Insurance as Imperial Reasoning: Governing Bodies of/at Risk

Authors: Rob Aitken*, University of Alberta
Topics: Historical Geography, Cultural Geography, Economic Geography
Keywords: finance; cultural economy; insurance; post-colonialism; empire; risk
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper argues that the commodification or risk has a particular historical geography. Taking a period of intense international expansion of life insurance in the early twentieth century as an empirical case, this paper argues that the sciences of risk management and actuarial analysis were deeply implicated in forms of imperial reasoning and settler-colonial space. Drawing on archival research, I argue that life insurance became a key practice where imperial and settler-colonial conceptions of population, calculation and danger were worked out in very particular locations. As Anglo-American life insurers began to expand globally, and as they encountered 'other' populations, I argue that they became reliant upon a very particular kind of historical geography that was preoccupied with the distinction between 'settler' and 'native' and how those distinctions would be conceptualized, maintained and commodified. The 'imaginative geography' of life insurance, to put it differently, entailed constant attention to the ways in which the lines that separated settler and native--the lines that constituted 'settler' spaces and the populations that would inhabit those spaces--could be drawn. This argument implies that our contemporary conception of risk as commodifiable forms of future uncertainty, is deeply conditioned by and shaped by geographies of imperial knowledge and practice. The case of life insurance, however, also underscores the limits of imperial historical geographies. As they expanded internationally, Anglo-American life insurers and actuaries were, in practice, deeply divided about the very distinction between 'native' and 'settler' in particular settings and how those bodies and places should be priced.

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