Polanyi Institute turns 20 

By Russ Cooper

It began with a single idea to share Karl Polanyi's wealth of innovative knowledge in the hopes of seeing the world in a different way. Now, celebrating its 20th anniversary, it's the Concordia's Polanyi Institute that's sharing ideas and creating a wealth of innovative knowledge.

In 1986, the institute's director, Marguerite Mendell, participated in a Hungarian Academy of Sciences conference in Budapest to celebrate the centenary of Polanyi's birth. There, she was struck by the extent and depth of his influence on thinkers from a breadth of disciplines.

"When I returned to Montreal, my colleagues and I thought, 'why not an institute?'" says Mendell. "I approached then-Arts and Science Dean Charles Bertrand who enthusiastically supported this idea."

Co-founders Mendell and Professor Kari Polanyi Levitt (who'd already been working together for two years), along with an incredible team and international collaborators, have brought timely relevance to Polanyi's thinking throughout the institute's history. Since its inception, it has held 11 international conferences, published 13 books, hosted and helped facilitate the research of renowned scholars and advanced, "an ongoing critical reflection on contemporary society."

Currently, the institute's biggest project is digitizing the archives – housed exclusively at Concordia – of Polanyi's original notes, manuscripts, correspondence and memorabilia for easier worldwide access to his ideas.

As for the future, Mendell notes the collapse of communism in 1989, the Seattle WTO riots in 1999, the current economic malaise and Obama's election victory as examples of the need to reconcile global social and economic objectives that underlies Karl Polanyi’s work.

"In each case, there was a large outpouring of energy wanting to move away from a predominant free market ideology and acting on it," she says. "For the university, this is great because it never plateaus. We always have something new and exciting to work on."


Concordia University