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Economic LivesHow Culture Shapes the Economy$
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Viviana A. Zelizer

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780691139364

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691139364.001.0001

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Human Values and the Market

Human Values and the Market

The Case of Life Insurance and Death in Nineteenth-Century America

(p.19) 1 Human Values and the Market
Economic Lives

Viviana A. Zelizer

Princeton University Press

This chapter uses data on the diffusion of life insurance in nineteenth-century America as a testing ground to explore the larger theoretical problem of establishing monetary equivalences for sacred things. It hypothesizes that cultural resistance to including certain items in the social order—namely, those related to human life, death, and emotions—into a market-type of exchange introduces structural sources of strain and ambivalence into their marketing. Life insurance raises the issue in its sharpest terms by posing the question of how one establishes a fixed-dollar amount for any individual death. The chapter argues that resistance to life insurance during the earlier part of the nineteenth century was largely the result of a value system that condemned the materialistic assessment of death, and of the power of magical beliefs and superstitions that viewed with apprehension any commercial pacts dependent on death for their fulfillment.

Keywords:   life insurance, cultural resistance, social order, United States, death

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