Is the economy embedded in society? Is society embedded in the economy? Is the law embedded in society? Or is society embedded in a set of rules and regulations?
Have the law and economy become “disembedded” from society, and is this why the financial crisis in 2008 came as such a surprise? Would it help to “re-embed” the economy?
This post explores the use, misuse and abuse of the concept of embeddedness in the context of econo-socio-legal interactions.
Coinage of the term in the context of economic sociology and ESL is attributed to Karl Polanyi in his 1948 book The Great Transformation. Polanyi had reportedly been reading about the coal mining industry in the UK, and had taken the term “embeddedness” from descriptions of coal embedded in the walls of a mine. Thus, to Polanyi, the term was likely a relational descriptor and metaphor. Interestingly, despite earlier documented usage, Richard Thurnwald’s use of “embeddedness” has gone largely unremarked, enabling him to dodge the bullet of origination foisted on Polanyi. The term only appears twice on page 60 of Great Transformation, and then on pages 68, 73 and 135. There is no great overarching theme of embeddedness. Nor is there a definition offered. It is probably safe to assume that the word was a throw-away term of description that came to hand, and was then never given much more thought.
Little did Polanyi realise that 70+ years later, scholars would be puzzling over his meaning and even writing doctoral theses on the matter! One catalyst for the development of embeddedness into the core concept of sociological lenses was Mark Granovetter’s accidental revival of the term. Granovetter’s theory of networks, published in 1985, described the actor as embedded in networks. He has since admitted that at the time of writing, he had forgotten Polanyi’s usage of the term. Nevertheless, the success of Granovetter’s paper revived the career of embeddedness, but at the same time created confusion. Polanyi had been referring to the macro-level embeddedness of economy in society, although his “always-embedded economy” is more a theoretical proposition than empirically-proven reality. Conversely, Granovetter had used the term at the micro-level to describe the embeddedness of the individual in networks of interaction. Thus, development of the concept of embeddedness already straddled the micro and macro, giving rise of the question; “what are we talking about”?
Here’s the rub. When discussing the extraction of coal from a mine, for want of a better example, “embeddedness” is a perfectly adequate relational descriptor. It implies the co-existence of two conceptually separate phenomena in time and space; the coal, and the rock from which it is hewn. There is no problem with saying that one is embedded in the other.
Where difficulty arises though is where we also want to investigate the possibility that the two phenomena described not only share characteristics but might even be two aspects of the same phenomena. For example, we can say that the economy must be re-embedded in society if we accept that the economy and society are two distinct entities. This is clearly nonsense. An economy cannot exist outside of a society. An economy necessarily implies human interaction of a specific nature (economic). The same is true of law. We cannot imagine a legal system without a society behind, underpinning, and performing it. A legal system implies human interaction of a specific nature (legal). Therefore, stating that one is embedded within the other – whichever way round you phrase it – clearly does not make sense.
My research puts this in the context of ESL, which aim to reintegrate social science dialogue and which ultimately takes a constructivist approach. In other words, economic and legal phenomena (the econolegal) are performed through social interactions. All social interactions have econolegal aspects or flavours. There’s no escaping this, just as there is no way to have an economic exchange without it being between people (I’m excluding high frequency trading between computers here for argument’s sake, but will return to this in a future post).
Why is this important? Well, the response to the 2008 financial crisis is something we, in the UK, are still living with. Austerity, as the main policy response, was based on a particular understanding and framing of the economics that led to the crash. This is an economics that sees the discipline as somewhat ‘apart’ from society. Neoclassical economics sets out a version of ‘economic man’ on which complex economic theories are modelled. There has been recognition of the limitations of this approach. But in turn, those who criticise mainstream neoclassical economics frames tend to (with or without the help of Polanyi) argue that we need to “re-embed” the economy in society.
If we take this approach, we deny the possibility of ever seeing the economy as an aspect of society, the same as the law. We cannot hope to reorient the economy and its regulation (the law) towards real people if we talk about society, economy and law as separate entities. Speaking of one being embedded in the other simply reinforces their difference, their separation, and their disunity. It reinforces existing ways of doing, talking and thinking, which are predominantly shaped by neoclassical economics. It prevents us moving forwards.
So, what to do? We need to move beyond embeddedness, and how to go about that is the subject of a future post.
Copyright note: animation by me using ProCreate 5 on iPad Air 3. Please ask before you take!