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Amartya Sen

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Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen

Amartya Kumar Sen CH (Hon) (born November 3, 1933 in India), is an economist and a winner of the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences (sometimes referred to informally as the "Nobel Prize for Economics") for his work on famine, human development theory, welfare economics, the underlying mechanisms of poverty, and political liberalism.

From 1998 to 2004 he was Master of Trinity College at Cambridge University, becoming the first Asian to head an Oxbridge college. Amartya Sen is also deeply immersed in the debate over globalization. He has given lectures to senior executives of the World Bank but has also shown his commitment to reform from below by becoming honorary president of Oxfam.

Among his many contributions to development economics, Sen has produced pioneering studies of gender inequality, so he always takes care to write "her" rather than "his" when referring to an abstract person.

He is currently the Lamont University Professor at Harvard University. He has also taught at Jadavpur University, the Delhi School of Economics, the London School of Economics, and Oxford University. Amartya Sen’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages.


Education and career

Sen was born in Santiniketan, West Bengal, the University town established by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, another Indian Nobel Prize winner. Tagore is said to have given Amartya Sen his name ("Amartya" meaning "out of the world"). Teaching that grades were not as important as creativity, Tagore helped to mold the intellectual diversity of young Sen.

Sen first studied in India at the school system of Visva-Bharati University, Presidency College, Kolkata and at the Delhi School of Economics before moving to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned a BA in 1956 and then a Ph.D. in 1959. He was also allowed four years to immerse himself in philosophical issues during his stay at Trinity College.

He has taught economics at University of Calcutta, Jadavpur University, Delhi, Oxford (where he was the Drummond Professor of Political Economy and a Fellow of All Souls College), London School of Economics, Harvard and was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, between 1998 and 2004. In January 2004 Sen returned to Harvard.

Important works

Sen's seminal papers in the late sixties and early seventies helped develop the theory of social choice, which first came to prominence in the work by the American economist Kenneth Arrow, who, while working in the fifties at the RAND Corporation, famously proved that all voting rules, be they majority voting or two thirds-majority or status quo, must inevitably conflict some basic democratic norm. Sen's contribution to the literature was to show under what conditions Arrow's Impossibility Theorem would indeed come to pass as well as to extend and enrich the theory of social choice, informed by his interests in history of economic thought and philosophy.

In 1981, Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, a book in which he demonstrated that famine occurs not from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food. In addition to his important work on the causes of famines, Sen's work in the field of development economics has had considerable influence in the formulation of the Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme. This annual publication that ranks countries on a variety of economic and social indicators owes much to the contributions by Sen among other social choice theorists in the area of economic measurement of poverty and inequality.

Sen's revolutionary contribution to development economics and social indicators is the concept of 'capability.' Realizing that top-down development will always trump human rights as long as the definition of terms remains in doubt (is a 'right' something that must be provided or something that simply cannot be taken away?), Sen argues that governments should be measured against the concrete capabilities of their citizens. For instance, in the United States citizens have a hypothetical "right" to vote. To Sen, this concept is fairly empty. He would ask whether all the requisite conditions are met so that the citizen has the capability to vote. These conditions can range from the very broad, such as the availability of education, to the very specific, such as transportation to the polls. Only when such barriers are removed can the citizen truly be said to act out of personal choice. It is up to the individual society to make the list of minimum capabilities guaranteed by that society. For an example of the 'capabilities approach' in practice, see Martha Nussbaum's Women and Human Development.

He wrote a controversial article in the New York Review of Books entitled More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing, analyzing the mortality impact of unequal rights between the genders in the developing world, particularly Asia. Other studies, such as one by Emily Oster, have argued that this is an overestimation.

Sen was a ground-breaker among late twentieth-century economists in his insistence on asking questions of value, long removed from "serious" economic consideration. He mounted one of the few major challenges to the economic model that posited self-interest as the prime motivating factor of human activity. While his line of thinking remains peripheral, there is no question that his work helped to re-prioritize a significant sector of economists and development workers, even the policies of the United Nations.

Welfare economics seeks to evaluate economic policies in terms of their effects on the well-being of the community. Sen, who devoted his career to such issues, was called the “conscience of his profession.” His influential monograph Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970), which addressed problems such as individual rights, majority rule, and the availability of information about individual conditions, inspired researchers to turn their attention to issues of basic welfare. Sen devised methods of measuring poverty that yielded useful information for improving economic conditions for the poor. For instance, his theoretical work on inequality provided an explanation for why there are fewer women than men in some poor countries in spite of the fact that more women than men are born and infant mortality is higher among males. Sen claimed that this skewed ratio results from the better health treatment and childhood opportunities afforded boys in those countries.

Sen's interest in famine stemmed from personal experience. As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, in which three million people perished. This staggering loss of life was unnecessary, Sen later concluded. He believed that there was an adequate food supply in India at the time, but that its distribution was hindered because particular groups of people—in this case rural labourers—lost their jobs and therefore their ability to purchase the food. In his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), Sen revealed that in many cases of famine, food supplies were not significantly reduced. Instead, a number of social and economic factors, such as declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution systems, led to starvation among certain groups in society.

Governments and international organizations handling food crises were influenced by Sen's work. His views encouraged policy makers to pay attention not only to alleviating immediate suffering but also to finding ways to replace the lost income of the poor, as, for example, through public-works projects, and to maintain stable prices for food. A vigorous defender of political freedom, Sen believed that famines do not occur in functioning democracies because their leaders must be more responsive to the demands of the citizens. In order for economic growth to be achieved, he argued, social reforms, such as improvements in education and public health, must precede economic reform.


Sen's father was Dr. Ashutosh Sen and mother Amita Sen who were born at Manikganj, Dhaka. His father taught chemistry at Dhaka University (now in Bangladesh). Dr Sen's first wife was Nabaneeta Dev, with whom he has two children: Antara and Nandana. Their marriage broke up shortly after they went to London in 1971. His second wife was Eva Colorni, with whom he lived from 1973 onwards. She died from stomach cancer quite suddenly in 1985. They had two children, Indrani and Kabir. His present wife is Emma Georgina Rothschild, an economic historian, and an expert on Adam Smith and Fellow of King's College, Cambridge.

Sen brought up his two children on his own. Indrani is a journalist in New York and Kabir teaches music at a school in Boston, and has a rock band called Uncle Trouble.


  • Eisenhower Medal, for Leadership and Service USA, 2000;
  • Companion of Honour, UK, 2000.
  • In 2003, he was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Indian Chamber of Commerce.


  • The absurdity of public-choice theory is captured by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in the following little scenario: "Can you direct me to the railway station?" asks the stranger. "Certainly," says the local, pointing in the opposite direction, towards the post office, "and would you post this letter for me on your way?" "Certainly," says the stranger, resolving to open it to see if it contains anything worth stealing.
--Linda McQuaig, All You Can Eat
  • When referring to sanctions against Burma: they "are more likely to be effective there than almost anywhere else I can imagine" — provided other countries join in.
  • Reducing corruption in developing countries by opening markets would be reason enough to liberalize, even if no other economic benefits materialized.
--Globalisation Institute and used without explicit quotation at Handbook of Economic Freedom
  • No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.
--Democracy as a Universal Value, Journal of Democracy 10.3 (1999) 3-17


Recent works:

  • Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Issues of Our Time), 2006
  • The Argumentative Indian, 2005
  • Rationality and Freedom, 2004
  • Inequality Reexamined, 2004
  • Development As Freedom, 2000
  • Freedom, Rationality, and Social Choice: The Arrow Lectures and Other essays, 2000
  • Reason Before Identity, 1999

Other works:

  • Choice of Techniques, 1960;
  • Collective Choice and Social Welfare, 1970;
  • On Economic Inequality, 1973;
  • Poverty and Famines: an Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, 1981;
  • Hunger and Public Action, jointly edited with Jean Dreze, 1989;
  • India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity, with Jean Dreze, 1995;
  • Commodities and Capabilities, 1999

List of main publications

  • Sen, Amartya, Collective Choice and Social Welfare, San Francisco, Holden-Day, 1970
  • Sen, Amartya, On Economic Inequality, New York, Norton, 1973
  • Sen, Amartya, Poverty and Famines : An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982
  • Sen, Amartya, Choice, Welfare and Measurement, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1982
  • Sen, Amartya, Food Economics and Entitlements, Helsinki, Wider Working Paper 1, 1986
  • Sen, Amartya, On Ethics and Economics, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1987
  • Drèze, Jean and Sen, Amartya, Hunger and Public Action. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989.
  • Sen, Amartya, More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing. New York Review of Books, 1990.
  • Sen, Amartya, Inequality Reexamined, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992
  • Nussbaum, Martha, and Sen, Amartya. The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993
  • Sen, Amartya, Reason Before Identity (The Romanes Lecture for 1998), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0199513899
  • Sen, Amartya, Development as Freedom, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999 Review
  • Sen, Amartya, Rationality and Freedom, Harvard, Harvard Belknap Press, 2002
  • Sen, Amartya, The Argumentative Indian, London: Allen Lane, 2005.
  • Sen, Amartya, Identity and Violence.The Illusion of Destiny New York W&W Norton.

Review 1 Review 2 Other Publications on Google Scholar

External links

Preceded by:
Sir Michael Atiyah
Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
Succeeded by:
Sir Martin Rees
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