The American life insurance salesman: A secular theodicy

  • Guy Oakes


Social Psychology Life Insurance American Life Political Psychology 
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References Notes

  1. 1.
    For the sociological literature in this area, see Susan Porter Benson,Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers: American Department Stores, 1890–1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988); Joy Browne,The Used-Car Game: A Sociology of the Bargain (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1973); F. William Howton and Bernard Rosenberg, “The Salesman: Ideology and Self-Imagery in a Prototypic Occupation,”Social Research 32 (1965):277–298; Robert Prus,Making Sales: Influence as Interpersonal Accomplishment (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989); and Viviana Rotman Zelizer,Morals and Markets: The Development of LIfe Insurance in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979). For the marketing literature, see D. Behrman, W. Bigoness, and W. Perreault Jr., “Sources of Job Related Ambiguity and Their consequences Upon Salesperson' Job Satisfaction and Performance,”Management Science 27 (1981):1246–1260; L. R. Chonko, “The Relationship of Span of Control to Sales Representatives' Experienced Role Conflicts and Role Ambiguity,”Academy of Management Journal 25 (1982):452–456; Alan Dubinsky and Thomas Ingram, “Correlates of Salespeople's Ethical Conflicts: An Exploratory Investigation,”Journal of Business Ethics' 3 (1984): 343–353; L. Fry, C. Futrell, A. Parasuraman, and M. Chmielewski, “An Analysis of Alternative Causal Models of Salesperson Role Perceptions and Work-Related Attitudes,”Journal of Marketing Research 23 (1986): 153–163; and R. K. Teas, J. G. Wacker, and R. E. Hughes, “A Path Analysis of Causes and Consequences of Salespeople's Perceptions of Role Clarity,”Journal of Marketing Research, 16 (1979): 355–369.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See, for example, Richard H. Buskirk,Principles of Marketing, 3rd edition (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970); Gilbert A. Churchill Jr., Neil M. Ford, and Orville C. Walker Jr.,Sales Force Management (Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin, 1981); U. Grant Marsh,Salesmanship (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972); Charles D. Schewe and Reuben M. Smith,Marketing: Concepts and Applications (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980); and William J. Stanton and Richard H. Buskirk,Management of the Sales Force, 6th edition (Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin, 1983). The key article in the development of this concept is Robert N. McMurry, “The Mystique of Super-Salesmanship,Harvard Business Review, March–April (1961): 113–123.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    All interviews with agents active in the industry were conducted on the condition of anonymity. The names that appear in the interviews reported below are fictions. Interviewees are responsible for all emphases in material quoted from interviews. Material in brackets is added by the author. Interviews were taped on a hand-held microcassette recorder and transcribed by the author. This essay draws on work first published in Guy Oakes, “Sales as a Vocation: The Moral Ethos of Personal Sales,”Politics, Culture, and Society 3 (1989): 237–253.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    On this point, see William Leiss,The Limits of Satisfaction: An Essay on the Problem of Needs and Commodities (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), pp. 13–28.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    On the development of the professional ideal in modern culture, see Burton J. Bledstein,The Culture of Professionalism (New York: Norton, 1976) and W. J. Reader,Professional Men: The Rise of the Professional Classes in Nineteenth Century England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    One research strategy in the sociology of professions analyzes professional work by reference to the traits or attributes that are alleged to constitute a profession. This research approximates quite closely the above sketch of professionalism as it is conceived in the life insurance industry. Among the many examples of this genre, see William J. Goode, “Community within a Community: the professions,”American Sociological Review 22 (1957): 194–200; Ernest Greenwood, “Attributes of a Profession,”Social Work 2 (1957): 44–55; and Wilbert E. Moore,The Professions: Roles and Rules (New York: Russell Sage, 1970).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    On the ambivalence of industry literature concerning the esteem in which agents and their work are held, seeNew England Life Associate's Career Track, unit I, module 1 (Boston: New England Life, 1983). On the low occupational prestige and “occupational stigma” that attach to life insurance sales, see Zelizer,Morals and Markets, pp. 134–140. Zelizer borrows Erving Goffman's concept of stigma to elucidate the sense in which life insurance agents are contaminated by the “dirty work” of profiting from death. See Erving Goffman,Stigma (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963). On the low prestige of personal sales in general, see Prus,Making Sales pp. 262–263.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Thomas J. Wolff,Financial Need Analysis Sales Manual (Vernon, CT: Vernon Publishing Services, 1983), p. 10.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    The ensuing discussion depends heavily on Max Weber's analysis of salvation religions. See especially Max Weber,Economy and Society, edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), Chapter VI; “The Social Psychology of the World Religions,” pp. 267–301 inFrom Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, translated, edited, and with an introduction by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958); and “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions,” inIbid. pp. 323–359. On the marketing and consumption of good and services as expressions of a conception of the world in which the identities of salesperson and prospect are defined beyond the purely instrumental realm of sales, see also Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood,The World of Goods (New York: Basic Books, 1979).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    On the bearers of conceptions of the world as intellectuals, see Max Weber,Economy and Society, Chapter VI; “The Social Psychology of the World Religions”; and “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions.” See also Antonio Gramsci, “The Intellectuals,” pp. 5–23 inSelections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    On the company conventions held by direct selling organization as legitimation rituals, see Nicole Woolsey Biggart,Charismatic Capitalism: Direct Selling Organizations in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 126–127.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    See Leslie Aldridge Westoff, “As Incentive, Anything Goes,”The Business World: The New York Times Magazine, April 2, 1989, p. 81.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press, Inc. 1990

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  • Guy Oakes

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