Polanyi through the lens of Epistemologies of the South and Postcolonial Feminist Economics: different glances at the concept of disembeddedness

EMES Conferences Selected Papers Series, ECSP-P16-09

This paper debates the concept of disembeddeness in the context of the feminisms of the South. Departing from a feminist rereading of Polanyi’s work, proposed by Waller and Jennings (1991), I intend to discuss the Polanyian concept of disembeddedness within market societies, by interacting with the points of disagreement they presented regarding the limits of Polanyi’s criticism on formalist economics.

Given Polanyi was described as being epistemologically complacent with the formalist model to describe capitalist economies and that they argued the formalist perspective has deepened the abyss between family and economy domains, I discuss to what extent modern gender meanings related to this split still remain in case of non-western perspectives of gender.

Waller and Jennings have argued that the formalist analysis reinforces the invisibility of non market social arrangements, equally indispensable to provide an accurate picture of the provisioning dynamics which caracterizes, first and foremost, the actual economies. Despite all the promising convergence between Polanyi’s theoretical perspective and a feminist reinterpretation of Economics, Polanyi is assumed as having emphasised the inadequacy of formalist analysis for understanding non market societies and doing so underestimated the relevance of non market social arrangements within market societies.

At the heart of the matter are two key issues.

The first one is related to the usual readings of the concept of (dis)embeddedness and the belief that all economies may be primarily embedded – an idea supported by some New Economic Sociology scholars such as Swedberg (1997), Granovetter (1985) and Barber (1995). To a certain extent, this interpretation is assumed by Waller and Jennings when debating these social arrangements from a feminist perspective. Otherwise, as Polanyi’s concept of disembeddedness refers to macroeconomic level, we may question this latter statement. So I argue that, despite the relevance of their analysis, some Waller and Jennings’s critiques to Polanyi should be better framed.

The second idea refers to the issue of gender. I question if the split between domestic domain and economy – assumed for the anglo-american context in the 19th century, according to Nicholson (1986) and Waller and Jennings (1991) – may be applied as well to gender issues everywhere. Relative to this, Oyěwùmí’s contributions (2003: 1) are welcomed to broaden the scope when she “interrogates gender and allied concepts based on African cultural experiences and epistemologies”. Somewhat similarly, Lugones (2008), proposing the concept of coloniality of gender and thinking of subaltern women in Latin America, argues that “modern colonial gender system” has its own characteristics and may not be applied to some indigenous women. So patriarchy should not be raised as an universal category to explain gender roles and gender social meanings worldwide. It does not mean that the split between domestic and economic domains in modern societies should be considered completely inappropriate to describe the invisibility of subaltern women in capitalist production system. Given the porosity of modern capitalism even over non-market societies such as indigenous communities and peripheral economies worldwide, this invisibility of women on modern economic issues has also affected non-western women’s reality.

Polanyi through the lens of Epistemologies of the South and Postcolonial Feminist Economics: different glances at the concept of disembeddedness

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