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What if the worst happened? Life insurance in London as a Janus-faced technology

Journal of Consumer Culture

Published online on


This article portrays the way life insurance as a consumer device lives 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. Based on ethnographic material of the life insurance market in London, this work aims to illustrate life insurance as a social and cultural practice that informs family relations in contemporary western society. 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 into an immortal (monetary) figure that extends relations beyond death, life insurance becomes a ‘technology of care’ that mediates and bonds intimate kin in absence, as well as a ‘technology of governance’ that creates new subjectivities in the form of privatized risk inside the family. As such, this article seeks to address the ethnographic understanding of an everyday consumer practice within a wider scope of neoliberal modes of governance in western society, taking into account the consequences that buying a life insurance has for both the people and their families. In doing so, this study also contributes to the comprehension of the life insurance market and its specific situatedness in a contemporary neoliberal reality.