chapter
formalism and substantivism
Pages 4

The terms ‘formalism’ and ‘substantivism’ were used to mark the antagonistic positions in a controversy that dogged *economic anthropology in the 1960s. The distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘substantive’ approaches to economic phenomena was made by the influential economic historian †Karl Polanyi (Polanyi 1958), echoing †Max Weber’s distinction between formal and substantive rationality. The ‘economic’, according to Polanyi can be defined in formal terms-as a kind of rationality which assesses choices between scarce resources by calculating in terms of means and ends, costs and benefits. Or it can be defined substantively-as whatever processes people employ in their relationship with the material world. The formal definition is that employed by modern economics and is a product of a society in which the economy has been isolated from other areas of social life. The substantive definition is potentially much broader in its application, and is explicitly intended to deal with societies and historical epochs in which the economy has not been †disembedded from other areas of social life like religion or kinship.