Sociology Index

Karl Polanyi

Among distinguished sociologists, Kark Polanyi an influential and internationally renowned Austrian-born economic historian, who taught widely throughout Europe and the United States, and has a substantial and continuing influence in sociology because of the way in which his empirical studies undermine many of the assumptions of neoclassical economic theory.

His best-known publication is The Great Transformation (l944) - which has a Foreword by Robert M. Maclver - in which he seeks to document the causes of the two world wars, the depression of the 1930s, and the basis of the 'new order' of the mid-twentieth century. His was a stringent study of the consequences of the emergence of the 'world market' and the manner in which society can protect itself against its consequences.

He warned against promoting the economy to the point at which power becomes highly concentrated. This economism could destroy society by undermining social cohesion: it requires that the economy be embedded within relations of social control similar to those found in traditional societies.

His other major publications, notably the co-authored Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (1957) and the posthumously published The Livelihood of Man (1977) develop Polanyi's so-called substantivist critique of liberalism, challenging the idea that freedom and justice are inextricably tied to the free market economy, and documenting the various ways in which economic processes in any society are necessarily shaped by its cultural, political, and social institutions.