International Encyclopedia of Civil Society
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010
Helmut K. Anheier and Stefan Toepler
Polanyi, Karl

Martti MuukkonenContact Information

(1)  Niinivaarantie 84D13, FIN-80230, Joensuu, Finland

Contact Information Martti Muukkonen

Without Abstract

Basic Biographical Information

Karl Polanyi was born in Vienna in 1886 to the family of wealthy Hungarian Jews. Later the family, except the father, converted to Calvinism. His life can be roughly divided into three periods. Up to the age of 47 he lived and influenced in Hungary and Austria. During this period he got his education, developed many of his main ideas and worked as a journalist in Vienna. In 1934 he flew to England where he worked as a teacher. The contrast between the poor conditions of the workers in the rich England and relatively good life-quality of those in poor Vienna gave a spark to his interest in the mechanisms of market society. In 1944 he published his only monograph The Great Transformation in the United States. After the war Polanyi was employed as a visiting professor of economic history in Columbia University. Because of his Marxist youth he was not able to move to the United States and, thus, Polanyi and his wife Ilona moved to Pickering near Toronto where he lived until his death. He died in 1964.

Major Contributions

Polanyi’s late entry into the academic world occurred in relatively old age and this might be a reason why he did not publish but few articles along with his only monograph. In his lifetime, he coedited two anthologies into which he also wrote articles: Christianity and the Social Revolution (1935) and Trade and Market in the Early Empires (1957). The other publications, Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies (1968) and The Livelihood of Man (1977) are collections of his previously unpublished papers that his students edited into books.

Karl Polanyi’s influence was in its peak in the 1950s and 1960s. He was known mainly as a founder of the substantivist school in economic anthropology. Theoretically, Polanyi has roughly three themes with which he frames the world. The first is how he defined the economy (human’s interaction with physical nature). The second is his thesis of three possible integration forms of societies: redistribution (how the state taxes people and redistributes this wealth back to citizens), reciprocity (economy based on gift exchange), and market (exchange without social bonds). The third is the concept of double movement (how enforced capitalism awakens counter movements) that he uses to interpret the collapse of the nineteenth century liberal market economy up to 1930s. In the case of civil society, Polanyi’s theory of reciprocity explains donor-donee relationships. The concept of double movement, in turn, explains antiglobalization protests.


Mauss, Marcel


References/Further Readings

Ron Stanfield, J. (1986). The economic thought of Karl Polanyi. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Polanyi-Levitt, K. (Ed.) (1990). The life and work of Karl Polanyi. Montreal: Rose Books.