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Moral economy can be defined as a common notion of the just distribution of resources and social exchange. The concept has been developed and is used in the context of political and social analysis to understand, for example, various systems of social exchange or instances of rebellion. It is claimed that social communities tend to invoke a moral repertoire for all kinds of social exchanges and transfers that leads them to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate social practices.
E. P. Thompson’s (1971) study on the eighteenth-century food riots first popularized the term moral economy. He observes how the emergence of the market order seriously challenges traditional normative standards, and thereby evoked popular resistance and protest. According to his account, it was not objective” forms of hardship that engendered social protest, but rather the violation of well-entrenched communal values. Since there is a widespread consensus about legitimate and illegitimate social practices people are ready to engage in a moral protest. Thompson’s contribution has inspired a whole branch of anthropological and ethnographic studies dealing with diverse peasant societies. Their findings show that the marketization of traditional societies tends to violate well-entrenched norms and reciprocities and thereby triggers social and political unrest.
One of the key concepts of the moral economy approach is the idea of embeddedness, which highlights the notion that economic behavior in traditional societies takes place within the context of religious, social, and political institutions. Karl Polanyi’s book The Great Transformation (1957) investigates the conditions and rationales of economic exchanges and distinguishes the embedded (traditional) and the disembedded or autonomous (modern) economies.
In the light of more recent evidence it has been suggested that the concept of the moral economy rests too heavily on the distinction between market and non-market-based societies. Also, modern societies are not devoid of forms of moral regulation. Thus, beyond the accounts that deal with the trajectory from traditional to modern societies, the moral economy framework has inspired a larger part of economic sociology challenging some of the propositions of economic and rational choice theory. Rather than conceiving the profit-seeking individual as the pivot of economic behavior, a closer understanding of the sociocultural components and determinants of behavior is needed. By the same token, the idea of autonomous, self-regulating markets needs critical revision in favor of revealing the institutional and political, but also normative prerequisites of how the market functions. Critics of the moral economy approach suggest that it moralizes” and over-socializes” individual actions. For some, the moral economic framework sticks to a rather generalized understanding of morality that is not prepared to construe and to identify the role of specific social relations.
- Booth, W. J. (1994) On the idea of the moral economy. American Political Science Review 88 (3): 653-67.
- Thompson, E. P. (1971) The Moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century. Past and Present: A Journal of Historical Studies 50: 79-136.