New book by Viviana Zelizer – Morals and Markets

Congratulations to Viviana Zelizer on the publication of her new book, Morals and Markets: The Development of Life Insurance in the United States. The book includes a Foreword by Kieran Healy, and will be released in July 2017 with Columbia University Press.

morals and markets


Life insurance—the promise of an insurer to pay a sum upon a person’s death in exchange for a regular premium—is a bizarre enterprise. How can we monetize human life? Should we? What statistics do we use, what assumptions do we make, and what behavioral factors do we consider? First published in 1979, Morals and Markets was a pathbreaking study exploring the development of life insurance in the United States. Viviana A. Rotman Zelizer combined economic history and sociological perspective to advance a novel interpretation of the life insurance industry. The book pioneered a cultural approach to the analysis of morally controversial markets.

Zelizer begins in the mid-nineteenth century with the rise of the life insurance industry, a contentious chapter in the history of American business. Life insurance was stigmatized at first, denounced in newspapers and condemned by religious leaders as an immoral and sacrilegious gamble on human life. Over time, the business became a widely praised arrangement to secure a family’s future. How did life insurance overcome cultural barriers? As Zelizer shows, the evolution of the industry in the United States matched evolving attitudes toward death, money, family relations, property, and personal legacy.


Viviana Zelizer has revolutionized thinking about the modern economy. While Polanyi offered an asterisk to history by detailing how the British elite was convinced to relinquish its moral responsibility for peasants and accept a market for free labor, Zelizer shows how makers of all kinds of new markets have to build moral underpinnings. Morals and Markets will never go out of style.

Frank Dobbin, Harvard University


A milestone that launched two major areas of research: on the morality of economic action (a topic central to Adam Smith but abandoned by his successors); and on the normalization and institutionalization of new economic forms. As America debates the moral dimensions of health insurance, and as the world copes with the rise of bitcoin and other private currencies, this classic study, graced by impeccable research and stunning insights, has never been more relevant.

Paul DiMaggio, New York University


This book is as fresh in its argument and creative approach as when it originally appeared in 1979. The argument is both sociologically and existentially relevant, as in all of Zelizer’s work. The approach can be characterized as a skillful and unique way of theorizing in economic sociology that draws equally on values and social relations. Morals and Markets is a gem and a classic.

Richard Swedberg, Cornell University


Viviana Zelizer is the Lloyd Cotsen ’50 Professor in the Department of Sociology at Princeton University. She is the author of Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy (2010), The Purchase of Intimacy (2005), The Social Meaning of Money (1994), and Pricing the Priceless Child (1985). She is also coeditor of the series Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology.

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