Since I started my graduate education, I have had fascination with economic sociology. Unfortunately, I have never taken a course in economic sociology. While reading, and reviewing monographs such as Dealing in Desire by Kimberly Hoang, Under the Cover by Clayton Childress, and Pricing Beauty by Ashley Mears, I recognized that many sociologists whose work lies in the intersection of cultural sociology and economic sociology employ Viviana Zelizer’s framework to analyze certain markets. This led me to wonder what is it about Zelizer’s work that has influenced generations of sociologists. When I had a chance to come up with a reading list for sociology of consumption, I just incorporated Zelizer’s first book, Morals and Markets, into my list. It has such a treat to read her dissertation-turn-book. After finishing the book, I am left to wonder about Zelizer’s life long research agenda: that is, the intersection between morals and markets. How and why did life insurance become a commodity in the United States? How can market problems solve moral and ethical problems? These questions remind me of my own research questions. They beg me to ask myself the question: what is it that motivates my research, my curiosity, and my commitment to a research career.
In a nutshell, Morals and Markets, looks into the puzzle why the life insurance industry in the United States took off in the second half of the nineteenth century, when it could not develop for the preceding decades. Zelizer used a comparative historical sociology approach. She compared the life insurance industry with fire insurance and marine insurance industries, and showed that in comparison to the former, the latter faced little public resistance. Then she also compared the American life insurance market to that of France and of Britain. She found that life insurance industry in the UK had an easy start, while in France it suffered even more public resistance than in the United States. By tracing its historical development, Zelizer is able to show how public opinion about life insurance changed over time in the United States.
Essentially, she showed that at the beginning, Americans were resistant to use economic rationality to think about sacred aspects of life and death. The life insurance industry had to use various marketing strategies to change this public understanding of life and health. Zelizer conceptualizes life insurance as a social innovation, and traces how American public opinion changes over time.
As a major social innovation, life insurance made its own impact on values. We will examine four different ways in which life insurance made its own impact on value. We will examine four different ways in which life insurance penetrated values regarding death: (a) as a secular ritual, (b) as an additional requirement for a “good death,” (c) as a form of immortality, and (d) by redefining the value of life.
In many ways, life insurance as a social innovation changed American understanding of life and death. Through market mechanisms, at the end Americans are now able to commercialize both life and death.
At some point in the second half of the nineteenth century, American public started to accept that life insurance was a valuable commodity:
After years of requesting public acceptance as beneficent institutions, life insurance companies now demanded to be judged strictly on business terms….. As their self-image changed, the nature of public criticism against life insurance companies also shifted from ideological censure to economic indictment (p.119).
While originally, the public thought about life and death in religious terms, now they were thinking of these companies in purely cost-benefit terms. They wanted to see how these companies could make money.
The industry itself changed its own perception about its goal, and its self image:
After disguising its commercialism for almost three-quarters of a century, the life insurance industry became embarrassed by its former sentimentality and sought identification as a sober economic institution, The protection of widows and orphans however, could not be easily reproduced to pure economic exchange, and those who upheld it as a distinctively moral enterprise criticized the new trends…. All this oscillation can be largely understood as the result of the structurally ambivalent status of life insurance determined by the marketing of products such as death and protection, culturally defined as beyond monetary evaluation. This created an inescapable dilemma: in order to survive as a business life insurance was compelled to maximize profits, but profits alone remained a justification too sordid for an institution of its kind. The contradictory trends in its historical development reflect the industry’s inner tensions caused by the uneven demands of market and morals (p. 135).
As the industry matured, its legitimacy affirmed, it became to recognize that as an economic institution, it had to provide sound economic analysis to the public. Zelizer argues that this inconsistency of how an industry understood itself is logical because it had to juggle “the uneven demands of market and morals.”
Zelizer also paints a portrait of the workers in this industry. As the industry faced difficulties in gaining public acceptance, the life insurance agents suffered occupational stigma. They were “the stigmatized salesman”
An earlier generation of life insurance agents defined themselves as priests and missionaries to legitimate their commercial involvement with death. Life insurance salesmen in the 20th century claimed professional status based on knowledge and service to redeem their role (p. 165).
The image of a life insurance agent changed from stigmatized missionaries to professionals whose knowledge and expertise was sought after. Their occupational reputation fluctuated with the rise and fall of the industry.
In the conclusion of the book, Zelizer offered her own interpretation of American society:
America was, an remains, a land of economic magic. In the case of life insurance the trick was to sell futures – pessimistic futures. The task of selling a commodity to a materialist civilization was relatively simple. The task of converting human life and death into commodities, however, was highly complex. The universe of believers and theologians became involved with another universe of hard-headed businessmen. Out of this interaction emerged a compromise credo which was a far cry from vulgar marketplace linkages and at the same time a giant step beyond simplified heavenly rewards. Theology yielded to the capitalist ethos – but not without compelling the latter to disguise its materialist mission in spiritual garb (p.176)
As “a land of economic magic,” America is able to commercialize anything even life and death. The impression that everything could become a commodity in this country is still relevant. It comes naturally to many people who come from other countries. Every foreigner I know at one point or another would be puzzled by this fact. Someone asked me “how come Americans could commercialize everything?” with amazement. This person was not only impressed by admired American entrepreneurism. Other people would decry the fact that everything in this country is up for sale, including sacred things such as religion, and hospital care. Is it capitalism running wild in this country? Or is capitalism working its wonder?