Theory and Society

, Volume 38, Issue 3, pp 271–305 | Cite as

Creating a market in the presence of cultural resistance: the case of life insurance in China



This article brings together two different conceptions of culture—a shared meaning system on one hand and a repertoire of strategies on the other—to understand the emergence of a market. Based on ethnographic data, it examines how a Chinese life insurance market is emerging in the presence of incompatible shared values and ideas acting as cultural barriers, and how these cultural barriers shape the formation of the market. The findings reveal a burgeoning Chinese life insurance market despite local cultural logics incompatible with the profit-oriented institutional logic of life insurance. This Chinese market, however, has developed along a different trajectory from what might be expected. It first emerged as a money management, rather than a risk management, market. I argue that the very cultural barriers that compose the local resistance to a new economic practice also necessitate the mobilization of the cultural tool-kit to circumvent this resistance. These dual processes, shared ideas composing the resistance and the cultural tool-kit circumventing the resistance, shape the trajectory and characteristics of an emergent market. I propose a theoretical model specifying the mechanisms through which the two forms of culture interplay to influence the development of the life insurance. I apply this model to extend Zelizer’s (1979) insights and discuss how culture matters in forging a new market in the global diffusion of capitalism.


Local Preference Life Insurance Institutional Logic Life Insurer Money Management 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2006 meeting of the American Sociological Association. I thank Gary Alan Fine, Wendy Griswold, Bruce Carruthers, Charles Ragin, Bobai Li, Viviana Zelizer, Arthur Stinchcombe, Debbie Gould, Assata Richards, and participants at various workshops and seminars, including the Culture and Society Workshop at Northwestern University, the Global Fellows Program Seminar and the Comparative Social Analysis Seminar at UCLA, and the Culture Workshop at UC-San Diego, for helpful comments on various earlier stages of this project. I am also grateful to the reviewers and Editors of Theory and Society for their positive and constructive feedback for improving this article, and for the support of various funding agencies: the Social Science Research Council, the Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University, and the University Center for International Studies and the Asian Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of Hong KongPokfulam RoadHong Kong

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