Six Reasons for Reading Karl Polanyi (Even If You Study the Global South): Part I

Why do social scientists select one theoretical framework rather than another?

Methodology classes often suggest that the selection depends on demonstrated explanatory power (usually defined as predictive accuracy), together with an economical set of well-defined concepts. The ideal is to explain a great deal with very little in the way of variables.

But this narrative is, at best, only part of the story. In reality, we choose a theoretical orientation for various reasons: to get ahead in a discipline by adopting the approach of powerful senior academics, to express one’s dissatisfaction with the status quo and the guardians of orthodoxy, to follow a charismatic intellectual, or to advance a cherished cause.

Moreover, once we have settled on a theoretical approach, it is onerous to shift to another paradigm. It takes much time and energy to master the intricacies of a new framework. As many of us have come to realize, “a little learning is a dangerous thing” when asserting the theoretical or policy implications of a new, and inevitably complex, approach. Before making the leap, the novice wants reassurance that the quest is worthwhile.

As one who adopted Polanyian thinking rather late in life, I thought it might be useful to set down what I have found most attractive in his work. Karl Polanyi was born in Vienna in the late 19th century and died in Canada in 1964. His thinking was inevitably influenced by the circumstances of his time, especially the collapse of 19th century European civilization in the two world wars and the Depression of the 20th century and his experience of living in the ideological ferment of Vienna in the 1920s. His master work – The Great Transformation published in 1944 – explained the collapse of 19th century civilization by reference to the instabilities and damage unleashed by a unique system, the self-regulating market. At first glance, these circumstances do not appear promising for those of us studying the Global South or even contemporary North America. But appearances are misleading.

Normative appeal. According to the dominant Newtonian view of science, values should not enter into the selection of a framework. #Socialscientists, rather, are objective observers who aim to extend the boundaries of knowledge. In reality, however, values play a central, if unacknowledged, role. The attractiveness of theoretical approaches depends quite considerably on whether you are a conservative, a radical or a liberal. Polanyi’s ideas appeal to those who are dissatisfied with the existing mainstream approaches, who want to address issues that matter to people, or who are critical of Marxism and actually existing socialism, yet believe that substantial societal change is needed to allay the destructiveness of late capitalism.

Polanyi was clear as to his value orientation. In his posthumous Dahomey and the Slave Trade, he identified human imperatives as “physical survival, freedom, and a morally meaningful existence.” His allusion to morality signals his break with the materialism of both liberals (with their focus on self-interested individuals) and Marxists (with their focus on the material interests of social classes). Freedom is not won against society, but within society in voluntarily accepting social obligations and in striving to live fulfilling lives of one’s own choice. Freedom is only relative because impersonal and reified structures – bureaucracy and perhaps the market – are inevitable in complex, technologically sophisticated societies. But, with effort, we could have all the freedom we need. Ultimately, you respond sympathetically to this normative position, or you don’t.

Transdisciplinary approach. One dimension of the Polanyian model’s explanatory power is its transcendence of disciplinary boundaries in the form of a holistic and historical approach. Transdisciplinarity, that which Polanyi epitomizes, is different from interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary teaching and research teams emerge in response to the belief that certain macro issues – poverty, inequality, climate change, “development” – are too complex to be understood from the viewpoint of a single discipline. Hence, scholars of various disciplines cooperate in bringing their insights to bear on understanding complex issues. Essentially, there is an “adding up” of knowledge that remains discipline-based. Transdisciplinarity, in contrast, denotes the attempt by individual scholars to go beyond disciplines to a #holisticsocialscience.

Polanyi scholars chafe at disciplinary silos. In pursuit of the Newtonian ideal in the late 19th century, universities carved the social world into its component parts. The economists claimed the economy, political scientists the state, sociologists society, and geographers (coming late to the feast) space. Social scientists conceived of each part (except space) forming a separable system, and their aim was to discover the laws of motion of each system. Needless to say, the disciplines, once formed, perpetuated themselves as practitioners developed vested interests in the discipline that accorded them high status.

A holistic social science approaches explanation on a different plane. Understanding, from this viewpoint, derives from the complex interaction among the parts (economy, society and state) over time within an integrated whole. Thus, for Polanyi, the economy can be understood only in relation to society and the state. Prior to the advent of the market system in the early 19th century, the economy was submerged or embedded in society. That meant that activities to satisfy a person’s or a household’s material needs were shaped by social, religious or political obligations. But, unique in history, the rise of markets disembedded economy from society and propelled the market to a superordinate position. Economic imperatives (self-interest and profitability via commodification and efficiency) began to mould social institutions and values, rather than vice versa. Yet, Polanyi contends, the neoclassical notion of the economy as an autonomous system, obeying its own laws and responding to its own motivations, is a myth. Markets are instituted and maintained by state power. The counter-movement of societal protection, emerging to safeguard society and nature from the devastating impact of unleashed market forces, also seeks to control the state for its own purposes. The relationship between the liberal movement and the societal counter-movement is the fundamental dialectic of the capitalist political economy.

Happily for us, Polanyi developed his ideas outside the disciplinary matrix of the university, securing a teaching position (at Columbia University) only at the age of 61. His background as an independent intellectual may account for the fact that his holistic approach is so seamlessly transdisciplinary. It is an example that some believe is worth emulating.
To be continued…

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