Risk and Insurance in Comparative Histories

AHA Session 242
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Madison Square (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Ryan Moran, University of Utah
Caley Horan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Session Abstract

Sociologists such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens have characterized the modern world as a risk society, where risk and security became serious concerns that societies and individuals needed to manage. For many people around the world, insurance in its various guises (life, health, property, automobile, etc...) has become a product deemed necessary to shield one and one’s family from financial calamity. Access to health insurance, for example, has become a huge political issue in the contemporary United States. Perhaps because insurance is such a commonplace, everyday product for many, historians have not paid sufficient attention to the histories of insurance in modern societies. Moreover, when scholars have discussed insurance or cultures of risk, they have generally focused on single areas or national cultures. In this panel, we bring together scholars working on different regions of the world to explore the local particularities that might attend the management of risk, as well as the diverse social and political implications of attempts to manage insecurity.

This panel brings together scholars working on the topic of insurance in different times and places to tease out some of the similarities and differences of how people have grappled with the problem of economic insecurity and social precarity. As the papers all demonstrate, insurance became an important vehicle through which to articulate ideals of normative social life. It thus reflected and helped to articulate visions of the ideal communal body in contexts as diverse as Islamic religious debates, U.S. inter-state rivalries, and Japanese colonialism. At the same time, the papers also emphasize the importance of historical particularity, as the enactment of insurance hinged on religious debate, definitions of poverty, and colonial strategies of governance. In the first paper, Sohaib Khan brings our attention to South Asia, where he explores forms of insurance compatible with Islamic religious traditions. Khan explores how Deobandi clerics in post-colonial Pakistan have reappropriated the precolonial waqf or charitable endowment to fit contemporary needs of privatized insurance. George Aumoithe follows this with a paper on Medicaid reform and the restriction of the category of medical poverty in the United States. As Aumoithe argues, this was a highly contested transformation, which caused great disagreements between states. Aumoithe thus demonstrates how the national political economy impacted states’ ability to expand the security offered by public health insurance to their citizens. Finally, Ryan Moran examines the creation of a Japanese state-run life insurance system in colonial Korea. Moran explores how the state tried to utilize security as a tool of governance and to establish the colony itself as a space where all were united in the project of mutual aid underneath the umbrella of colonial authority. The papers thus all demonstrate an attention to the particularities of historical contingency while simultaneously pointing to historical parallels that allow for the examination of how different societies have managed risk and insecurity.

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