Thorstein Bunde Veblen

Thorstein Bunde Veblen

Born: 1857. Died: 1929.


Thorstein Veblen was an American economist and sociologist. Educated at Carleton College, Johns Hopkins University and Yale University, his most famous work, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) is a biting satire directed at the leisure class.

He coined the widely used phrases "conspicuous consumption" and "pecuniary emulation".

Thorstein Veblen began his career in the midst of this period of intellectual ferment, and as a young scholar came into direct contact with some of the leading figures of the various movements that were to shape the style and substance of the newly-minted social sciences into the next century and beyond. Veblen saw the need for taking account of cultural variation in his approach; no universal human nature could possibly be invoked to explain the variety of norms and behaviors that the new science of anthropology showed to be the rule, rather than the exception. His singular analytical contribution was what came to be known as the "ceremonial / instrumental dichotomy"; Veblen saw that every culture is materially-based and dependent on tools and skills to support the "life process", while at the same time, every culture appeared to have a stratified structure of status ("invidious distinctions") that ran entirely contrary to the imperatives of the "instrumental" (read: "technological") aspects of group life. The "ceremonial" was related to the past, and conformed to and supported the tribal legends; "instrumental" was oriented toward the technological imperative to judge value by the ability to control future consequences. The "Veblenian dichotomy" was a specialized variant of the "instrumental theory of value" due to John Dewey, with whom Veblen was to make contact briefly at the University of Chicago.

The most important works by Veblen include, but are not restricted to, his most famous works ("Theory of the Leisure Class"; "Theory of Business Enterprise"), but his monograph "Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution" and the essay entitled "Why Economics is not an Evolutionary Science" have both been influential in shaping the research agenda for following generations of social scientists. TOLC and TOBE together constitute an alternative construction on the neoclassical marginalist theories of consumption and production, respectively. Both are clearly founded on the application of the "Veblenian dichotomy" to cultural patterns of behavior, and are therefore implicitly but unavoidably bound to a critical stance; it is not possible to read Veblen with any understanding while failing to grasp that the dichotomy is a valuational principle at its core. The ceremonial patterns of activity are not bound to just any past, but rather to the one that generated a specific set of advantages and prejudices that underly the current structure of rewards and power. Instrumental judgments create benefits according to an entirely separate criterion, and therefore are inherently subversive. This line of analysis was more fully and explicitly developed by Clarence E. Ayres of the University of Texas from the 1920's.

Veblen made his home in Nerstrand, Minnesota. Veblen's ideas inspired Technocracy, Inc.

Major Books of Thorstein Bunde Veblen

- Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: the case of America, 1923
- An Inquiry Into The Nature Of Peace And The Terms Of Its Perpetuation, 1917
- The Engineers and the Price System, 1921
- Essays in Our Changing Order, 1927
- The Higher Learning In America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men, 1918
- Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution, 1915
- The Instincts of Worksmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts, 1914
- The Place of Science in Modern Civilization, 1919
- Theory of Business Enterprise, 1904
- The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, 1899
- The Vested Interests and the Common Man, 1920

Major Articles of Thorstein Bunde Veblen

- 1884, Kant's Critique of Judgement, Journal of Speculative Philosophy
- 1891, Some Neglected Points in the Theory of Socialism, Annals of AAPSS
- 1892, Bohm-Bawerk's Definition of Capital and the Source of Wages, QJE
- 1892, The Overproduction Fallacy, QJE
- 1893, The Food Supply and the Price of Wheat, JPE
- 1894, The Army of the Commonweal, JPE
- 1894, The Economic Theory of Women's Dress, Popular Science Monthly
- 1898, The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor, American Journal of Sociology
- 1898, Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?, QJE
- 1898, The Beginnings of Ownership, American Journal of Sociology
- 1898, The Barbarian Status of Women, American Journal of Sociology
- 1899-1900, The Preconceptions of Economic Science, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, QJE
- 1901, Industrial and Pecuniary Employments, Publications of the AEA
- 1901, Gustav Schmoller's Economics, QJE
- 1902, Arts and Crafts, JPE
- 1904, An Early Experiment in Trusts, JPE
- 1905, Credit and Prices, JPE
- 1906, Professor Clark's Economics, QJE
- 1906-1907, The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers, QJE
- 1907, Fisher's Capital and Income, Political Science Quarterly
- 1908, The Evolution of the Scientific Point of View, University of California Chronicle
- 1908, On the Nature of Capital, QJE
- 1909, Fisher's Rate of Interest, Political Science Quarterly
- 1909, The Limitations of Marginal Utility, JPE
- 1910, Christian Morals and the Competitive System, International J of Ethics
- 1913, The Mutation Theory and the Blond Race, Journal of Race Development
- 1913, The Blond Race and the Aryan Culture, Univ of Missouri Bulletin
- 1915, The Opportunity of Japan, Journal of Race Development
- 1918, On the General Principles of a Policy of Reconstruction, J of the National Institute of Social Sciences
- 1918, Passing of National Frontiers, Dial
- 1918, Menial Servants during the Period of War, Public
- 1918, Farm Labor for the Period of War, Public
- 1918, The War and Higher Learning, Dial
- 1918, The Modern Point of View and the New Order, Dial
- 1919, The Intellectual Pre-Eminence of Jews in Modern Europe, Political Science Quarterly
- 1919, On the Nature and Uses of Sabotage, Dial
- 1919, Bolshevism is a Menace to the Vested Interests, Dial
- 1919, Peace, Dial
- 1919, The Captains of Finance and the Engineers, Dial
- 1919, The Industrial System and the Captains of Industry, Dial
- 1925, Economic theory in the Calculable Future, AER

Quotes from Thorstein Bunde Veblen

- "The abjectly poor, and all those persons whose energies are entirely absorbed by the struggle for daily sustenance, are conservative because they cannot afford the effort of taking thought for the day after tomorrow; just as the highly prosperous are conservative because they have small occasion to be discontented with the situation as it stands today." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "Conspicuous waste and conspicuous leisure are reputable because they are evidence of pecuniary strength; pecuniary strength is reputable or honorific because, in the last analysis, it argues success and superior force." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "The dog ... commends himself to our favor by affording play to our propensity for mastery." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "The evolution of society is substantially a process of mental adaptation on the part of individuals under the stress of circumstances which will no longer tolerate habits of thought formed under and conforming to a different set of circumstances in the past." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "Ferocity and cunning ... are useful to the individual only because there is so large a proportion of the same traits actively present in the human environment to which he is exposed. Any individual who enters the competitive struggle without the due endowment of these traits is at a disadvantage, somewhat as a hornless steer would find himself at a disadvantage in a drove of horned cattle." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "The greater part of the expenditure incurred by all classes for apparel is incurred for the sake of a respectable appearance rather than for the protection of the person." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "In large part [manners] are an expression of the relation of status-a symbolic pantomime of mastery on the one hand and of subservience on the other." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "The more rapidly the styles succeed and displace one another, the more offensive they are to sound taste." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "Only individuals with an aberrant temperament can in the long run retain self-esteem in the face of the disesteem of their fellows." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "The opposition of the [leisure] class to changes in the cultural scheme is instinctive, and does not rest primarily on an interested calculation of material advantages; it is an instinctive revulsion of any departure from the accepted way of doing and of looking at things-a revulsion common to all men and only to be overcome by stress of circumstances." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "The ownership of women begins in the lower barbarian stages of culture, apparently with the seizure of female captives. The original reason for the seizure and appropriation of women seems to have been their usefulness as trophies." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "Property set out with being booty held as trophies of the successful raid." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "The superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposedly beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty." (from "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions", 1899)

- "Business success is by common consent, and quite uncritically, taken to be conclusive evidence of wisdom even in matters that have no relation to business affairs. So that it stands as a matter of course that businessmen must be preferred for the guardianship and control of that intellectual enterprise for the pursuit of which the university is established." (from "The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of the Universities by Business Men", 1918)

- "One does not "make much of a showing" in the eyes of the large majority of the people whom one meets with except by unremitting demonstration of ability to pay." (from "White Collar: The American Middle Classes" by C. Wright Mills)

Also See:

· Veblen effect


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