Skip to main content

How to Study Contemporary Capitalism?1

  • Wolfgang Streeck (a1)

The paper argues that contemporary capitalism must be studied as a society rather than an economy, and contemporary society as capitalist society. Capitalism is defined as a specific institutionalization of economic action in the form of a specifically dynamic system of social action, with a tendency to expand into, impose itself on and consume its non-economic and non-capitalist social and institutional context, unless contained by political resistance and regulation. The paper illustrates its perspective by four brief sketches, depicting contemporary capitalism as a historically dynamic social order, a culture, a polity, and a way of life. All four examples, it is claimed, demonstrate the superiority of a longitudinal-historical approach over static cross-sectional comparisons, and of focusing on the commonalities of national versions of capitalisms rather than their “varieties”.


L’argument est que le capitalisme contemporain relève d’une étude de société, non d’économie que la société contemporaine est une société capitaliste. Le capitalisme se définit comme une institutionnalisation spécifique de l’action économique qui prend la forme d’un système dynamique particulier de l’action sociale qui envahit et absorbe son environnement social non économique et non capitaliste aussi longtemps qu’il ne se heurte pas à une résistance politique imposant régulation. La position défendue s’appuie sur quatre courtes séquences qui décrivent le capitalisme contemporain comme ordre social en mouvement, comme culture, comme système politique et comme mode de vie. Ces quatre séquences sont censées montrer qu’une approche historique longitudinale est supérieure aux comparaisons ponctuelles et qu’il est plus profitable de se focaliser sur les traits communs entre formes nationales de capitalisme que sur leurs différences.


Die Hauptthese des Aufsatzes ist, dass der Kapitalismus der Gegenwart als Gesellschaft und nicht bloß als Wirtschaft analysiert werden muss, und die Gesellschaft der Gegenwart als kapitalistische Gesellschaft. Kapitalismus wird als eine spezifische Institutionalisierung wirtschaftlichen Handelns in Form eines spezifisch dynamischen Systems sozialen Handelns definiert, das dazu tendiert, in seinen nicht-wirtschaftlichen und nicht-kapitalistischen gesellschaftlichen Kontext zu expandieren, ihn sich unterzuordnen und ihn zu konsumieren, sofern es nicht durch politische Regulierung daran gehindert wird. Die vorgeschlagene Perspektive wird in vier kurzen Skizzen illustriert, in denen der gegenwärtige Kapitalismus als dynamische soziale Ordnung, als Kultur, als politisches System und als Lebensform behandelt wird. Alle vier Skizzen zeigen, so die These, die Überlegenheit einer historischen Längsschnittperspektive über einen statischen Vergleich und einer Betonung der Gemeinsamkeiten zwischen verschiedenen nationalen Kapitalismusformen anstelle ihrer Unterschiede.

Hide All
Beckert Jens, 2009. “The Great Transformation of Embeddedness: Karl Polanyi and the New Economic Sociology”, in Hann Chris and Hart Keith, eds., Market and Society: The Great Transformation (New York, Cambridge University Press, pp. 38-55).
Beckert Jens, 2011a. “Imagined Futures: Fictionality in Economic Action”, MPIfG Discussion Paper 11/8 (Cologne, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies).
Beckert Jens, 2011b. “The Transcending Power of Goods: Imaginative Value in the Economy”, in Beckert Jens and Aspers Patrick, eds., The Worth of Goods: Valuation and Pricing in the Economy (Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 106-130).
Beckert Jens, 2012. “Capitalism as a System of Contingent Expectations: On the Microfoundations of Economic Dynamics” (Köln, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, unpublished manuscript).
Beckert Jens and Streeck Wolfgang, 2008. “Economic Sociology and Political Economy: A Programmatic Perspective”, MPIfG Working Paper 08/4 (Cologne, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies).
Block Fred, 2002. “Rethinking Capitalism” in Biggart Nicole Woolsey, ed., Readings in Economic Sociology (Oxford, Blackwell, pp. 219-230).
Block Fred, 2007. “Understanding the Diverging Trajectories of the United States and Western Europe: A Neo-Polanyian Analysis”, Politics and Society, 35 (3), pp. 3-33.
Block Fred, 2012. “Varieties of What? Should We Still Be Using the Concept of Capitalism?Political Power and Social Theory, 23, forthcoming.
Bohle Dorothee and Greskovits Bela, 2009. “Varieties of Capitalism and Capitalism "tout court"”, Archives Européennes de Sociologie, 50 (3), pp. 355-368.
Camic Charles, ed. 1991. Talcott Parsons: The Early Essays (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).
Crouch Colin, 2009. “Privatised Keynesianism: An Unacknowledged Policy Regime”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 11 (3), pp. 382-399.
Hall Peter A. and Soskice David, 2001a. “An Introduction to Varieties of Capitalism”, in Hall Peter A. and Soskice David, eds., Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage (Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 1-68).
Hall Peter A. and Soskice David, 2001b. Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
Kalecki Michal, 1943. “Political Aspects of Full EmploymentPolitical Quarterly, 14 (4), pp. 322-331.
Luxemburg Rosa, 1913. Die Akkumulation des Kapitals: Ein Beitrag zur ökonomischen Erklärung des Imperialismus (Berlin, Buchhandlung Vorwärts Paul Singer GmbH).
Lynd Robert S. and Merrell Lynd Helen, 1929. Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture (London, Constable).
Lynd Robert S. and Merrell Lynd Helen, 1937. Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (New York, Harcourt).
Marshall Alfred, 1997 [1890]. Principles of Economics (Amherst, Prometheus Books).
Marx Karl, 1967 [1867, 1887]. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I (New York, International Publishers).
Marx Karl and Engels Friedrich, 1977 [1848]. “The Communist Manifesto”, in McLellan David, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 221-247).
Packard Vance, 1957. The Hidden Persuaders (New York, D. McKay Co).
Polanyi Karl, 1957 [1944]. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, Beacon Press).
Polanyi Karl, 1992 [1957]. “The Economy as Instituted Process”, in Granovetter Mark and Swedberg Richard, eds., The Sociology of Economic Life (Boulder, Westview Press, pp. 29-51).
Riesman David with Glazer Nathan and Denney Reuel, 1950. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (New Haven, Yale University Press).
Schumpeter Joseph, 1928. “The Instability of CapitalismThe Economic Journal, XXXVIII, 151, pp. 361-386.
Schumpeter Joseph, 2006 [1912]. Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung (Berlin, Duncker & Humblot).
Smith Adam, 1993 [1776]. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press).
Streeck Wolfgang, 2009. Re-Forming Capitalism: Institutional Change in the German Political Economy (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
Streeck Wolfgang, 2010. “Institutions in History: Bringing Capitalism Back In”, in Campbell John et al. ., eds., Handbook of Comparative Institutional Analysis (Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 659-686).
Streeck Wolfgang, 2011a. “A Crisis of Democratic Capitalism”, New Left Review, 71, pp. 1-25.
Streeck Wolfgang, 2011b. “E Pluribus Unum? Varieties and Commonalities of Capitalism”, in Granovetter Mark and Swedberg Richard, eds., The Sociology of Economic Life, 3rd edition (Boulder, Westview, pp. 419-455).
Streeck Wolfgang, 2011c. “Flexible Employment, Flexible Families, and the Socialization of Reproduction” in Coulmas Florian and Lützeler Ralph, eds., Imploding Populations in Japan and Germany: A Comparison (Leiden, Brill, pp. 63-95).
Streeck Wolfgang, 2011d. “Taking Capitalism Seriously: Towards an Institutional Approach to Contemporary Political Economy”, Socio-Economic Review, 9 (1), pp. 137-167.
Veblen Thorstein, 1994 [1899]. The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York, Penguin).
Weber Max, 1984 [1904/1905]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Parsons Talcott, introduction by Anthony Giddens (London, Unwin Paperbacks).
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie
  • ISSN: 0003-9756
  • EISSN: 1474-0583
  • URL: /core/journals/european-journal-of-sociology-archives-europeennes-de-sociologie
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 10
Total number of PDF views: 366 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 731 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.