Thorstein Veblen Biography


Birthday: July 30, 1857 (Leo)

Born In: Cato, Wisconsin, United States

Thorstein Veblen was an American economist and a well-known critic of capitalism. He applied a dynamic approach to study economic institutions and devised popular terms like pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption. Born in Cato to Norwegian American immigrant parents, he grew up in a big family that consisted of his parents and eleven siblings. Veblen attended local schools and later studied at Carleton College. He studied economics and philosophy under noted economist John Bates Clark. The works of Herbert Spencer also inspired him to a great extent. Following school, Veblen enrolled in Yale University from where he earned his Doctor of Philosophy in 1884. Although extremely intelligent and knowledgeable in his field, he remained unemployed for several years before finding work as an editor at University of Chicago. He eventually emerged as a successful economist and sociologist, and earned both admirers and critics.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Thorstein Bunde Veblen

Died At Age: 72


Spouse/Ex-: Ann Bradley Bevans (m. 1914–1920), Ellen Rolfe (m. 1888–1911)

father: Thomas Veblen

mother: Kari Bunde

siblings: Emily

Born Country: United States

Economists American Men

Died on: August 3, 1929

place of death: Menlo Park

U.S. State: Wisconsin

Notable Alumni: Carleton College

More Facts

education: Johns Hopkins University, Carleton College, Cornell University, Yale University

awards: John Addison Porter Prize

Childhood & Early Life
Thorstein Veblen was born on July 30, 1857, in Cato, USA, to Kari Bunde and Thomas Veblen.
He started attending school at the age of five. Following school, he attended the nearby Carleton College where he studied philosophy, economics, classical philology, and natural history.
Veblen then moved to Yale University and earned his Doctor of Philosophy from there in 1884.
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Academic Career
Although Thorstein Veblen graduated from Yale in 1884, he remained unemployed for many years. In 1891, he moved to Cornell University to study economics under Professor James Laurence Laughlin.
In 1892, he moved to the University of Chicago where he took an editorial job with Laughlin’s support. There he contributed to the university’s ‘Journal of Political Economy.’
In 1899, Veblen got his first and highly popular book, ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’ published. He then moved to Stanford but soon resigned from there.
With the help of his friend Herbert J. Davenport, he accepted a position at the University of Missouri in 1911. Although he didn’t enjoy working there, he published many popular books, including ‘Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution’ and ‘The Instincts of Worksmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts.’
By 1917, Thorstein Veblen had moved to Washington, D.C. to assist a group to analyze possible peace solutions for World War I. During this time, he published ‘An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace and the Terms of Its Perpetuation’.
He then joined the United States Food Administration. After working for a brief period there, Veblen travelled to New York City to take up the role of an editor with ‘The Dial’. He lost his job the following year when the magazine shifted its orientation.
In the meantime, the economist had become familiar with many other academics, including James Harvey Robinson, John Dewey, and Charles A. Beard. The group went on to found The New School for Social Research (currently The New School).
From 1919 to 1926, Veblen contributed to The New School's development. During this time, he also authored a book titled ‘The Engineers and the Price System’.
Contributions to Social Theory
Thorstein Veblen laid the foundation for studying institutional economics. Unlike his peers who viewed the economy as an autonomous and stable entity, he believed that it was subtly embedded in social institutions.
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He proposed the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ which was defined as spending more money on products than what was their actual worth. This term was coined during the Second Industrial Revolution when a nouveau riche social class emerged.
Thorstein Veblen explained a few new concepts applying to the “leisure class.” According to him, this class engaged in conspicuous consumption to impress the society by showing off their social prestige and power, be it real or perceived.
He also coined the term ‘conspicuous leisure’ for the leisure class. The economist believed that engaging in conspicuous leisure to show off one’s prestige actually indicated lack of pecuniary strength.
According to Thorstein Veblen, the leisure class could live their life leisurely by engaging in symbolic economic involvement instead of practical economic participation. He believed that rather than involving themselves in conspicuous consumption, the high-status or leisure class could live a life of conspicuous leisure as an indicator of high status.
Veblen criticized business enterprises and blamed them to be the cause of many social problems. He identified "business" as people whose primary goal is to make profit for their organization and while trying to keep the profits high, they frequently make efforts to limit production. This, in turn, obstructs the process of the industrial system.
Thorstein Veblen coined the concept of ‘trained incapacity’ in 1933. In sociology, it means a state of affairs where one's abilities function as his shortfalls. It means that one’s past experiences may result in wrong decisions when his circumstances change.
The Veblenian dichotomy was a concept first suggested by the economist in 1899. This concept tells about institutions that are ceremonial and make instituted uses of technology ‘instrumental’.
Family & Personal Life
Thorstein Veblen had eleven siblings, including Andrew Veblen who became the father of one of America's most renowned mathematicians, Oswald Veblen.
The economist was married twice. He reportedly engaged in several extramarital affairs during his lifetime.
During his time at Carleton College, he met Ellen Rolfe who was the niece of the college president. The couple married in 1888 and divorced in 1911. Their marriage didn’t produce any children due to Rolfe’s infertility.
Veblen married his second wife, Ann Bradley Bevans, in 1914. He adopted her two daughters, Becky and Ann. The couple didn’t have any child of their own.
Death & Legacy
Thorstein Veblen died on August 3, 1929, in California, USA, at the age of 72. He is regarded a founder of the American school of institutional economics alongside Wesley Clair Mitchell and John R. Commons.
The economic terms coined by him, “pecuniary emulation” and “conspicuous consumption,” are widely used till date.
The Association for Evolutionary Economics gives the Veblen-Commons award annually to those who contribute to institutional economics.
His theory of economic systems is of great value in studying the new global economy.
Veblen is cited in the works of many feminist economists. He felt that “women in the industrial age remained victims of their barbarian status.” In hindsight, this thought makes him a forerunner of modern feminism.

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