Karl Polanyi Research Paper

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1. Biographical Notes

Karl Paul Polanyi was born in Vienna on 25 October 1886 to Michael Pollacsek and Cecile Wohl. They had married in 1881 and had six children: Laura, Adolf, Karl, Michael, Zsofia, and Paul. Polanyi’s father worked for the Swiss Railways and Vienna’s Stadtbahn, before setting up on his own as a railway builder in Hungary. In the 1890s the family moved to Budapest where Karl Polanyi began his secondary studies in the model school of the teachers’ training institute in 1898. At the turn of the century Polanyi’s fathers business went bankrupt and after indemnifying the creditors, the family was impoverished and he was forced to take a job abroad again. In spite of that, there was lively intellectual activity in the parental home. Polanyi’s mother, Cecile Wohl, organized a literary salon attended, among others, by Oszkar Jaszi, Gyorgy Lukacs and Karl Mannheim. After finishing secondary school in June 1904, Polanyi enrolled in the Faculty of Law in Budapest University. He lost his maternal grandfather and father in 1905, both of whom had especially deeply inspired him. After attending courses in Vienna and Budapest he took part in organizing demonstrations for the progressive thinker Gyula Pikler, a professor of the Philosophy of Law in 1907. Polanyi obtained his Doctoral degree on 26 June 1909 from Bodog Somlo at the Kolozsvar (Cluj) University. In 1908 he became president of the recently formed Galilei Circle, a student body set up to disseminate the scientific world view in readings and debates, without—as Polanyi later self-critically recalled—being politically involved. He qualified as a lawyer in 1912 and began to co-edit the review Szabadgondolat [Free Thought] in 1913. His writings argued for free education and were devoid of the influence of the church. In 1914, Polanyi was involved in establishing the Radical Party, of which he became the secretary.

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However, the next year he was sent to the front and discharged two years later as disabled. During the Karolyi government of 1918, he was a member of the legal committee of the People’s Council in Budapest and of the Students’ Council. However, on the eve of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919 he delivered a speech against the dictatorship of the proletariat, then immigrated to Vienna. He soon underwent a serious operation from which he took a long time to recover. He was working on a voluminous unpublished work, Behemoth, concerned with the destructive capacity of science. In this he says that the future is constantly being remade, therefore it can’t give validity to our actions in the present.

In addition to Ludwig von Mises, Jakob Marschak, Felix Weil, and others, he contributed to the theoretical debate about the possibility of the planned economy in which he elaborated a proposal to solve the problem of ‘Sozialistische Rechnungslegung’ on the basis of the principles of guild socialism. He met a well-known figure of the revolutionary students’ movement, Ilona Duczynska, in 1920. They married and had a child, Karoline Helene (Kari) in 1923. In Vienna, Polanyi first worked for Hungarian papers (Becsi Magyar Ujsag and Becsi Kurir), and then from 1924 to 1933 he contributed to Der Osterreichische Volkswirt. Having lost his job because of the rising danger of National Socialism, he immigrated to England where he first lived in privation, earning money by giving lectures. He was one of the masterminds behind the Christian Left movement, and concentrated on criticism of the essence of fascism.

This time he joined the Workers’ Educational Association and the Extra-Mural Delegacies of Oxford and London, lecturing mainly in general economic history and social theory. His lectures focussed on the shift from laissez-faire to regulated capitalism, when state and industry began to interpenetrate, and interference of government with the captains of industry became regular.

In 1940 he became a British citizen, but from that year, he was resident lecturer at Bennington College in the USA and toured America with lectures. He also worked on The Great Transformation first published in 1944 (Polanyi [1944] 1957). After returning to the UK during the war this book earned him the post of visiting professor at Columbia University, New York, in 1947. He lectured in economic history and coordinated research into the origin of economic institutions. These efforts were summed up in the posthumously published The Livelihood of Man (Polanyi 1977). He continued to do research with a team after his retirement in 1953, publishing their findings in Trade and Market in the Early Empires (Polanyi et al. 1957). The posthumously published Dahomey and the Sla e Trade (Polanyi 1966) was another result of the cooperation.

The family settled in Canada as US authorities had denied an entrance visa to Polanyi’s wife. In 1963 they visited Hungary, where Polanyi gave a lecture about the American Economic Sociology. He died of a stroke during the night of April 23, 1964 in Toronto, Canada.

2. The Substantive View

The major question of Polanyi’s substantive view is how to identify the place of economies in societies (Polanyi 1947, 1977). He argues that economic activity is embedded in the social and cultural setting and that the predominance of price-making markets does not apply to most primitive, archaic, or even contemporary economies. He therefore taught that the changing place of economies could be best described by combinations of comparative concepts that shed light on the alternative logic of economic reproduction. Polanyi’s substantive theory was discernible in its essentials in The Great Transformation (Polanyi [1944] 1957) and in the lectures he wrote in preparing it. The book, a critique of the market system, is a derivative of historical knowledge and skills accumulated in political journalism. This is borne out by a later remark of his saying he had two aims with the work he wished to: transfer the more combatant Austrian workers’ culture into the English labor movement; and give an up=to-date criticism of capitalism, providing intellectual support to Roosevelt’s New Deal. In Polanyi’s view, the imminent problem of the market system was not the existence of markets but the turning land and labor into commodities by this system. The analysis of the so-called Speenhamland law, temporarily hindering the creation of a competitive labor market as well as of the ensuing welfare acts, revealed that welfare legislation failed to efficiently remedy the mass impoverishment paradoxically entailed by growth and could only delay the emergence of a labor market from masses of wage workers.

The book was written during World War II, parallel with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (Hayek [1944] 1976) and after Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (Burnham [1941] 1960). While Hayek argued that deserting the road of self-regulation leads to fatal social deformation, Burnham envisaged the inevitable predominance of managerial-elitist hierarchies with the growing autonomy of control functions. Polanyi focussed on the double movement of laissez-faire economy and society. He derived the respective distortions from the market system and from the degeneration of society’s defensive mechanisms. What constitutes the continuity between these and his earlier ideas was the criticism of the market system, the rejection of faith in advancement, the doubt about interpreting class interests as material interests, and the stress on non-anonymous historical processes resulting in the market system.

These ideas can be detected in the study ‘Our obsolete market mentality’ (Polanyi 1947) and in the volume Trade and Market in the Early Empires (Polanyi et al. 1957). However, the emphasis in the former is on the more accurate clarification of the concept of embeddedness, and in the latter, on the empirical analysis of primitive and archaic economic formations.

Embeddedness, according to the substantivist view, is related to the fact that an economic actor is a social being, with a mixture of motives, serving to attain social recognition and social goods. His economic efforts are therefore usually subordinated to these goals. Hunger and gain are not universal motives— Polanyi and his colleagues argued—thus the scarcity postulate, the cornerstone of formal economics, is inadequate. As is indicated in the title of Polanyi’s key study, economy can be interpreted as an ‘instituted process’ in a substantive sense. The term process refers to ‘location and appropriate movements,’ that is production and transport on the one hand and transaction and disposition on the other.

Institution lends unity and stability to these processes, which can be approached via the forms of integration. Reciprocity presupposes the symmetry of groups, while redistribution is dependent upon collecting and distributing goods or disposal over them, hence it implies centricity. Exchange, in turn, depends on the existence of price-making markets. Not every exchange has integrative significance. Polanyi argued that the simple operational exchange and decisional exchange at a set rate do not integrate the economy, whereas bargained rate exchange does. The forms of integration are not arranged in phases, in stages of development as do the types of List or Bucher (Polanyi 1968); apart from the predominant forms, others are also present, constituting varying combinations. Trade, money, and markets are not necessarily functional upon exchange in the substantive approach, unless they are fitted in a market system. The ports of trade gift trade, and administered trade usually fall outside the market system.

Similarly, only one of the money uses coincides with exchange. The rest of the uses analyzed by Polanyi— payment use, standard, ideal unit, operational device—do not necessarily tally with the market, being the typical features of the redistributive intregrative form of the economy. The market, Polanyi sums up, is not so old a phenomenon, as are trade and money, and though it may crop up in history, it only integrates into a market system in exceptional cases.

While the former book contained an implicit debate with Hayek and Burnham, this one was challenged by Economy and Society, the book of Parsons and Smelser, the aim of which was to integrate economic and social theory and to find an alternative explanation on the place of economy in society (Parsons and Smelser [1956] 1957).

3. Polanyi’s Influence

If it is contended with justification that Polanyi’s views were deeply influenced by the writings of Bucher, Weber, Malinowski and others (Polanyi 1977), it must also be contended that Polanyi filtered these influences and thus conveyed them to late twentieth century social science. His ideas were discussed in several volumes, selections, and bibliographies (Stanfield 1986, Polanyi-Levitt 1990, Mendel and Salee 1991). Substantivism appears to be integrated in the history of sociology as a standard chapter (Hindess 1977).

The Trade and Market in the Early Empires volume, as well as the posthumous works edited mainly by his disciples (Polanyi 1966, Dalton 1968, Polanyi 1977) and the disputes coming to a head in economic anthropology suggest that a school was evolving around Polanyi. In economic history, Douglass C. North (North 1977) assessed Polanyi’s influence in basically appreciative terms, though criticizing his market interpretation. Polanyi also influenced modern researches centering on the interrelation between state and economy as well as studies of socialist economy and its disintegration.

According to an evaluation, in spite of his marginal academic position, Polanyi was one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. As far as the sociological analysis of the economy is concerned, this statement might be proved. Polanyi’s concept of embeddedness became the starting point of the new economic sociology.


  1. Burnham J [1941] 1960 The Managerial Revolution. Indiana University Press, Bloomington
  2. Dalton G (ed.) 1968 Primitive, Archaic, and Modern Economies. Essays of Karl Polanyi. Anchor Books, Garden City, NY
  3. Hayek F [1944] 1976 The Road to Serfdom. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  4. Hindess B (ed.) 1977 Sociological Theories of the Economy. Holmes and Meier, New York
  5. Mendell M, Salee D (eds.) 1991 The Legacy of Karl Polanyi. Market, State and Society at the End of the Twentieth Century. Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK
  6. North D C 1977 Markets and Other Allocation Systems in History: The Challenge of Karl Polanyi. Journal of European Economic History 6(3): 703–16
  7. Parsons T, Smelser N [1956] 1957 Economy and Society. A Study in the Integration of Economic and Social Theory. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  8. Polanyi K [1944] 1957 The Great Transformation. Rinehart, New York
  9. Polanyi K 1947 Our obsolete market mentality. Commentary 3, February: 109–17
  10. Polanyi K, Arensberg C M, Pearson H W (eds.) 1957 Trade and Market in the Early Empires. Economies in History and Theory. The Free Press and the Falcon’s Wing Press, Glencoe, IL
  11. Polanyi K (in collaboration with Rotstein A) 1966 Dahomey and the Sla e Trade. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA
  12. Polanyi K 1968 Bucher, Karl. In: Sills D L (ed.) International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. The Macmillan Company and the Free Press, New York, Vol. 2, pp. 163–5
  13. Polanyi K 1977 In: Pearson H W (ed.) The Livelihood of Man. Academic Press, New York
  14. Polanyi-Levitt K (ed.) 1990 The Life and Work of Karl Polanyi. A Celebration. Black Rose Books, Montreal
  15. Stanfield J R 1986 The Economic Thought of Karl Polanyi. Lives and Livelihood. Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK


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