Thorstein Veblen

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Veblen, Thorstein

(thôr`stīn vĕb`lən), 1857–1929, American economist and social critic, b. Cato Township, Wis. Of Norwegian parentage, he spent his first 17 years in Norwegian-American farm communities. After studying at Carleton College and at Johns Hopkins, Yale (where he received a Ph.D. in 1884), and Cornell universities, Veblen taught at Chicago, Stanford, and Missouri universities and at the New School for Social Research, New York City. Detached from the dominant American society by his cultural background and temperament, Veblen was able to dissect social and economic institutions and to analyze their psychological bases, thus laying the foundations for the school of institutional economics. His dry, involved, satiric style enabled Veblen to coin famous phrases such as "conspicuous consumption." In his criticism of the price system, his analysis of the business cycle, and his interpretation of the role of technical men in modern society, there are implications for social engineering. Veblen did not achieve popular acclaim in his time but has since exerted significant influence. His works include The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904), Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (1915), The Engineers and the Price System (1921), and Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times (1923). He also translated The Laxdoela Saga (1925) from the Icelandic. Essays in Our Changing Order was published in 1934. Anthologies of his writings have been edited with introductions by W. C. Mitchell (1936) and Max Lerner (1948).


See selected writings ed. by W. C. Mitchell (1936, repr. 1964) and M. Lerner (1950). See also biographies by J. Dorfman (1934, repr. 1966), J. A. Hobson (1936, repr. 1971), and D. F. Dowd (1964); studies by R. V. Teggart (1932, repr. 1966), S. Daugert (1950), D. F. Dowd, ed. (1958), and C. C. Qualey, ed. (1968).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Veblen, Thorstein


Born July 30, 1857, in Manitowok county, Wisconsin; died Aug. 3, 1929, near Menlo Park, California. American economist and sociologist. Professor of economics at Chicago, Stanford, and Missouri universities.

Veblen’s views are contradictory and combine petit-bourgeois utopianism with a critique of certain sides of capitalism. Under the influence of Marx, Veblen considered the basis of social life to be material production. However, having a simplistic understanding of the connection between technology and sociocultural institutions and undervaluing the importance of forms of property, he equated social production only with technology. According to Veblen, the traditions and views of people lag behind changes in the technology of production; the evolution of society is equated basically with the process of the mental adaptation of individuals to these changes.

Considering any society as a productive machine whose component parts are economic institutions, Veblen represented history as the result of a struggle between two basic classes: the businessmen, who are concerned with the sphere of circulation, and the industrialists, who organize material production. Veblen felt the first group to be reactionary. Business, according to Veblen, gives rise to private property, nationalism, and religious ignorance. In some of his works, Veblen proposed to transfer the leadership of the economy and of the entire society to the industrial-technical intelligentsia, to create a “general staff of engineers and technicians who, by exercising political power, could develop production in the interests of society. However, at the end of his life Veblen renounced many of these Utopian ideas, which later were used in technocratic theories. Veblen’s views, especially his theory of the leisure class, the idea of the lag of culture behind technology, and the criticism of certain aspects of American life, exerted an important influence on the development of American non-Marxist sociology.


The Theory of Business Enterprise. New York, 1904.
The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts. New York, 1918.
Essays in Our Changing Order. New York, 1934.
The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York, 1934.
The Place of Science in Modern Civilization and Other Essays … New York, 1961.
The Engineers and the Price System. New York, 1963.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Veblen, Thorstein (Bunde)

(1857–1929) economist, social critic; born in Cato, Wis. Educated at Carleton College, he took his Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1884. Having little use for neoclassical economics, he is best known for his sharp criticism of modern industrial civilization in such works as The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), The Instinct of Workmanship (1914), Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (1915), The Higher Learning in America (1918), and Absentee Ownership (1923). He argued in favor of economics as an evolutionary science, intending an inquiry into the genesis and growth of economic institutions. His writings drew on history, psychology, and anthropology, and he had a tendency to devise colorful phrases such as "conspicuous consumption," "pecuniary emulation," and "ostentatious display." He found it difficult to secure a permanent teaching job—his eccentric teaching style and unorthodox personal life led to his dismissal from both the University of Chicago and Stanford. His last work was practically indecipherable, and despite a small but loyal following, he died in relative obscurity in 1929, but his books and ideas have since continued to be widely cited.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.