Thorstein Bunde Veblen

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 Works of Thorstein Veblen

– The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor, 1898
– The Theory of the Leisure Class: an economic study of institutions, 1899
– Theory of Business Enterprise, 1904
– The Instincts of Worksmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts, 1914
– The Higher Learning In America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men, 1918

4 thoughts on “Thorstein Bunde Veblen

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