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  • Cited by 7
  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: August 2009

9 - Contesting The Great Transformation: Work in comparative perspective


Karl Polanyi deserves great credit for including the results of anthropological research in his studies on the development of capitalism in Europe in The Great Transformation (1944). This distinguishes him from most other historians not only in his own time but still today. However, the effectiveness of his enterprise was limited by his method of comparison, which relied heavily on dichotomous categories, and by his failure to give enough attention to the subject of work. In this chapter I will first discuss Polanyi's ethnographic sources and show how these are embedded in a longstanding German debate on work. I will then give two examples of how work can be systematically analyzed, “work as interaction” and “working abroad: expeditions and migrants,” in order to suggest what a comparative anthropology of work might look like.

The Great Transformation: ethnographic sources and the subject of work

The fourth chapter “Societies and Economic Systems” is only one of the twenty-one chapters of Polanyi's great work, but it is crucial for his argument. In this chapter he formulates alternative concepts of economy that contrast with the capitalist market economy of the nineteenth century. He shows that there were and are cultures in which society is not subject to the market economy, but where the economy is integrated into society. In the latter the economy is not an isolated institution, but is embedded in social relations.

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