In chapter three, Block and Somers examined some of the contradictions that appear in The Great Transformation. Of particular importance was Polanyi’s tendency to write as if market autonomy was a real possibility as opposed to a utopian construct of both economic liberals and (some) Marxists. This tendency created enough of an appearance of belief in an autonomous market that market fundamentalists later used large selections of his text to support their positions. Yet Polanyi’s argument was fundamentally opposed to the idea of market autonomy, and his view that markets are always embedded in social institutions led him to focus on the case of Speenhamland and the system of poor laws.
Chapters four and five take up these two topics–free market utopianism and Speenhamland–in greater detail. At the center of both chapters is the idea of “social naturalism,” which assumes that society is governed by the same laws that govern natural phenomena. Continue reading
I concluded part 2 in this series of posts on Fred Block and Margaret Somers’ The Power of Market Fundamentalism with several questions about the meaning of local in Polanyi’s global-national-local analytical framework. It seems that Polanyi is not so much focused on the local in any spatial or place-based sense but rather on the social sub-units that comprise groups interested in particular forms of protection from the market. This is significant, I believe, because of Block and Somers’ argument (one that I find convincing and important to this point) that not only Polanyi’s analytical framework but also the political-economic mechanisms that he identified (most importantly, the gold standard, which today’s system of international capital controls resembles) are useful for understanding the contemporary crisis we face today. However, the significance of the local today appears more consistent with the 15th century, when city-states ruled the European landscape, than the 19th century, when the nation-state form came to prominence. At the same time, today’s quasi-city-states resemble other metropolises around the globe to a far greater degree than neighboring places that are less integrated into this global urban network. And although they are networked, as Richard Sennett notes there is a tendency to think of these cities in terms of autonomy, approaching them as self-shaping entities. Of course, this strand of thought was present in the work of sociologists like Max Weber during the 19th century, but the structure of the city has changed in important ways since then. And, as Sennett argues, it must (and inevitably will) change again as global problems such as climate change alter the systems that underlie the illusion of autonomy (in this way, the autonomous city-state idea resembles the idea of the autonomous free-market).
If Polanyi’s use of the local suggests some spatial-analytical confusion in his work (and I’m not sure that it does), it is not the only point of confusion. In chapter three, “Karl Polanyi and the Writing of The Great Transformation,” Block and Somers take up the complicated relationships that Polanyi’s work has to both Marxism and economic liberalism. Continue reading
Chapter 2, “Beyond the Economistic Fallacy,” is largely focused on Polanyi’s argument that markets are embedded in specific institutional arrangements. The emergence of a distinctly market society in the nineteenth century was a consequence of political acts. And the countermovements by groups seeking protection, along with the state’s role as a universal source of support for both countermovements and free market advocates, contributed to the volatility and breakdown of social systems in the early- and mid-twentieth century. The chapter moves through Polanyi’s historical argument before describing the conceptual tools and methodological approaches that he employed to such great effect. In the paragraphs that follow, I summarize the main points of discussion before concluding briefly with some questions about the meaning of the local in Polanyi’s work and how this might affect using Polanyi today.
The Speenhamland Act of 1795 illustrated for Polanyi the way in which the existence of markets was transformed into a market society. Continue reading
I just began Fred Block and Margaret Somer’s The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique. The book was published this year but it brings together work that both Block and Somers have done over the past thirty years. If you want a brief overview of the book and its historical and intellectual context, you can read an interview with Block and Somers about the book here and a short article about Polanyi by the authors here.
Prior to starting The Power of Market Fundamentalism, I had read Polanyi’s ideas through two other books that approached the problem of political economy in late-capitalism from very different starting points. These were Bourdieu’s The Social Structures of the Economy and Bob Jessop’s The Future of the Capitalist State. Each author used Polanyi to frame their work–Bourdieu starting from the local housing market of the Parisian suburbs and Jessop from the system of trans-Atlantic national economies linked through Fordist Keynesianism. It was important to read these books together because while both emphasize the importance of the relationship between local and global structures, neither adequately lays out these linkages.
Of course, The Power of Market Fundamentalism makes Polanyi and his ideas the focal point. Continue reading
Over this past weekend I gave a talk at the University of California All Campus Consortium On Research for Diversity annual meeting entitled “Re-Imagining the Community College Experience.” It touched on a forthcoming book chapter and some work in progress, both of which stem from my dissertation research on 24 women who have attended community college. Below is the text of my talk.
A recurring problem in the sociological research on community colleges, if not the main problem, is that large numbers of community college students aspire to bachelor’s degrees while relatively few attain them. The most recent figures reported by Brand, Pfeffer, and Goldrick-Rab (2014: 448) are that “more than 80 percent of entering students say they want to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about 12 percent complete that degree within six years.” One approach to explaining this disparity has been to focus on student aspirations and how they intersect with the community college environment.
A few days ago the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) wrote a couple of tweets that resonated with my own work on community college students. She began by linking rational choice, college rankings, and white supremacy before following up with a comment about the relationship between aspirations and deviance.
I’m not entirely sure where her critiques are going to go from these statements alone. But an article I’m currently working takes up the matter of deviance from the other end, that of unmet ambitions. At least, it kind of does. Early research on community colleges by Burton Clark in the early 60s and later by Jerome Karabel and Stephen Brint in the 70s and 80s approached their subject from the general position laid out by Robert Merton in the 1950s: that ambitions much be managed if democratic societies want to avoid deviance and revolt. Continue reading
At the American Sociological Association meeting in San Francisco last month, I attended two panels that were oriented in very different directions conceptually and methodologically but that together generated some interesting questions. The first panel was a critique and defense of interviewing as a method. The impetus for the panel was Shamus Khan’s recent article, which argued that interviews, as opposed to ethnography, were unsuited to uncovering the causes or motives of action. As Howard Becker remarked in his introductory comments, the general thrust of the critique was not new. Both Alford Young and Alison Pugh were invited to respond to Khan and identified important ways that interviews could add to sociological understanding even if they could not replace other methods. Even if interviews cannot uncover causal forces, they at least access something telling about social life. Continue reading