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Insurance and Civil Society: Elements of an Ambivalent Relationship

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 July 2006

Center for Social and Economic History, University of Zurich, Rāmistrasse 64, Zurich; Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB), Reichpietschufer 50, 10785 Berlin;


This article examines the history of the relationship between insurance and civil society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It tests the conventional narrative that this relationship followed an anticlimactic course, marked by the burgeoning of self-organised mutual societies in the nineteenth century and the decline and marginalisation of this sector of civil society owing to the rise of corporate insurance companies and statutory social insurance in the twentieth century. The article offers first a comparative analysis of nineteenth-century mutual insurance in different European countries (Britain, Germany, France and Switzerland), calling attention to limitations to the democratic and self-organised character of mutual associations. The second part of the article concentrates on a case study of twentieth-century corporate insurance in Switzerland, examining how life insurance companies dealt with customers and their personal data. The study indicates that insurance corporations adopted norms of extended privacy protection in the 1980s, a process that reflected new legal demands, customer claims and policies of civil rights organisations. The conclusion summarises the contradictory effects of insurance on the history of civil society and discusses the implications for the concept of civil society.

Research Article
Cambridge University Press 2006

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The research for this paper was funded by the A.v.Humboldt-Foundation, Bad Godesberg. For helpful comments, I should like to thank Patricia Clavin, the anonymous referees of Contemporary European History, Dieter Gosewinkel, Sabine Maasen and the participants of the Civil Society Working Group at the Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB).
Martin Lengwiler has recently moved from the Social Science Research Centre in Berlin (WZB) to take up a position at the Centre for Social and Economic History at the University of Zurich. He has published widely on the history of insurance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and is currently working on a book with Martin Leimgruber, Der fragmentierte Sozialstaat. Ein Jahrhundert schweizerischer Sozialpolitik (1880–2000)/L'Etat social en miettes. Un siècle de politique sociale en Suisse (1880–2000) (The fragmented welfare state: a century of Swiss social policy, 1880–2000) to be published in French and German in summer 2006.