Working Paper 168

Institutions and the Challenge of Karl Polanyi: economic anthropology after the neoinstitutionalist turn

Matthijs Krul

Abteilung ‚Resilienz und Transformation in Eurasien’

Jahr der Veröffentlichung


Working Paper 168

In this paper, I reflect on ‘the neoinstitutionalist turn’ in the social sciences and its significance for the Polanyian tradition in economic anthropology. Recent trends in economic thought see the debates about the place of economic theory that engaged Karl Polanyi as obsolete, made redundant by the development of New Institutionalist Economics and their application to such questions. Even within economic anthropology this viewpoint has gained some ground. In this paper, I argue that this notion is mistaken.

In the following argument, I first introduce Polanyi’s role in these debates. Subsequently, I discuss the ‘neoinstitutionalist turn’ itself. Then, taking Douglass North’s response to Polanyi as a paradigmatic example, I argue that New Institutionalism suffers from serious conceptual deficiencies.

Therefore, I caution against the view, expressed among others by Acheson (2002), that economic anthropology could or should become an empirical appendage of the New Institutionalism. Instead, I argue for an alternative I associate with Earle (2002) and Gudeman (2012): the New Institutionalism can be useful only if incorporated selectively into existing economic anthropological research programmes, so that anthropology might encompass institutionalism rather than be swallowed by it. Therefore, ‘Polanyi’s challenge’ remains relevant to economic thought within and outside anthropology.

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