Thursday, October 31, 2019

Mediating microinsurance: the techniques of translation

Article in the Journal of Cultural Economy by Christopher Paek, The American Institutes for Research


Over the past decade, microinsurance has taken off in South Africa. The strength of this market is fuelled almost exclusively by funeral insurance, unsurprising considering the immense cultural value South Africans place on funerals. Moreover, insurance companies have achieved scale by working through brokers who are embedded within community-based institutions like burial societies and funeral parlours. The incursion of ‘insurance culture’ into this sphere has thus resulted in an ecosystem in which formal and informal institutions are in fluid states of tension and cooperation. Mediators sustain this ecosystem and enable the extension of microinsurance into low-income communities. I employ Bruno Latour’s notion of ‘translation’ in my analysis of three types of mediators: insurance agents, funeral parlour operators, and burial society administrators. The paper, which is based on fieldwork I conducted in Cape Town, South Africa, focuses on these actors’ specific techniques of translation, i.e. the different strategies/practices used to reconcile the disparate rationalities and institutions of the formal insurance system with those of the informal risk management sphere. An analysis attuned to the various social identities and positions embodied by these brokers reveals the dislocations, ambiguities, conflicts, and opportunities generated by the expansion of microinsurance markets into the low-income terrain.

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