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Comparing comparing: exercises in stretching – concepts

Mark Harvey

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1This paper is a response to the editors’ invitation to reflect on my experience of a number of comparative research projects undertaken in the last three decades. It is therefore overly self-referential and has no pretensions to survey or examine comparative methods in general.

2The guiding principle of my comparative research has been to stretch concepts by empirically exploring very diverse fields, in different social and societal contexts, with a focus on processes of change: trajectories or histories rather than outcomes of those histories. Concepts are stretched, even to breaking point, by embracing changes in scale and scope thrown up by researching different social realities.

3This particular approach, therefore, seeks to develop theory and explanation by looking at comparative historical change, change which, in principle, is without both closed beginnings or end-points. In this respect, the approach differs from many comparative studies which contrast cases, and develop taxonomic analytical differences between societal varieties: for example, the three worlds of welfare capitalism (Esping-Anderson, 1990) and its subsequent expansion to five worlds (Goodin, et al. 1999); liberal versus coordinated market economies (Hall and Soskice, 2001); or, six types of business system in divergent capitalisms (Whitley, 1999). Taxonomic analytical categories make less sense when comparing open-ended historical change, particularly if processes of change are themselves similarly open to change (Harvey and McMeekin, 2013).

4The paper aims to show how a particular conceptual framework has been ‘stretched’. It takes as its epistemic starting block Karl Polanyi’s conception of ‘instituted economic processes’ (IEP) and their shifting place in society (Polanyi, 1957). It does so by showing how this conception was stretched by successive comparative research projects: tomato variations in the UK, the USA and continental Europe; Trust in Food in six European countries following the ‘mad cow’ crisis; the economies of knowledge surrounding the genomics revolution in biology, in Europe, Brazil, and the USA; biofuels and the challenges of climate change and energy security in the UK, Brazil, the USA, Germany, Spain, and France; and drinking water provision and consumption in the UK, Italy, Germany, Delhi, Mexico City and Taiwan. So there is a strange collection of pivotal empirical objects (tomatoes, genomes, biofuels, water) and quite a wide span of societal contexts. These are the empirically diverse fields and varied histories and societal contexts that impel the conceptual stretching.

Comparing comparing

  • 1 These processes of changing the qualitative characteristics of, in this case, tomatoes can be compa (...)

5In the beginning, there was the tomato. In Exploring the Tomato (Harvey et al. 2002), the tomato was taken as an object of study, but also, methodologically, as a probe to explore several, interlocking, processes of change: the gradual assimilation of the tomato into the cuisines of Europe from its Central American and Aztec origins; processes of transforming a natural fruit into different economic goods, salad tomatoes, tinned tomatoes, tomato soups, pizzas, etc.; the differing processes emergence and disappearance of genetically modified tomatoes in the contrasting contexts of the USA and Great Britain; and so on.1 As a pioneer in mass production for mass consumption, the growth of advertising, and market surveys of consumer preferences, the tomato was a useful probe into major transformations occurring in many different societal economies. But its trajectories were different in different parts of the world, indeed, across Europe in Italy, Greece, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Processes of change in the tomato in these different societal contexts had interesting things to say about processes of change of those societies.

6A particular focus of comparison was therefore the distinctiveness of the United Kingdom supermarket tomato, and how supermarket tomatoes reflected wider transformations of processes of their production, distribution, exchange and consumption. Analysis of the supermarket tomato helped to develop concepts of asymmetries of economic power, between supermarkets and producers, distributors (logistics companies), processors (pizza or soup companies), and last but not least, consumers. Two major historical configurations of production, distribution, exchange and consumption (PDEC) were identified: the early twentieth century dominance of branded manufacturers, and, later in some societal contexts, the dominance of supermarket retailers.

7In proposing comparative method as an exercise directed at stretching concepts, the central concepts referred to here originate from Karl Polanyi. Exploring the Tomato was a first experiment in developing a configurational and relational analysis of tomato ‘economies’. Polanyi had asked a question: what do we mean by ‘economy’ in a society? (Polanyi, 1957, 1968; Harvey, 2007). Briefly, in answer he proposed an anthropological conceptualisation of economy as the relational combination of two transformational processes: changes in control or appropriation (‘changing hands’), and changes in location (movements of objects, actions or people). Only when these processes are instituted in combination so as to reproduce themselves over a spatial and temporal scale do they constitute an ‘economy’ in society. Combinations of appropriation and displacement of goods and services could involve various mixtures of redistribution by central authorities, such as monarchs; reciprocation between social groups or categories (e.g. within a family, or between kinship groups); or market exchanges. Polanyi himself described these combinations as societally integrative, underpinning societal cohesion through sustained instituted economic processes. However, he also insisted that ‘economies’ are more or less differentiated from other social processes, and that only in market dominated societies, such as contemporary capitalism, did ‘the economy’ emerge as an institutional form sharply differentiated from familial, religious, or political institutions: places formally dedicated to paid work, financial centres, markets, displacements exclusively occurring for trading, and so on. Although never highly developed, this process of the differentiating or merging of the economy from other social instituted processes, referred to by some as disembedding or embedding, is encapsulated in the Polanyian concept of the ‘shifting place of economy in society’.

8Here is not the place to elaborate on this conceptual framework as such, or on why, at a point in time, this anthropological vision of ‘economy’ became a springboard for my subsequent comparative research. We all start from an historically conditioned conceptual space that we inhabit, although, at the time of the tomato research, Polanyian thought was not in one of its waves of fashion which it had been in 1968 and is again now following the 2007/8 financial crisis. Researching the tomato, however, provoked a transformation of his original concept of ‘economy’ by adding two further transformational processes, which, again, only in combination, constitute what we mean by ‘economy’: processes of transformation of the qualitative characteristics of entities, and processes in transformation of the use of entities. These correspond – broadly – to processes of production and consumption, now added to processes of appropriation and distribution, to form configurations of instituted economic processes, as outlined above in the examples of the branded manufactured tomato, and the supermarket tomato. So, in contrast to Polanyi’s two-process relational configurations, my instituted economies became conceptualised as four-process ones. Speculating, it may well be that Polanyi’s anthropological approach was to specify the minimum necessary and sufficient processes constitutive of “an economy”, in order to encompass societies as contrasting as hunter-gatherer and contemporary global market ones. Maybe processes of production, for example, seemed appropriate for the latter, but not the former. Yet, hunter-gatherer societies were/are certainly characterised by innovations in production (processes of transformation of qualitative characteristics) – tool-making, cooking and storing food, for example. Equally certainly they necessarily feature final consumption, as a change in use, even though no-one would characterise them as ‘consumer societies’. So, the argument runs, whether for contemporary or for hunter-gatherer societies, economic configurations minimally require four processes relationally in combination.

9Furthermore, foreshadowed by Polanyi’s vision of the potential of ‘self-regulated markets’ to exploit human life and the environment to destruction, there was some limited conceptualisation of the interaction between economy and nature, the siting of economy in natural environments. Comparative research examined the different environments and agronomies in which tomatoes were historically cultivated, and also some biological synergies of humans and tomatoes. Thus Dutch or English tomatoes grown in greenhouses warmed by North Sea gas were contrasted with open-field or polytunnel tomatoes ripened under Mediterranean sun, on the one hand; and genetically modified tomatoes with enhanced lycopene for fortifying human biological health were contrasted with traditionally hybridised tomatoes, on the other. In this way, Exploring the Tomato combined the idea of the shifting place of the economy in society with the shifting place of the economy in nature. This stretching of some original Polanyian concepts by comparative research was hence graphically summarised in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: The economy as instituted in society and nature.

10But, tomato explorations stretched the conceptualisation of ‘instituted economies’ only so far. Although the comparisons advanced an analysis of societal and historical configurational change, the empirical field was restricted predominantly to market commodity economies. Some attention was paid to the state in quality and safety regulation, but the key dynamics were innovation across private sector actors in production, distribution, and exchange – with a distinctive emphasis on consumers. Following the tomato research, the ‘mad cow’ or BSE scandal prompted the European Union to fund a comparative project on conditions of trust in six European countries (Germany, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Portugal, and the United Kingdom). The resultant collaborative research on “Trust in Food” (Kjaernes et al. 2006), accorded the state a much more critical role, developing a concept of societally contrasting ‘triangular affairs’ and processes of relational change (between state and market actors, market actors and consumers, the state and consumers). Trust was both seen as multi-dimensional (e.g. safety, quality, value for money, reliability, transparency, accountability, etc.), but also at least tri-polar, rather than bi-polar as in many accounts of personal trust.

11Although linked to the tomato research through the science and technologies of genetic modification, a subsequent research project involved a major shift in empirical field. A comparative study of genomics and bioinformatics in the USA, Europe and Brazil, presented a much more radical challenge to the IEP conceptual framework (Harvey and McMeekin, 2007). Would the PDEC configurational approach work with a genome or a software tool? Was it heuristically illuminating to develop an analysis of variation and change in economies of knowledge? How would the conceptual framework work with non-market entities? And, indeed, most interestingly in the context of histories of genomics from the 1990s, would genomes emerge as market or non-market entities, and if so, would an economies of knowledge analysis be adequate to the task of developing plausible explanations? It is worth pausing here to emphasise that this is a reflection of hindsight, which identifies two distinct levels of comparative methodology: comparisons within the projects themselves, and now, comparing the comparisons of how a conceptual framework develops across very diverse empirical and ontological fields.

12Highlighting only some of the key conceptual ‘expansions’, it was first of all quite fruitful to analyse the revolution in biological sciences in different societal contexts in terms of the radically new methods of how biological knowledge was produced (for example, using high-throughput sequencers) and the novel ways of distributing knowledge digitally between collaborating laboratories. One of the most striking historical developments was the scaling up of biological research to teams with complex and novel divisions of scientific labour (and big funding), as well as the collaborations between laboratories within and across national borders. Models of collaboration were transposed, but then significantly modified, when going from Europe to Brazil, for example (Harvey and McMeekin, 2007).

13One of the most testing ‘stretches’ concerned the concept of appropriation and exchange in the formation of radically new public goods institutions – the global genomics databases. These new databases entailed the development of shared rules for data, ontologies, quality standards, and significantly temporalities of data deposition, notably the so-called Bermuda rules requiring research teams to deposit new data to the international databases within 24 hours in order to prevent ‘hoarding’ as a form of private appropriation. The economic process of appropriation or exchange was reformulated to a more abstract concept of processes of changes in control, which might be formal or informal, backed by law or convention. Processes of changes in control over an entity or resource are much broader than appropriation if associated narrowly with ‘ownership’ and ‘property’, especially as conceived within monetary exchanges, commodities and markets. This more abstract concept of changes of control facilitates analysis in both market and non-market configurational settings. In this empirical case, the public of the public good was constituted by the community of participating scientific laboratories. To Polanyi’s naïve description of ‘changing hands’ one could perhaps speak of appropriation as ‘joining hands’, to describe the development of new collectivities of mutual control. Moreover, the relationality of processes of control with processes of knowledge production was evidenced by the setting of quality standards, developing processes of qualification of the entities in question, such as a rule for what constituted a ‘gene’ in a sequence of DNA (see footnote, p.2 above). At the same time, deposition into a common pool was made conditional on meeting a quality standard. Furthermore, as against this form of collectivist ‘public good’, state research councils might require, as a condition of funding, that all outputs be made available to the public, which could mean published in scientific journals available exclusively to subscribers or open source. This statist dimension of ‘public good’ was related to processes of distribution to wider audiences, therefore, as distinct from the public good of a community of producers. But above all, broadening the concept of appropriation in terms of processes of control enabled the analysis to fully recognise the novelty of forms of public good, innovations in the processes of developing mutual control.

14Genomes, as against tomatoes, pushed the boundaries of the conceptual framework into the sphere of non-market economies. Furthermore, an analysis of the competition between commercial and non-market organisations, not only in the celebrated race for completion of the human genome (Harvey and McMeekin, 2004, 2007), showed how, against many predictions, public science in general undermined or limited the possibilities of private appropriation and the formation of ‘genome markets’ by the creation of public databases. Our analysis of a race between a Monsanto-led team and a University of Washington-led team – critically transformed by the injection of a distinctively Brazilian scientific capability – concerned the genome of the key agent in genetic modification, the agrobacterium tumefaciens bacterium (Harvey and McMeekin, 2004). Even in this most commercially ‘interesting’ case, public science won out, compelling Monsanto to ‘go public’ with its science. Most surprisingly, in the domain of the ‘scientific instruments’ of the new biology, bioinformatic software tools, collectively-owned public bioinformatics suites of software emerged as dominant, partly because of the need for continuous development and strong on-going interactions between tool-users and tool-producers (Harvey and McMeekin, 2010). In terms of the ‘transformations in processes of use’, the IEP approach contrasted the polyvalence of use of the new biological knowledge and the scientific instrumentation (for further scientific research, for drug discovery, for genetic modification, personalised medicine….) with market commodity configurations. This highlighted the interdependency between non-market and market processes of economic transformation. In the broadest terms, it demonstrated the dynamic multi-modality of capitalist political economies, evident, indeed from the onset of the industrial revolution. Capitalist growth is not only about capital accumulation and profit seeking, or the commodification of everything. Genomes tell a different story from tomatoes.

15Although not deliberately designed with these research objectives in mind, a comparative project on the sustainability of bottled water further enlarged this conceptualisation of the multi-modalities of varied political economies. It is striking that Marx, in Capital, developed a closed-circuit money-commodity economy, in which the capacity to work was ensured by the wage purchasing the workers’ “socially necessary means of subsistence” in the form of market commodities. Water, although biologically as well as socially necessary, historically and comparatively does not fit that analysis. Aside from Marx, swathes of contemporary economic sociology treat markets as self-standing, seriously underplaying the multi-modal character of capitalist economies (e.g. Swedberg, 2005). At first glance, bottled water seems to fit Marx’s bill. With its branding and marketing, including, in the UK, supermarket own-label bottled water, it bears close comparison with tomatoes in terms of different market commodity configurations. But it became very clear in a comparison between the UK, Germany, Italy, Delhi, Mexico City and Taiwan, that such markets were fundamentally, and in different ways, conditioned by the varied levels and qualities of tapwater systems of provision (Harvey, 2013). Tapwater has been described as an ‘uncooperative commodity’ where public utilities have been privatised without being fully marketised, the state continuing to play a significant role in the regulation of price, conditions of ‘exchange’ with consumers, requirements of infrastructural renewal, as well as quality control (Bakker, 2003, 2013). The IEP comparative analysis of trajectories of development of tapwater and bottled water, however, also demonstrated tapwater to be a ‘recalcitrant public good’. Again, this current reflection can point to significant comparative variations into what and how the publics of water as a public good have been instituted historically and socially (cities, regions, nation states), with frequently major conflicts between different scales and types of social collectivities. For example, Taiwan under Japanese colonisation nationalised all water resources early in the 20th century, appropriating by dispossession community ‘ownership’ of water by mountain peoples in a brutal, even genocidal, war. In the UK, formal legal ownership of water resources (aquifers and surface/river water) by the nation state emerged gradually and unevenly towards the end of the 20th century, and, to this day is marked by regional-scale rights of control. In Delhi – and many other regions of the world – conflicts remain over rights of control over rivers passing through different sub-nation state public authorities. But then, comparing comparing highlights the differences between water and knowledge in terms of different processes of control, and the collectivities formed around the exercise of that control. Conversely, notably in the case of Delhi, widespread and illegal private appropriation of groundwater by domestic households, demonstrates significant forms of non-commodity private property of a naturally occurring resource. Contrasting water with knowledge, both slippery entities, thus stretches and elaborates different processes of instituting control, and hence dynamic and changing processes of what constitutes ‘appropriation’ whether ‘public’ or ‘private’. Bottled water, even in Mexico City with amongst the highest per capita consumption, remains a constrained market space in a wider, multifarious context of different configurations of production, distribution, appropriation and consumption.

16Researching a liquid of a very different kind – biofuels - involved comparing different political economy responses to the challenges of finite fossil energy and climate change in Brazil, Europe and the USA (Harvey, 2014; Harvey and Pilgrim, 2011, 2012). As with water, a key dimension of this analysis entailed different polity-economy-nature dynamics in these regions, especially in terms of land and biomass potentials in sub-tropical and temperate zone regions: the significance of sugarcane (Brazil), maize (the USA) and rapeseed (Europe) as feedstocks for renewable transport energy. However, although a key dimension of variation, it was not as central to the comparison as the contrasting political strategies of the three regions. The biofuels research in particular developed a concept of “politically instituted markets”, which accorded a much expanded role of the state than that of the architect of market regulation developed in Trust in Food. The power of the state as an economic agent in its own right, or as driver of innovation by market or non-market actors, varied sharply between Brazil under dictatorship or democracy, in the USA under its constitution, or under the multi-level political structures of the European Union. In Brazil, the state and state-owned corporations, struck deals with multinational car manufacturers to produce exclusively 100% bioethanol vehicles (dictatorship) or, non-exclusively, flex-fuel vehicles running on gas, petrol or biofuel (democracy). In the US and Europe, transport fuel markets have been under mandates to replace fossil fuel with renewable alternatives, with quite widely varying ambitions – much higher in the USA. Variations in the politics of energy security and climate change and different forms of state agency in the economy were understood as critical for the varied trajectories of historical transformation of transport energy. It was this conceptual expansion that took centre stage in the biofuel comparative analysis.

17By contrast, comparing economies of drinking water brought the polity-economy-nature interactions involved in water provisioning and consumption into the central analytical focus of societal variation, exploring the shifting place of economies of water in both their contrasting water environments. In so doing, ‘emergent sustainability crises’, varying from society to society in different environmental settings, were shown to be critical turning points in diverse historical trajectories. Contrasting the genesis of a water sustainability crisis in London in the mid-19th century (the Great Stink) (Halliday, 2001) with ‘Death in Hamburg’ in the late 19th century (Evans, 1987), or the scarcities and pollutions of Mexico City with Delhi, another exploding megacity, provided analytical material for thinking more generally about sustainability crises as sociogenic rather than anthropogenic. Particular historical trajectories in particular resource-endowed environmental contexts generate distinctive crises of sustainability, whether in terms of human health or environmental degradation. In a way, if both the biofuels and the water research concerned societal responses to sociogenic sustainability crises in different ways, water sustainability crises demonstrated more clearly their significance as sources of historical change.

18Comparing the comparing of tomatoes, biofuels, and drinking water therefore expanded the IEP framework for thinking about the shifting place of economy in nature, by highlighting different dimensions of polity-economy-nature interactions. The tomato comparison focused on human modifications of plants (hybridisation, GM) (Harvey, 2004) and their cultivation under different agronomies, involved in producing varieties of commodity-tomatoes for different consumption practices. Although producing commodity products (transport fuels for primarily domestic consumers), biofuel economies were characterised quite distinctively by politically instituted markets, driven in varying mixes by concerns over national energy security or climate change mitigation. Political responses to perceived risks to national energy security of access to fossil energy resources or environmental challenges distinctively shaped the contrasting polity-energy economy-nature interactions in the three regional contexts. In the case of drinking water, immediate, proximate and occasionally devastating sustainability crises themselves induced major transformations of water economies, including cultures of consumption: water and political crises were intertwined in ways distinctive of a good that meets basic human needs. Retrospectively overviewing these three comparative projects therefore presents a profound theoretical challenge to incorporate interactions with natural environments into social analysis of variation.

Some concluding observations

19Coming full spiral, nature reappears in a different analytical perspective from its original tomato point of address, after a succession of comparative research projects. That is perhaps unsurprising, given that food and drinking water, and relatedly biology human and non-human, have been empirical objects for comparison, a thread running through different projects. However, polity-economy-nature interactions now appear in the forefront of an IEP, neo-Polanyian, analysis, as a major and profound source of societal and historical political economy variation. At the outset of the paper, it was suggested that its principal difference with some other comparative approaches was an emphasis on comparative processes, rather than taxonomies. Now, processes of societal interaction with nature, absent from these representative social theories of varieties of capitalism, are seen as critical to dynamics of variation. Across the five projects discussed here, the conceptual stretching of ‘economy’, ‘polity’ and ‘nature’ has been marked by enlargement of scope and scale, historical and comparative. Different objects, different time scales, different societies, in different environmental contexts. Comparing comparing entails stepping outside conceptual comfort zones.

20The final decades of the 20th century, and opening decades of the 21st where climate change and finitudes of planetary resources (land, water, fossil fuels, minerals, sunlight….) have come to the foreground of scientific understanding and political awareness, suggest an underlying context of a widespread yet uneven range of emergent sociogenic sustainability crises across the political economies of the world. This in turn can be envisaged as a broader context for the concept of the shifting place of political economies in nature, as crises unfold, intensify, diminish or destroy. Earlier historical epochs provide some grist for comparison, including ones labelled ‘global crisis’, such as that of the ‘little ice age’, although in that case climate change may have been more a consequence of the decline in human economic activity, and decimations of wars and plagues, than of sociogenically promoted climate change (Parker, 2013; Ruddiman, 2007). And, there are many examples, such as the Mayan, of civilizational collapse arising from particular trajectories of society-nature interactions (Haug et al. 2003; Kennett et al. 2012; Demarest, 2004). Sustainability crises also have the power to shift academic thinking about the social.

21‘External events’ have undoubtedly shaped the succession of research projects compared here. Trust in Food was a European collaborative project financed by the EU in the wake of the BSE crisis. The comparison between different political economic responses to energy security and climate change was funded by the ESRC, no doubt partly in line with their research priorities for addressing environmental change and lifestyles. So too was the research project on drinking water. As part of the wider research programme of the ESRC’s Sustainable Practices Research Group, the research was responding to, and reacting against, a political context that individualises responsibility for sustainability to consumers and their market and behavioural choices. So, the succession of projects under a comparative spotlight was far from a methodologically or theoretically organised programmatic enterprise. All were reliant on collaborations and collective research, beyond the capacity of an individual researcher. Some projects were connected by long-running, institutionally supported, partnerships (Harvey and McMeekin), others by particular quite contingent assemblages of collaborators. These collaborative arrangements adventitiously and opportunistically shaped the scope and scale of comparison. Changes in the world over the course of a couple of decades conditioned the internal epistemic search for theoretical coherence and explanatory power – and rightly so. The stretching of concepts was impelled by events and changes in the world – some unanticipated at the time of the research project design – as much as by any internal epistemic drive to extend the scope and scale of the IEP theoretical framework.

22The outcome of this long process of interactions between a changing world and epistemic endeavours, taking the Polanyian inheritance of concepts also born of the historical times as a point of conceptual origin, has been one of quite radical development in the scope and scale of the conceptual framework. The multi-modality of capitalist economies, processes of qualification of public as well as private goods, different modalities of instituting new economic configurations, some more politically driven, others more economically emergent, extended early formulations of production-exchange-distribution-consumption relationalities. The analysis of politically driven innovation and economic reconfiguration responding to energy security and/or climate change brought into the theoretical centre the shifting place of economy both in society and in nature as a source of societal variation. Seminal ideas in Polanyi thus went through successive transmutations, breaking out of earlier conceptual formulatory shells. Comparing the two major sources of variation, the historical and the socio-spatial, is an ongoing and open-ended process of conceptual reconfiguration understood here in a way that bears a not entirely accidental resemblance to the economic reconfigurations which have been the object of the research described above.

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1 These processes of changing the qualitative characteristics of, in this case, tomatoes can be compared with Callon’s economy of qualities (Callon et al. 2002). Processes of qualification are here treated in a much broader conceptual framework, one which has been considerably ‘stretched’ in subsequent research described below (Harvey, McMeekin and Warde, 2004).

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List of illustrations

Caption Figure 1: The economy as instituted in society and nature.
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Electronic reference

Mark Harvey, « Comparing comparing: exercises in stretching – concepts », Anthropology of food [Online], S10 | 2014, Online since 03 January 2015, connection on 15 December 2017. URL :

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About the author

Mark Harvey

Department of Sociology, University of Essex,

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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