why i don’t teach polanyi

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.

For a while, I taught an undergrad survey course in sociology with an economic sociology focus. The goal is to teach sociology in a way interesting to undergraduate business and policy students. I often teach a module that might be called “capitalism’s defenders and critics.” On defense, we had Smith and Hayek. On offense, we had Marx and Polanyi.

And, my gawd, it was painful. Polanyi is a poor writer, even compared to windbags like Hayek and Marx. The basic point of the whole text is hard to discern other than, maybe, “capitalism didn’t develop the way you think” or “people change.” It was easily the text that people understood the least and none of the students got the point. Nick Rowe wrote the following comment:

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.”

Yup. Something like that. Later, I decided that the Great Transformation is a classic case of “the wiki is better than the book.” We should not expect readers to genuflect in front if fat, baggy books. We are no longer in the world of the 19th century master scholars. If you can’t get your point across, then we can move on.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

April 6, 2016 at 12:05 am

3 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Paul Hünermund and commented:
    Over at Orgtheory Fabio Rojas expresses the common problems people (not only me, thank god) seem to have with reading the classic texts. They are mostly communication problems. Back in the days it was fashionable to write wordy treatises, much in the style of the classic philosophical texts. Today, short and concise papers that bring across one point at a time are much more appreciated. And if you have to write a thick book then better make it fun to read.
    Another point is the difference in language use. It can change quite dramatically over time and sometimes it’s hard to grasp what people meant hundred years ago. That’s especially true when you’re a non-native but reading Kant in German is definitely no pleasure either to me.
    However, there is probably too much half-knowledege out there about what the classic texts actaully say. Because people are copying from people who haven’t read the texts either. Work on the history of economic thought is therefore much appreciated. In the meantime I should get off my lazy behind and at least start reading Schumpeter.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 6, 2016 at 1:50 pm

  2. @phuenermund: Bravo for getting on with Schumpeter! I am told that Schumpeter is a much harder read in his earlier German books than his later English books. But if you want to take on a challenge, read the last German edition of Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung (Dunker and Humblot 1926). Hard to find, but it omits much of the Übermensch of the original edition, paving the way for his later treatment of the entrepreneur as an ideal type or economic function.



    April 6, 2016 at 3:04 pm

  3. Huh, I haven’t read Polanyi in quite a while (since I took my qualifying exams in grad school) but I actually remember his writing as being pretty good. Perhaps I’m looking back on it with rose colored glasses…



    April 6, 2016 at 5:10 pm

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