Transformation or Structural Change? What Polanyi Can Teach Us about the Platform Economy


  • Martin F. Kenney Department of Human Ecology, University of California, Davis
  • John Zysman Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley
  • Dafna Bearson Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, University of California, Berkeley



Platform economy, platforms, Polanyi, Power, Amazon, Google


The rise of the platform economy marks the latest phase in the ongoing digital revolution. Indeed, the platform is to this digital era what the factory was to the industrial era, both a symbol and an organizing mechanism. Gernot Grabher and Jonas König (2020) used Karl Polanyi’s analysis of what he termed the “great transformation” to frame the rise of platform economy. The platform economy is remarkable as it confirms Polanyi’s (and Marx’s before him) insight that the reach of the market is based upon increased commodification as it has been able to reach into ever more parts of social life. We introduced the term “platform economy” in 2015 because we recognized that the digital platforms were changing the dynamics of capitalist accumulation – an analysis framed by regulationist school of political economy. The intuition was that the socio-technical innovation of digital online platforms was the critical fulcrum for an economic restructuring that would rewire the flows of data and ultimately money and power. The firms we have termed the "mega-platforms", Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, have become the most valuable and powerful firms in the world. Importantly, the reach of these platforms is global and yet local and personal. Moreover, this platform power has only been reinforced during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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How to Cite

Kenney, M., Zysman, J., & Bearson, D. (2020). Transformation or Structural Change? What Polanyi Can Teach Us about the Platform Economy. Sociologica, 14(3), 227–240.