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From Polanyi to discourse theory

From Economy to Society? Perspectives on Transnational Risk Regulation

ISBN: 978-1-78190-738-2, eISBN: 978-1-78190-739-9

Publication date: 28 December 2013


This article starts from the assumption that economic sociology, including Karl Polanyi’s work, can contribute fresh perspectives to regulation debates because it opens up new understandings of the nature of economic activity, a key target of legal regulation. In particular this article examines Polanyi’s idea that society drives regulation. For Polanyi the “regulatory counter-movement” is society’s response to the disembedding – in particular through the proliferation of markets – of economic out of social relationships. Section One of the article identifies three key challenges that arise from this Polanyian take on regulation for contemporary regulation researchers. First, Polanyi focuses on social norms restraining business behavior, but neglects social norms embedded in law as also shaping regulation. Second, he seems to imply a clear-cut conceptual distinction between “economy” and “society.” Third, his analysis sidelines the role of interest politics in the development of regulation.

Addressing the first of these three key challenges, Section Two of this article therefore argues that a Polanyian vision of “socialized” legal regulation should build on contemporary accounts of responsive law and regulation, which focus attention on social norms informing legal regulation. Section Three of this article tackles the second key challenge raised by Polanyi’s work for contemporary regulation researchers, that is, how to transcend a modernist perspective of “economy” and “society” as clearly demarcated, distinct fields of social action. It argues that discourse theory is an important alternative theoretical resource. Drawing on Laclau and Mouffe, the article suggests that understanding “economy” and “society” as performed by open and relationally constructed discourses helps to capture interconnections between “economy” and “society” that become particularly visible when we analyze how specific regulatory regimes work at a medium- and small-scale level. These points are further brought to life in Section Four through a discussion of the European Union (EU) regulatory regime for trade in risky, transgenic agricultural products, and in particular the current reform debates about the consideration of the “socioeconomic impacts” of such products.



Lange, B. (2013), "From Polanyi to discourse theory", From Economy to Society? Perspectives on Transnational Risk Regulation (Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Vol. 62), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 73-101.



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