in absence. The idea of mixing money with intimate relationships of nurture and care within the family are not new, Marilyn Strathern (Strathern 1985; 1992; 1999; 2005) and Viviana Zelizer (Zelizer 1979; 1994: 2005; 2011) have theorized about the implications of recognizing economy and kinship ties as two analytical realms that interconnect in practice. Strathern focuses on how things transacted or produced can stand for aspects of social relations (Strathern 1985:191). On the other hand, Zelizer concentrates on how people merge their most intimate relations with economic activities, including monetary payments and the pricing of human lives. She argues that economic practices serve to create, define, sustain, and challenge intimate relations (Zelizer 2011). The Londoners I met often considered taking life insurance when they had children that depended on them, so that in case they died, the ones left behind would be financially secure. Life insurance policies translate the premium and the lump sum, not into “what is needed” to care for your loved ones if you die, but into “how much” in terms of a monetary value.  Some policyholders felt complete in the emotional sense that they were acting as a good mother after they had taken a policy, as if paying monthly premiums extended their motherhood for when they died. In this case, life insurance priced the intimate relations between mother and child, rather than the life of the policyholder.

The different layers life insurance in London takes, from the insured, to the agents, and the brokers, show how people who take life insurance are entangled in a privatised system of care regulated by the market.  Following Clara Han’s work on care and violence in neoliberal Chile (Han 2012), it can be said that life insurance policies are a resource for caring and nurture in intimate family ties in London, fulfilling the desire of an infinite relationship of care that overcomes the death of the breadwinner.  The withdrawal of universal social security, the privatization of security in the family, and the individual consumer in contemporary neoliberal society, positions private life insurance as a constructive resource of certainty among kin ties.  In a sense, care is diffused in private consumer devices, shaping particular family relationships over time. Care is displayed and takes shape in intimate relations, as well as how its limits are discovered in the core of institutional relationships (Ibid.:22). The works of the market and of national economy are then lived through relations within the family.  The forces of the market are not abstract values that come from somewhere else; rather, the devices of the market become a resource for caring and domestic relationships (Ibid.:20).

Life insurance allows families in London to “keep going while they are coping,” when one (or both) of the parents dies young while still having dependents, a school fee to pay or a mortgage.  With its “ability to act at a distance” it introduces a temporal dimension in the relationship of care and nurture within intimate kin ties, delocalizing and extending care to different and unknown others.  Giving is an act of displacement and as a “memory” it embodies the objective distance inherent in the experience of nurturing relationships (Battaglia 1990:76). The donors are seen as an absent presence and the gift is symbolic of the extension of the relationship into the future, hence, nurture is projective.  Family draws into different forms of mediating substances to sustain relations of human feeling extended beyond their visible reach, such as money, food, rituals, and other materializations of caregiving (Chu 2010:253-254). So to speak, life insurance in London and what it means for most of the insured people I met, contributes to the understanding of these “economies of absence”. Life insurance gives security and certainty of post-mortem reciprocity establishing caring relationships accordingly; with a life insurance policy, intimate relations may be enacted in absence.  In this sense, and in accordance to Marilyn Strathern’s arguments on English kinship, one can see that death poses other problems different from distance of kin because “irreversible” death can be considered an extreme form of alterity, posing a question on how to establish the act of recognition of that relationship.

Life insurance gives security and comfort because it guarantees through monetary provision the desired continuity of care and nurturing relationships between parents and their children.  Moreover, life insurance is an economic and financial device that appears to be crucial in the process of intimate kin relations, entangling them into privatised systems of care regulated by the market.  Likewise, the analysis has shown that life insurance is a form of extended reciprocal exchange within families in London, having the ability to act at a temporal distance transforming the experiences of its kin members.    Marilyn Strathern suggests, “kinship in its various guises appears and disappears as a cultural resource for thinking about other things” (Strathern 2005:51). Life insurance in London informs and expands our understanding of English kinship in contemporary society; revealing further points of departure that exceed this study and bringing to light issues of present-day neoliberal society.


Life insurance, as an economic device and a monetary benefit, creates the sense of security and continuity in front of death, rupture, and loss.  It translates into a potential material object that will bind the deceased with her or his intimate kin, connecting across temporal distance and becoming a monetary presence in the lives that were supposed to be taken care of.  The virtual possibility of dying unexpectedly in the future, and of failing to care for loved ones, becomes a transformative cause of actions in the present, pushing people into buying life insurance policies, and other consumer products of the market. The inverse temporal experience of extending the future backwards in time is what makes life insurance emotionally effective, making intimate kinship ties secure when confronting potential mortality and loss.

Care systems can be understood in different scales, from the intimate family level to the institutional and political realm.  Life insurance’s different layers, the insured, the agents, the brokers, show that people’s intimate dynamics of care among the family are crossed by private systems of care regulated by the market. National neoliberal economy and state welfare withdrawal are scaled down (or rather, into) the lives of middle-class families in London, their policies and abstract value market become resources for caring, even after death.  Life insurance is a resource for caring and nurture, a “technology of care,” transforming the finite and mortal ties into infinite relationships.  Care is diffused in life insurance as a private consumer device that shapes particular family relations. The possibility of separation and disconnection are always within relations, being a condition of relations that do not necessarily disintegrate, but rather transform themselves and repeatedly renew (Han 2012:234).  By taking the form of an extended reciprocal exchange within the family, life insurance extends itself across time, turning into a mediating materiality that’s supports relations of human feeling beyond the visible (and mortal) reach of its participants.


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———— (2005). The purchase of intimacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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This article is based on “Life Insurance in London: Kinship, Care, and Temporal Uncertainties”, dissertation written for the degree of M.Sc. in Social and Cultural Anthropology (UCL) of the University of London in 2013.

As part of our inter-network collaboration, the article is co-posted with Estudios de la Economía.

Photo by Cory Doctorow.

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