Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen’s Early Life

Amartya Sen (b. 1933) was born in the small town of Shantiniketan, north of Calcutta (Kolkata), in what was then British India and is now the Indian state of West Bengal.

His family, however, was of Hindi, not Bengali, cultural origin. They had moved to Shantiniketan from Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh.

Sen’s father, Ashutosh Sen, was a professor of chemistry, who had taught at Dhaka University. Amartya Sen’s mother was named Amita Sen. Her father was the eminent Sanskritist and historian, Kshitimohan (K.M.) Sen.

A bit of background is necessary to understand how it came to pass that Amartya Sen was born at Shantiniketan.

K.M. Sen was a fervent follower of the highly distinguished Bengali poet, author, and 1913 Nobel literature laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore’s father, the philosopher and prominent Hindu religious reformer, Debendranath Tagore, had founded Shantiniketan in the late nineteenth century as a model “village,” combining the manual arts with the pursuit of scholarship, the arts, and the sciences.

In 1901, Rabindranath Tagore moved from Calcutta to Shantiniketan to found a school there. After his father’s death in 1905, Rabindranath took over direction of the entire experimental community.

Early in the twentieth century, the younger Tagore recruited his young disciple, K.M. Sen, to teach at the Shantiniketan school. Some years later, K.M. Sen recruited his son-in-law, Ashutosh Sen, to teach at the school, as well.

It was the venerable Rabindranath Tagore who in 1933 gave the newborn, future-world-famous economist the name Amartya, which means “immortal” in Sanskrit.

Amartya Sen’s Education

For his formal early education, in 1940, the young Amartya Sen was initially sent to a Catholic boarding school, St Gregory’s School, in Dhaka. However, after only one year, he returned to Patha Bhavana, the school at Shantiniketan.

In 1951, Sen attended Presidency College in Calcutta. He received his bachelor’s degree with honors in economics, with a minor in mathematics, from that institution in 1953.

That same year, Sen traveled to the UK, where he entered Trinity College, Cambridge. Two years later, in 1955, he received a “First Class” bachelor’s degree in economics—his second such degree—from Trinity.

In 1959, Sen received his PhD in economics from Cambridge University. He wrote his dissertation, The Choice of Techniques,” under the direction of Joan Robinson, one of the founders of the school of economic thought that later became known as “post-Keynesianism.” Sen’s dissertation became his first publication the following year.

Amartya Sen’s Career

Even before officially obtaining his doctoral degree from Cambridge, Sen was recruited in 1956 by the newly created Jadavpur University in Calcutta to help to start up and to lead the school’s Department of Economics. He served in that position for two years.

In 1957, Sen obtained a fellowship from Cambridge, which allowed him great freedom in reading and conducting his own research. It was at this time that he developed more fully his long-standing interest in philosophy.

During this time, Sen obtained a one-year visiting fellowship at MIT in the US, for the 1960–1961 academic year. Afterwards, he returned to Trinity College for two more years.

In 1963, Sen returned to India once more, this time to take up a post as Professor of Economics at the University of Delhi, where he taught until 1971.

That year, Sen returned to the UK, where he accepted a position at the prestigious London School of Economics, where he was based until 1977.

That same year, 1977, Sen moved to Oxford University, where he taught for the next decade, first as a Fellow of Nuffield College, and later as a Fellow of All Souls College.

In 1987, Sen moved to Harvard University in the US, where he taught until 1998. Beginning in 1989, he also held the status of Harvard Senior Fellow.

In 1998, Sen was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

In 2003, Sen returned to Harvard, where he is currently the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy.

In 1987, Sen was invited by the University of Utah to deliver the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. His lectures were later published as a book under the title, The Standard of Living (see “Amartya Sen’s Principal Works,” below).

In 1998, Sen was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. His Nobel Lecture, entitled “The Possibility of Social Choice,” was published the following year in the American Economic Review (see below for details).

Amartya Sen’s Ideas

Sen has made major contributions to welfare and development economics at both the empirical and theoretical levels.

He is most closely associated with three outstanding accomplishments:

  • The technical analysis of “social choice theory”—how individual choices combine into collective choices
  • The “capability approach”—a form of development economics which redirects attention away from individuals’ abstract rights to their physical capabilities
  • The cause of faminesthe historically based thesis that famines result mainly from government decisions about resource distribution, not local circumstances

Sen’s theoretical work has led to improved measures of poverty, while his empirical work on the cause of famines has been widely accepted and now influences government decision-making around the globe.

But perhaps Sen’s greatest impact has been with his work—done partly in collaboration with the distinguished philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum—on shifting the thinking of development economists from abstract human rights to the concrete welfare of individuals living in poverty as measured in terms of their physical capabilities under the conditions in which they live and work.

It is in the articulation of the capability approach that Sen’s background in philosophy has most clearly impacted his thinking as an economist.

Amartya Sen’s Principal Works

1. Works Authored or Co-authored by Amartya Sen

Choice of Techniques: An Aspect of the Theory of Planned Economic Development(1960).

Collective Choice and Social Welfare(1970; expanded edition, 2017).

On Economic Inequality (1973; expanded edition, 1997).

Employment, Technology and Development (1975).

Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981).

Choice, Welfare, and Measurement (1982).

Resources, Values, and Development (1984).

On Ethics and Economic (1987).

The Standard of Living (with rejoinders by Bernard Williams and others), edited by Geoffrey Hawthorne (1987).

Hunger and Public Action, with Jean Drèze (1990).

Inequality Reexamined (1992).

The Possibility of Social Choice,” American Economic Review, 89: 349–378 (1999).

Development as Freedom (1999).

India: Development and Participation, with Jean Drèze (2002).

Rationality and Freedom (2003).

The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (2005).

Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (2006).

The Idea of Justice (2009).

An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, with Jean Drèze (2013).

The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, with Eric Maskin (2014).

The Country of First Boys and Other Essays (published in the UK as Sunlight and Other Fears) (2014).

Home in the World: A Memoir (2021).

2. Books Co-edited by Amartya Sen

Utilitarianism and Beyond, with Bernard Williams (1982).

The Political Economy of Hunger: Volume 1: Entitlement and Well-Being, with Jean Drèze (1991).

The Political Economy of Hunger: Volume 2: Famine Prevention, with Jean Drèze (1991).

The Political Economy of Hunger: Volume 3: Endemic Hunger, with Jean Drèze (1991).

The Quality of Life, with Martha C. Nussbaum (1993).

India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity, with Jean Drèze (1995).

Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives, with Jean Drèze (1997).

Public Health, Ethics, and Equity, with Sudhir Anand and Fabienne Peter (2005).

Peace and Democratic Society (2011).

Selected Books about Amartya Sen and the Capability Approach

Chiappero-Martinetti, Enrica, Siddiqur Osmani, and Mozaffar Qizilbash, eds., The Cambridge Handbook of the Capability Approach (2021).

Clark, David Alexander, Mario Biggeri, and Alexandre Apsan Frediani, eds., The Capability Approach, Empowerment and Participation: Concepts, Methods and Applications (2019).

Comim, Flavio, Mozaffar Qizilbash, and Sabina Alkire, eds., The Capability Approach: Concepts, Measures and Applications (2008).

Dalziel, Paul, Caroline Saunders, and Joe Saunders, eds., Wellbeing Economics: The Capabilities Approach to Prosperity (2018).

Deneulin, Séverine and Lila Shahani, An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach: Freedom and Agency (2009).

Gangas, Spiro, Sociological Theory and the Capability Approach (2019).

Hamilton, Lawrence, Amartya Sen (2019).

Ibrahim, Solava and Meera Tiwari, eds., The Capability Approach: From Theory to Practice (2014).

Klein, Elise, Amartya Sen’s Inequality Re-Examined (2018).

Kuklys, Wiebke, Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach: Theoretical Insights and Empirical Applications(2005).

Morris, Christopher W., Amartya Sen (2009).

Nussbaum, Martha C., Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (2011).

Robeyns, Ingrid, Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice: The Capability Approach Re-Examined (2017).