In This Article Thorstein Veblen

  • Introduction
  • Biography
  • General Theoretical Overviews
  • Instinct, Human Nature, and Agency
  • Technology and Social Control
  • Conspicuous Consumption
  • Contemporary Views and Applications of “Conspicuous Consumption”
  • Economics, Business, and Finance

Sociology Thorstein Veblen
by
Sidney Plotkin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0124

Introduction

Thorstein Veblen (b. 1857–d. 1929) ranks among the most original, controversial, and elusive minds in modern social and economic theory. His many books and essays, published between 1884 and 1923, remain a fertile source of critical ideas on the evolution of industrial capitalist society and its predominant institutions. He profoundly influenced development of institutional economics and was among the first theorists to identify advertising, financial manipulation, and stagnation as essential features of a mature business economy. His central emphasis hinged on the evolution of human institutions that reflect both industrious and aggressive dispositions and habits. Veblen believed human beings manifest a complex and changing confluence of contradictory instincts and habits. These underpin human industriousness, creativity, and altruism as well as proclivities toward predation, power, aggression, and conflict. A slow change from peaceable savagery to the barbaric stage of culture led to the rise of ruling classes that used conspicuous symbols of leisure to display and legitimate claims to power and privilege. Contemporary forms of consumption and financial power represent evolved and modernized forms of these ancient habits. Thus modern business elites, for Veblen, distort and waste the benefits of technology in order to slake chronically dissatisfying quests for ever-increasing power and status, signified by wealth. Democracy, under the control of “substantial citizens,” offers little promise of turning industry to the common good. For Veblen, ordinary people have learned too well to emulate the values and habits of their leaders, much to the underlying population’s continuing disadvantage.

Biography

Veblen’s life has become the subject of considerable scholarly debate. Dorfman 1934 remains the only comprehensive biography—however recent scholarship questions his view of Veblen as a socially marginal man, aloof and alienated from American life. Reisman 1953, an oft-cited and essentially psychological study, follows Dorfman closely. Recent additions to the biographical literature, including Edgell 2001 and Jorgensen and Jorgensen 1999, challenge Dorfman’s work. Bartley and Bartley 2012 disputes a number of Dorfman’s conclusions, offering a view of Veblen as a well-rounded, socially adept and industrious individual. Veblen scholars have delved deeply into his early intellectual development, providing insights into the impact of Veblen’s education on his mature outlook. A good example is Camic 2012, a review of the impact of Veblen’s teachers on the latter’s intellectual development. Viano 2012 illuminates Veblen’s time at Cornell, uncovering its significant impact on Veblen’s ideas about evolutionary and historical change. Raymer 2013 traces comparable influences among Veblen’s scientist colleagues at the University of Chicago. Odner 2012 reveals hitherto ignored aspects of Veblen’s Norwegian influences.

  • Bartley, Russell, and Sylvia Bartley. 2012. The physical world of Thorstein Veblen: Washington Island and other intimate spaces. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for an age of crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 99–130. London: Anthem.

    E-mail Citation »

    A description of the physical world Veblen built for himself and his family on Washington Island, Wisconsin, and how it reflects the man, his workmanship, and his social relationships.

  • Camic, Charles. 2012. Schooling for heterodoxy: On the foundations of Thorstein Veblen’s institutional economics. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for an age of crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 173–201. London: Anthem.

    E-mail Citation »

    An informative, detailed exploration of classes and teachers that shaped Veblen’s emerging outlook. This essay will be valuable especially to graduate students and specialists in American intellectual history.

  • Dorfman, Joseph. 1934. Thorstein Veblen and his America. New York: Viking.

    E-mail Citation »

    The most comprehensive biography of Veblen. It is indispensable, readable, and dated. It places Veblen squarely in his historical context, but contemporary scholars have charged that it is flawed by errors and misrepresentations in its account of Veblen’s family background, upbringing, character, and career. Most in dispute is Dorfman’s contention that Veblen exemplified the detached, isolated, socially marginal intellectual.

  • Edgell, Stephen. 2001. Veblen in perspective: His life and thought. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

    E-mail Citation »

    Well-written overview of Veblen’s career and major works, emphasizing his evolutionary theory. It includes substantial reinterpretations, based on the most recent scholarship, of Veblen’s upbringing and career.

  • Jorgensen, Elizabeth Watkins, and Henry Irvin Jorgensen. 1999. Thorstein Veblen, Victorian firebrand. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

    E-mail Citation »

    A highly readable and original reassessment of Veblen’s life, this study emphasizes and offers much new information about Veblen’s personal relationships, focusing on his two marriages.

  • Odner, Kurt. 2012. New perspectives on Thorstein Veblen, the Norwegian. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for an age of crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 89–98. London: Anthem.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important effort by a Norwegian sociologist to uncover hitherto ignored influences that may have shaped Veblen through his family and ethnic background; especially important in this respect is recovery of the Veblen family’s Quaker roots, a suggestive clue to Veblen’s pacifist attitudes and aversion to conflict.

  • Raymer, Emilie J. 2013. A man of his time: Thorstein Veblen and the University of Chicago Darwinists. Journal of the History of Biology 46.4: 669–698.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10739-012-9342-8E-mail Citation »

    Outlines the strong Darwinian current among natural scientists, especially biologists, at the University of Chicago, with whose researchers Veblen had extensive and in some cases, such as Jacques Loeb, close friendships. Skeptical of the social marginality thesis, Raymer stresses that Veblen was actively involved in the intellectual life of the university.

  • Reisman, David. 1953. Thorstein Veblen: A critical interpretation. New York: Scribner.

    E-mail Citation »

    Includes many rewarding sociological insights into Veblen’s theory, including a psychological account of Veblen’s distant relation with his father, which depends heavily on Dorfman’s work.

  • Viano, Francesca Lidia. 2012. Ithaca transfer: Veblen and the historical profession. In Thorstein Veblen: Economics for An Age of Crises. Edited by Erik S. Reinert and Francesca Lidia Viano, 133–171. London: Anthem.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important and original study, which discloses the largely ignored and/or understated influence of Veblen’s brief time of study at Cornell University. Makes the point that Veblen’s education at Cornell included considerable work in history and constitutional law. Technical, but important for graduate students and specialists.

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