What do economists think of Karl Polanyi?

This is a guest post by Marko Grdesic, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin. Marko’s research focuses on social movements and political sociology. You can learn more about Marko at his website.

What do economists think of Karl Polanyi? For sociology, Polanyi is a classic. His book The Great Transformation is part of the sociological canon and is of special relevance to economic sociologists. Polanyi’s agenda has recently received an important update by two well-known sociologists. But what do economists think of his work? Have they read it? If so, what do they think of it? The motivation behind this small research project was to investigate the disciplinary differences between economics and sociology, by looking at an author who is arguably relevant for both fields. In order to do this, I sent a bunch of emails to economists. I wrote to a randomly chosen 10 faculty members at each of the 23 elite economics departments in the US. I also contacted all of the faculty members at UMass Amherst, the premier heterodox economics department. In total, I sent 260 emails. Yes, I felt a bit like a spammer.

To summarize the main point at the outset: economists have not read Polanyi. It can be estimated that about 3 percent of economists have read him. This limits any kind of conversation that economists and sociologists could have about his work. Most people that responded to my email simply said they have not read anything by Polanyi. Typical responses were: “I don’t think I had ever heard of Polanyi before your email” or “Everything I know about Polanyi I learned from Wikipedia after receiving your email.” Two persons actually mentioned they know the name because they read the work of Karl’s younger brother Michael Polanyi, a conservative philosopher.

All in all, 66 persons responded (25 percent). This isn’t at all bad, considering that these were cold calls. Approximately 3 percent of economists at elite departments have read Polanyi (assuming that those that did not reply have not read him). There were no dramatic differences between “saltwater” and “freshwater” economists (the East and West coasts versus the Midwest), or between Ivy League economists and non-Ivy League economists. Economics is in this respect rather homogenous. The main stand-out is UMass Amherst. More faculty members from UMass Amherst read Polanyi, 5 out 30 (or 17 percent). In addition, there were only 3 explicitly positive assessments of Polanyi, and all came from UMass Amherst. One person said that Polanyi provides “a very strong framework within which to understand some dramatic historical dynamics”, while another wrote that “Polanyi was one of the greatest economists of the 20th century.” There were 5 negative assessments of Polanyi, all from economists at elite departments. For example, one person said that “I guess I’m one of those economists who holds Polanyi’s work in fairly low esteem”, while another wrote that The Great Transformation “is full of tendentious economic history, overblown and fanciful rhetoric.”

So, why don’t economists read Polanyi? As mentioned by several people, the main reason seems to be that economists do not read books. It’s not just Polanyi. As one economist said, “I haven’t read Polanyi, nor have I read Smith, Keynes, Hayek, Schumpeter, or Friedman.” Although this is not news, it is rather startling to see such a candid confession. Another person reiterated the same point and added that “economics is in this respect in a rather parlous state.” Now, sociology is not too different from economics: sociologists also cite mostly new things. But graduate programs typically teach the “classics”, the central triumvirate being Marx, Weber and Durkheim. Whether sociology makes use of its classics is another matter. Economists may argue that the main ideas of the classics are filtered into contemporary tools taught by contemporary textbooks. As one person said, “I doubt our graduate students read more than one or two papers by Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow, or Milton Friedman, and probably most of them read zero. Their work, however, is subsumed in later works that build upon their results.” If this filtering works, economics may actually be making more of its past than sociology.

What would have to change for a discussion about Polanyi to take place across the disciplinary divide? Several people offered interesting thoughts on this issue. One option is to make Polanyi’s ideas compatible with the way economists work. This would mean translating some of them into formal models. As one person said, “maybe his work is awaiting an advocate who can translate it into the language and culture of contemporary economics.” Could this be done? It certainly seems to be at odds with the anthropological strain present in Polanyi’s work. Yet, one should not dismiss the idea out of hand. For example, the work of Albert Hirschman is also commonly considered as incompatible with formal modeling, but economists have nevertheless managed to translate some of his ideas into the mathematical language of game theory.

The other route would be the opposite. As one person said, “for economists to read more of Polanyi, they would have to become less fixated on math and on their self-conception that they are scientists, rather than social scientists.” Given the emphasis on technical training in economics, this seems to be the less likely route. Even so, it is not impossible. Even my emails seem to have had some small effect. One person said that they have not read Polanyi but “now feel guilty for not having done so.” Another similarly said: “I’ll have to check it out; you’ve piqued my curiosity.” Therefore, my small investigation may have guilted a couple of economists into reading Polanyi.

The middle road would be to take Polanyi’s ideas, which are sometimes overly grand for economists’ tastes (“grand theorizing about the rise of market liberalism and fascism is not in vogue”), and to transform them into testable claims. As one economist sympathetic to Polanyi wrote, they have “encouraged grad students to do applied work in his [Polanyi’s] spirit, to think about operationalizing issues of embeddedness, etc.” Indeed, one thing that seems to irk economists is the perceived fuzziness of Polanyi’s concepts. As one person wrote, after receiving my email, they tried to educate themselves about Polanyi, but could not grasp the essence of his work: “I spent 5 minutes reading about him, and I cannot say I got his main point. I would be amazed if someone were not able to understand the main contribution of an economist of a similar caliber by reading about his/her work in a Wikipedia article for 5 minutes.” This is an important challenge for all those who would like to push Polanyi’s agenda forward. Economists perceive Polanyi as vague.


Written by brayden king

April 2, 2016 at 1:28 pm

Posted in uncategorized

32 Responses

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  1. This was interesting.

    Why do you think economists resist reviewing & re-reading classical work? (I know that I have consistently benefitted from re-reading Tom Schelling’s essays, especially his ideas about collective action problems.)

    Is a sort of Whig theory of economics — we are getting better all the time.



    michael webster

    April 2, 2016 at 1:40 pm

  2. Very interesting post Sir.

    Being in b-school environment in India, I too suspect that many great thinkers even in management are not being read, simply because that may not count in kind of publications one is writing.

    For instance, I suspect Peter Drucker though heavily used in discussions, isn’t adequately read or prescribed in readings. I was thinking of conducting similar survey on it recently.

    This post reminds me to do that.


    Santosh Sali

    April 2, 2016 at 1:55 pm

  3. Dear Marko,

    I’m a Madison sociologist too. This project is interesting but the findings are of course entirely unsurprising. I’m working on a related project, a census of the classical theory syllabi taught in the top 100 US sociology PhD programs. We’re (slowly) collecting data now.

    I don’t think that Polanyi is part of the sociological cannon. He is not widely used as a foundation for work across the entire range of sociological subdisciplines — as Marx, Durkheim and Weber are — because he doesn’t have anywhere near as wide or deep a body of sociological theory. He’s mainly a historian who has a comparatively tiny oeuvre. In any case, if my colleague Brett Clark and I can complete our census of classical theory syllabi, we’ll have some more evidence. Should be interesting. Of course the gold standard, I think, would be to see how widely he is cited across subfields or, more crudely, sociology journals.



    matt vidal

    April 2, 2016 at 2:24 pm

  4. Economist here. This strikes me as very accurate. Polanyi’s problem is his style – grand theorizing – is not well respected as a type of knowledge claim by economists. Even Keynes is read, in large part, via his formal translations by Hicks and Samuelson.

    The other point, though, is that mainstream economics – which represents 99% of economists at good schools – is not hagiographic. As was pointed out, it would be surprising if 5% of economists had read Arrow+Debreu on general equilibrium in the original, or Harsanyi on Bayesian games, or Cournot on quantity choice in oligopoly, or Samuelson on the random walk.

    Because the field is both harmonized and formal, the ideas in those papers can be expressed simply and precisely without reference to the original. One would never write a “Harsanyian theory of political behavior” but rather just write that “we model the interaction of voters and political parties as a Bayesian game.” The general belief is, as a previous commenter noted, Whiggish for better or worse: economists consider ideas well-stated when they are formalized, and they expect previous generations to have operationalized the best ideas of their time. Further, the harmonized field means that there is essentially no divergence across programs in, e.g., “what Harsanyi really meant,” and hence less need to go to the original.

    One more thing: I would point out that the way economists treat the past is essentially identical to how the hard sciences treat the past. I assure you no one is reading Newton or Einstein in the original.



    April 2, 2016 at 4:10 pm

  5. afinetheorem – thanks for providing that perspective. It makes sense with my understanding of how economics as a discipline currently works.

    My sense is that sociology, on the other end of the spectrum with how we canonize our “founding fathers,” is not quite as reliant on the original texts as most would think. Students read Marx, Weber, Durkheim almost as a matter of ritual induction to the discipline, but very few of us return to those sources when looking for testable hypotheses or to find new research problems.


    brayden king

    April 2, 2016 at 4:31 pm

  6. The obvious counterpoint to afinetheorem, of course, is that quarks, neutrinos, and electrons don’t have histories (or cultures), but humans and their institutions do!


    matt vidal

    April 2, 2016 at 4:43 pm

  7. Yes exactly – on one extreme you has religious scholars who endlessly reread the classics of the Talmud, Koran, Bible and other texts. On the other in science nobody is rereading Newton, Einstein or Darwin.

    For disciplines to move forwards they need to synthesize prior work and build on this, so I don’t even think it’s good to be focusing on endlessly rereading the classics. Interesting question but I am glad the answer is 3%.


    Deli Alli

    April 2, 2016 at 4:51 pm

  8. I think your ritual explanation is the most sensible, Brayden (I remember these readings well – I’m sure I’m the only economist to ever take Charles Camic’ social theory PhD seminar!). The equivalent ritual would be knowing how to solve the canonical models in economics.

    It is interesting to me how far back in the past the sociology canon reaches, though – are there important ideas in, say, Comte, that are unmediated by more modern research? If not, why isn’t social theory taught via the Comtean ideas in a context more relevant to developing a researcher in 2016? I can see why a philosopher would read, say, Hume – it is both brilliant and often directly referenced. The latter is less true of the sociology canon, it seems.



    April 2, 2016 at 4:53 pm

  9. A little bit more about the procedure:

    I included those departments that were listed in the top 30 in 6 out of 8 rankings available at the AEA website ( This includes: Harvard, Chicago, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Berkeley, Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Minnesota, UCLA, Columbia, Michigan, Rochester, Wisconsin, UCSD, NYU, Cornell, Caltech, Maryland, Boston, Duke and Brown. UMass Amherst is usually not ranked as high as the above mentioned departments, but I thought their reactions would lead to some interesting comparisons.


    Marko Grdesic

    April 2, 2016 at 4:54 pm

  10. FWIW, Douglass North has an article called “Markets and other allocation systems in history: the challenge of Karl Polanyi.” Also, Joe Stiglitz wrote the forward to the Beacon Press addition of The Great Transformation. This doesn’t negate your point at all, but just thought they were worth a mention!


    carl gershenson

    April 2, 2016 at 4:56 pm

  11. I have a guess. Some economist read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and focused on the part about textbooks. In the sciences, there is some reason to think that you can reduce prior knowledge to textbook form. Economists act like they are scientists, so that led to the emphasis on textbooks instead of original texts. Today economists can graduate without ever studying the history of their subject. Once you put something into a textbook, it becomes Truth. I took Econ 101 out of Samuelson, and we were taught the subject as if that textbook was on a par with Feynman on Physics, my physics textbook. That was sad. It took a lot of reading original work to see just how sad it is.

    Economists like to impress people with their models, but there is no evidence that they are useful for prediction. As Queen Elizabeth famously asked in 2009, why didn’t you see this coming? Economists were not able to do an accurate cost-benefit analysis because their models don’t allow for crashes. Even so, as a group, they lent their prestige and reputations to financial deregulation, which led directly to the Great Crash. If they had a sense of history, they might have noticed that lack of regulation was a cause of the Great Depression.

    Liked by 1 person

    Ed Walker

    April 2, 2016 at 7:37 pm

  12. “Approximately 3 percent of economists at elite departments have read Polanyi (assuming that those that did not reply have not read him).”

    That assumption doesn’t seem intuitive to me. Does this mean that about twelve percent of actual respondents have read Polanyi?

    Liked by 2 people


    April 2, 2016 at 8:16 pm

  13. I would personally be surprised if 25% of sociologists had read Polanyi. There has been something of a Polanyi revival in the last 10-15 years but even now I doubt he is consistently included on grad theory syllabi. Which is of course a separate issue from the one of why sociologists read “classics” and economists do not.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 2, 2016 at 9:15 pm

  14. Matt Vidal (fellow badger) – thanks for the information about your study. Looks quite interesting. You are probably right that Polanyi will not be on reading lists quite as often as Marx, Weber or Durkheim.

    Howie – close to that figure, about 14 percent.from elite departments.


    Marko Grdesic

    April 3, 2016 at 6:40 am

  15. Matt: “The obvious counterpoint to afinetheorem, of course, is that quarks, neutrinos, and electrons don’t have histories (or cultures), but humans and their institutions do.”

    There are a few STS scholars who would strongly disagree with the first part of that statement. Though that doesn’t necessarily imply that working physicists need to spend a lot of time with Newton or even Einstein. But it’s worth remembering that the sciences, for better or for worse, are very human institution with their own culture(s), and you can’t easily disentangle sciences from their objects of study.


    Dan Hirschman

    April 3, 2016 at 1:36 pm

  16. @Afinetheorem – I heard a story that Akerlof audited the PhD soc theory sequence at Berkeley while working on identity economics. But it does seem to be a very unusual strategy!

    Liked by 1 person

    Dan Hirschman

    April 3, 2016 at 1:37 pm

  17. Does Deirdre McCloskey count as an economist? She self-describes as one.
    She refers to Polanyi several times, critically, in Bourgeois Dignity. See also her interesting, polemic essay “Polanyi was Right, and Wrong” (1997)


    Frederik Marain

    April 3, 2016 at 5:09 pm

  18. Dan– I’m pretty sure Akerlof mentions that in his interview with Swedberg in Economics and Sociology (my favorite part of that book is when Becker says he tried to learn what soc was all about but started with Parsons and it was too hard).

    Liked by 1 person


    April 3, 2016 at 8:09 pm

  19. Economist here.

    35 years ago (while an economics PhD student) I tried to read Great Transformation. I’m pretty sure I didn’t finish it. I remember it being long and waffly and unclear. If you asked me what I was about, I would say: “In the olden days, people did things for traditional reasons (whatever that means). Then capitalism and markets came along, and people changed to become rational utility maximisers. Something like that.”

    Some years later I vaguely remember reading an economics paper “Rational Peasants”? about Vietnamese peasants, which argued that Polanyi was wrong. That paper was a lot shorter and clearer. My memory of what Polanyi said might be from reading that paper.

    Maybe economists have ADD. Maybe that’s not always a bad thing.

    Deirdre McCloskey is an economist.

    Liked by 1 person

    Nick Rowe

    April 4, 2016 at 11:11 am

  20. Would be interesting if you had also polled History or Economic History profs. Was introduced to Polanyi in undergrad Economist History at both Queen’s (Canada) and Strathclyde (Scotland). Maybe also extending beyond US? Would imagine it would be on syllabus for Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) at Oxbridge?


    John Shearer

    April 4, 2016 at 11:54 am

  21. You may have overlooked this paper by a mainstream economist at the #1 mainstream department… with Polanyi in the title:



    April 4, 2016 at 1:55 pm

  22. I believe that the paper refers to Michael Polanyi and not Karl.

    Liked by 2 people

    michael webster

    April 4, 2016 at 2:28 pm

  23. Whoops! LOL.



    April 4, 2016 at 3:52 pm

  24. Well, those two Polanyis were brothers — and true ‘Austrians’ both by birth and in their belief that mathematical formalization can not always capture what matters most.

    But I tried anyway, writing my econ PhD thesis in an attempt to formalize Polanyi’s ideas on systemic change, and test them with anthropological data. My main published articles on this are:,, and a modern application,

    The first two received remarkably little attention. They may not deserve it, but I’ve always wondered if most anthros don’t want to wade through the math, while most econs don’t find the topic interesting — too outside the mainstream. My contemporary application has done much better citation-wise.


    James P Stodder

    April 4, 2016 at 7:54 pm

  25. @James, have you got any ungated or pre-publication versions of those articles. I would like to see them.


    michael webster

    April 4, 2016 at 8:10 pm

  26. I have the more recent one available right now: It’s not as structurally Polanyist as the earlier articles — there’s a good deal of Keynes in there. But Polani was the inspiration and is mentioned in the first sentence.


    James P Stodder

    April 4, 2016 at 8:17 pm

  27. […] on Twitter yesterday about Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. Noah Smith linked to this post reporting some research (can’t say it sounds very rigorous) taken to indicate that economists […]


  28. […] Marko Grdesic wrote an interesting post on why modern economists don’t read Polanyi. He surveyed economists at top programs and discovered that only 3% had read Polanyi. I am not shocked. This post explains why. […]


  29. @Brayden stated: “Students read Marx, Weber, Durkheim almost as a matter of ritual induction to the discipline, but very few of us return to those sources when looking for testable hypotheses or to find new research problems.”

    Perhaps this is how students at Arizona read the classics, but I don’t think that applies to Madison. I would guess that the majority of students at Madison read the classics with serious intent, to learn how to think like sociologists, and were deeply impacted in ways that shape their research questions. I would guess, further, that students in most leading PhD programs operate similarly.

    I can think of leading scholars across a range of subareas — org theory, soc of work, economic sociology, political sociology, cultural sociology, sociology of religion, global sociology, historical-comparative sociology, science and technology, political economy — who explicitly draw on the classics to formulate research questions, propositions and, indeed, hypotheses.

    Let me conclude with three examples close to the home for this blog:

    1) Meyer, John W. and Rowan, Brian (1977), ‘Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony’, American Journal of Sociology, 83 (2), 340-63.

    Founding document of new institutionalism; explicitly motivated by Weber, Durkheim and Berger and Luckmann. Note that the latter is deeply influenced by a very careful reading of Marx, possibly more so by Marx than any of the other theorists upon which they build their theory of social constructionism (Durkheim, Weber, Schutz and Mead).

    2) DiMaggio, Paul J. and Powell, Walter W. (1983), ‘The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields’, American Sociological Review, 48 (2), 147-60.

    Has Weber in the title! Most cited ASR article ever; founding document of new institutionalism.

    3) Labor process theory. This is the main theoretical approach to the soc of work. It’s entire theoretical architecture is Marxist, although less explicitly now than in the 1980s.


    matt vidal

    April 7, 2016 at 9:31 am

  30. stefan fuch’s work is relevant here. in “the professional quest for truth” and other writings, he argues that more unified/professionalized and resource-rich fields know what they are, and don’t need to draw legitimacy from the classics, but less unified fields like sociology and anthropology do. (or something like that. read it a looong time ago, but stuck in my head.)



    April 7, 2016 at 3:42 pm

  31. Escaping the Polanyi matrix: the impact of fictitious
    commodities: money, land, and labor on consumer

    Click to access Flomenhoft74.pdf


    Ed Walker

    April 7, 2016 at 5:38 pm

  32. Yikes! A paper from the Real World Economics Review that says Polanyi states that money, land, and labor are fictions. Do we need another reason for economists to abjure Polanyi?



    April 7, 2016 at 6:00 pm

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