Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857-1929)
|Birth:||October 30, 1857 (Cato, Wisconsin)|
|Death:||August 3, 1929|
|Influences:||Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, William James, Georges Vacher de Lapouge|
|Opposed:||Karl Marx, Neoclassical economics, German historical school|
|Influenced:||Wesley Clair Mitchell, Clarence Edwin Ayres, John Kenneth Galbraith, C. Wright Mills, Robert A. Brady|
|Contributions:||conspicuous consumption, penalty of taking the lead, ceremonial / instrumental dichotomy|
Thorstein Bunde Veblen (born Tosten Bunde Veblen July 30, 1857 – August 3, 1929) was a Norwegian-American sociologist and economist and a founder, along with John R. Commons, of the Institutional economics movement, most famous for his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).
Veblen was born in Cato, Wisconsin, of Norwegian immigrant parents; his nephew Oswald Veblen became a famous mathematician. He spoke only Norwegian at home and did not learn English until he was a teenager.
He obtained his B.A. at Carleton College (1880), under John Bates Clark, a leading neoclassical economist, but rejected his ideas. Later he did his graduate work at Johns Hopkins University under Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of the pragmatist school in philosophy, and Ph.D.(1884) at Yale University, under laissez-faire proponent William Graham Sumner. He repudiated their views as well. At Yale University, Veblen took Moral Philosophy as his Ph.D. major and wrote his doctoral thesis on Immanuel Kant. Perhaps the most important intellectual influence on Veblen was Herbert Spencer, whose work in the last half of the 19th century sparked an enormous interest in the evolutionary perspective on human societies (Eff 1989).
From 1891 to 1892, after six years of unemployment, spent reading voluminously at the family farm, Veblen continued studying as a graduate student, now in economics, at Cornell University under James Laurence Laughlin.
In 1892, he became a professor at the newly-opened University of Chicago, simultaneously serving as managing editor of the Journal of Political Economy. In 1906, he received an appointment at Stanford University, which he left quickly due to scandal. In 1911, he went to the University of Missouri-Columbia, due at least in part to support from Horace Davenport, the head of the economics department. Veblen was not fond of Columbia, Missouri, but remained there through 1918. In 1919, Veblen, along with Charles Beard, James Harvey Robinson and John Dewey, helped found the New School for Social Research (known today as The New School). He was also part of the Technical Alliance, created in 1918-19 by Howard Scott, which would later became the Technocratic movement.
Veblen became well known through his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), a satiric look at American society written while he taught at the University of Chicago. He coined the widely-used phrases "conspicuous consumption" and "pecuniary emulation".
Thorstein Veblen's career began amidst the growth of the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and psychology. He argued that culture inevitably shaped economics and that no universal "human nature" could possibly explain the variety of norms and behaviors discovered by the new science of anthropology.
An important analytical contribution became associated with Veblen: what became known as the "ceremonial / instrumental dichotomy". Veblen saw that although every society depends on tools and skills to support the "life process", every society also appeared to have a stratified structure of status ("invidious distinctions") that ran contrary to the imperatives of the "instrumental" (read: "technological") aspects of group life. This gave rise to the dichotomy: the "ceremonial" related to the past, supporting the tribal legends; the "instrumental" oriented itself toward the technological imperative to judge value by the ability to control future consequences. The "Veblenian dichotomy" formed a specialized variant of the "instrumental theory of value" of John Dewey, with whom Veblen would make contact briefly at The University of Chicago.
The Theory of the Leisure Class and The Theory of Business Enterprise together constitute an alternative construction on the neoclassical marginalist theories of consumption and production, respectively. Both works clearly have their basis in the application of the "Veblenian dichotomy" to cultural patterns of behavior and therefore implicitly but unavoidably express a critical stance; one cannot read Veblen with any understanding while failing to grasp that the dichotomy is a valuational principle at its core. The ceremonial patterns of activity do not relate to just any past, but rather to the one that generated a specific set of advantages and prejudices that underlie the current structure of rewards and power. Instrumental judgments create benefits according to an entirely separate criterion, and therefore act inherently subversively. Clarence E. Ayres of the University of Texas at Austin developed this line of analysis more fully and explicitly from the 1920s. The English economic heretic John A. Hobson was an early admirer. The sociologist C. Wright Mills was a close student of Thorstein Veblen and shared significant aspects of Veblen's critical analysis. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith did too. The Marxist Paul Sweezy was another critical thinker who deeply appreciated Veblen. The countercultural years (1960s) saw a rebirth of American interest in Veblen, with Rick Tilman taking the lead in the new Veblen scholarship. The English economist Geoffrey Hodgson has also contributed significantly to the renewed interest in Veblen with several important contributions to the growing Veblenian theory of social evolution. Veblen remains a controversial figure and arguably the most creative of all American social scientists. His critique of American business civilization still resonates.
In addition to the Theory of the Leisure Class and the Theory of Business Enterprise, Veblen's monograph Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution and the essay entitled "Why Economics is not an Evolutionary Science" became influential in shaping the research agenda for following generations of social scientists, including the technocratic movement.