Sen, Amartya Kumar

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Amartya Kumar Sen

Amartya Kumar Sen (born 1933) is the 1998 Nobel prize-winner in economics. He is a well-known economic theorist whose works link ethical questions with economic issues. Jeffrey Sachs wrote in Time, "In a lifetime of careful scholarship, Sen has repeatedly returned to a basic theme: even impoverished societies can improve the well-being of their least advantaged members." And although he has spent much of his life outside his native India, his work has always focused on the poverty of India and other developing nations, and how to overcome it.

Born November 3, 1933, in Santiniketan, India, Sen came from an academic family, and actually came into the world on the campus of a small, progressive, coeducational school that was founded by Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was in fact a close friend of Sen's maternal grandfather, who taught Sanskrit, the language of Hindu scriptures, at Santiniketan. Tagore helped to name Sen, whose first name means "immortal" in Sanskrit. Sen's father, Ashutosh, was a professor of chemistry at Dhaka University, and his mother, Amita, was a writer who also performed in many dance-dramas that Tagore wrote; she also edited a literary magazine in Bengal, India.

Life-Changing Events

Sen attended the Santiniketan school, which, he told Jonathan Steele in the Guardian, was very different from both the English-language schools run by the British, who controlled India at the time, and the Indian nationalist schools. Classes were taught in Bengali, a local language, and the school was deliberately international, emphasizing global culture. However, the school, like others in India, had no room for the poor. When Sen was nine, he had an experience that changed his life. A man, who appeared insane, wandered into the school, and some of the students harassed and teased him. Others, like Sen, wanted to help him. He told Steele, "I got chatting to the man and it became quite clear he hadn't eaten for about 40 days."

Before this encounter, Sen had lived a protected life, blissfully unaware of the vast degree of suffering and hunger among India's poor, despite the fact that a major famine was decimating the country, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people from starvation. No one in his family was affected by the famine, and he was shocked and upset by it. His grandfather gave Sen a small cigarette tin and said he could fill it with rice and give the rice away, but he could only give away one tinful per family. Sen noted at the time that the effects of the famine depended on social class: only the poor seemed affected, and the wealthier classes had plenty to eat. This memory of widespread death and devastation in the midst of plenty stayed with Sen, and he became preoccupied with issues of poverty and hunger and has continued to be so throughout his career. He later wrote, "Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat."

Several decades later, in conducting a study of that famine and others in the Sahel, Ethiopia, and China, he noted that the overall production of food in Bengal in 1943, when the famine occurred, was not any lower than production in 1941, when there was no famine. The famine was not caused by a food shortage, but by the fact that the wages paid to poor laborers had not kept up with the rate of inflation, so that poor laborers simply could not afford to buy food even though it was plentiful in the market.

During his teens, Sen received another shock when India's richly diverse culture, made up of many religions and ethnic groups, degenerated into sectarian violence. People began identifying themselves as Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs, instead of as simply Indian, and killing rampages of one group against another began to occur. One afternoon at Sen's home, a man ran through the gate, bleeding and screaming. Sen's father took him to the hospital. It turned out that the man was a Muslim laborer who had been attacked by Hindus when he began working in a Hindu area in order to make money to buy food for his family. As with the earlier famine, Sen thought deeply about this event, and decided that economic constraints made people vulnerable to serious violations of their rights.

Chose to Become an Economist

By this time, Sen knew that he wanted to follow the path of many members of his family and become an academic. However, he was not sure what he wanted to study, and considered Sanskrit, mathematics, and physics before choosing economics. He attended the Presidency College in Calcutta. At the time, the school was fired up with hot political debates; Sen, like his family, tended to lean toward the left in politics, but, as he told Steele, "I could not develop enough enthusiasm to join any political party." This leeriness of joining any collective group was a trait that would remain with him for his entire life. He was leery of his leftist friends, because although they were committed to egalitarianism, they were not open to new ideas, and were not politically tolerant. He told Steele, "The left didn't take seriously the disastrous lack of democracy in Communist countries." This admiration of democracy remained with him, and he would later point out that no famine had ever occurred in a country with a free press and regular elections.

When Sen was 19, he went to Cambridge, England to study economics at Trinity College. The college was an oasis of tolerance and political diversity, which Sen found refreshing. He felt free to learn from economists as diverse and contradictory as Karl Marx and Adam Smith, as well as many others, without being forced to identify himself as a follower of any one thinker.

In 1960, Sen married Nabaneeta Dev, whom he had met in India. She came to England in 1953, and he proposed to her soon after; they later had two daughters, Antara and Nandana. Antara became a journalist and editor of a literary and political magazine in Delhi, India; Nandana became an actress and film director in New York and Bombay, India.

In 1970, Sen published a groundbreaking book, Collective Choice and Social Welfare, which examined the idea held by free-market economists that there was no point in the government interfering in public welfare, and the idea held by statists, who believed that the government should intervene on behalf of the people. Sen argued that it was not necessary to come up with a perfect solution to problems of social welfare, but that poorer and less-assertive citizens should not be ignored.

Sen had developed cancer of the mouth as an undergraduate, and at the time, had been treated with radiation. In 1971, his doctor told him the cancer had returned, and after a fearful and difficult period, this diagnosis turned out to be wrong. However, Sen went through other problems that year when his wife left him. Her career was taking her on another path, and she was tired of following him to the various university campuses where he taught. In addition, according to Steele, she described him as "a good economist but a bad money manager" and "a clumsy father until the children grew old enough to be his students."

Won Nobel Prize in Economics

Sen had married his second wife, Eva Colorni, an Italian economist, in 1978, but she died of cancer in 1985, leaving him with a ten-year-old daughter, Indrani, and an eight-year-old son, Kabir. Sen needed both a change of scene and more money to support his family, so he left England and went to Harvard University, where he worked on the United Nations' Human Development Index. The Index was intended to counter the World Bank's system of ranking countries by such cold factors as savings rates and gross national product; it used more humanitarian indicators. According to Steele, it has since become "the most authoritative international source of welfare comparisons between countries."

In 1988, Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on the economics of famine. As he had noted during his childhood, famine did not necessarily result from a shortage of food, but from the fact that certain classes of people simply could not afford to buy it. Instead of traditional programs that emphasized getting more food to the famine-stricken areas, Sen noted that cash relief or public works programs might be more effective in restoring people's ability to obtain food. As Alejandro Reuss wrote in Dollars and Sense, "Such policies can kick the market into reverse, causing the private food trade to bring food to those in danger, rather than take it away." And Jeffrey Sachs wrote in Time, "In a world in which 1.5 billion people subsist on less than $1 a day, this Nobel Prize can be not just a celebration of a wonderful scholar but also a clarion call to attend to the urgent needs of the poor."

After winning the Nobel Prize, Sen was widely honored in India, and was given the prestigious Bharat Rama ("Jewel of India") prize, India's highest civilian award. In keeping with his personal values, he used his Nobel money to set up a trust fund to pay for initiatives to help the poor in India and Bangladesh. The public response to his new fame was sometimes overwhelming; some people began calling him "the Mother Teresa of Economics," and an Independent writer reported that shortly after receiving the prize, Sen was walking in Santiniketan when a man came up and put a pen in his hand. Sen, thinking the man wanted him to sign a copy of one of his books, asked the man, "Where is the book?" The man replied, "I do not want your autograph, sir. Just touch the pen and bless it, and I am sure my son will pass his exam."

In addition to his famine studies, Sen is also known for his studies of gender inequalities. He noted that even within classes, some groups are more in danger of famine than others. For example, during the early stages of famine, children are usually given more food, but the elderly are often neglected, and adult men receive more food than adult women. Even in times without famine, in much of the world, women and girls had higher mortality rates than men and boys, because they often received less food and medical care. Sen has also been sharply critical of the Indian government for not working harder to eliminate illiteracy or mass poverty among its citizens.

In 1991, Sen married Emma Rothschild, an economic historian. He taught at Trinity College in Cambridge, England as Master for six years. In January 2004, he went back to his previous position at Harvard as Lamont University Professor of Economics and Philosophy. As quoted from the Asia Africa Intelligence Wire Sen said, "I shall still remain a Fellow of Trinity … I intend to continue being active as a member of the Trinity community."

Of Sen's life and work, Steele quoted professor of economics at Oxford Sudhir Anand, who said, "He's very concerned about justice. He's made major contributions not only in measuring poverty but understanding it. To him, poverty is the lack of capability to function, so reducing it is related to positive freedom. What's important to people is to be able to do and be."


Biography Resource Center, Gale Group, 2003.

Debrett's People of Today, Debrett's Peerage, Ltd., 2004.


Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, October 30, 2002.

Dollars and Sense, January-February, 1999.

Europe Intelligence Wire, October 29, 2002.

Guardian (London, England), March 31, 2001.

Independent (London, England), January 24, 1999.

PTI-The Press Trust of India Ltd., December 21, 2003.

Time, October 26, 1988.

Wilson Quarterly, summer, 2001.

Sen, Amartya Kumar

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Sen, Amartya Kumar 1933-


Amartya Kumar Sen was born November 3, 1933, in Santiniketan, India. He is a central figure in modern welfare economics, social choice, and development economics. Equal parts philosopher and economist, Sen is unique among modern economists in insisting on the centrality of values and ethics. His most influential works include theoretical contributions to social choice theory, theories of inequality, and the mechanisms underlying poverty.

Sens early arguments questioned the foundational assumptions of the mainstream approach to social welfare analysis. In 1970, two seminal works greatly expanded social choice theory (the study of the aggregation of individual preferences to form a collective choice). In Collective Choice and Social Welfare, Sen showed that Arrows impossibility theorem (the idea that no voting system meets a desired set of criteria when there are three or more choices) collapses once interpersonal comparisons are allowed. He also established the feasibility of several approaches to constructive social decisions. In The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal, he showed that the critical assumption of pareto optimality (an allocation of resources in which no one can be made better off without making someone else worse off) is not valueneutral, as previously supposed. Instead, it conflicts with other fundamental liberal norms, particularly the importance of liberty in the personal domain. Later, in Rational Fools (1977), he contested the narrow behavioral assumption that rationality is interchangeable with self-interest, showing it to be an inadequate characterization of human motivation.

These advances in social choice theory allowed for the construction of several non-paretian criteria for social welfare functions. Sens own explorations (with various authors) were in the areas of inequality, poverty, and distribution-adjusted national income measures. In his explorations of distributive justice and poverty, Sen developed the use of entitlement analysis and the capability approach to development. In Poverty and Famines (1981), he presented a theory of famine causation that concentrated on a collapse of peoples entitlements (the commodities that different persons can acquire), and he investigated different economic processes that can lead to famines, arguing that they need not necessarily connect with a low or decreasing food supply. He illustrated this theory with detailed case studies of many actual famines, including the Bengal famine of 1943 and the Ethiopian famine of 1973 and 1974.

For Sen, development is seen as the expansion of capabilities and associated human functionings. Capabilities are the constituent elements of development, comprising wide-ranging substantive freedoms such as the ability to feed oneself or to participate in economic and political activities. Functionings are the actual things humans may wish to do or be. Poverty, therefore, is not simply the deprivation of income, but a deprivation in capabilities.

The growth of additional practical indicators of social welfare and advances in understanding capabilities contributed to alternative methodologies to evaluate development. A direct result of this was the genesis of the United Nations Human Development Report. Sen has also been at the forefront of incorporating discussion of gender inequalities and the role of women in development. In Missing Women (1992), he addressed the role of gender inequalities in mortality in parts of the developing world. This was supplemented by a 2003 study of the new phenomenon of selective abortion of female fetuses.

Sen has taught in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and he is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics.


Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1970. Collective Choice and Social Welfare. San Francisco: Holden Day.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1970. The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal. Journal of Political Economy 78 (1): 152177.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1973. On Economic Inequality. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1973. On the Development of Basic Income Indicators to Supplement the GNP Measure. United Nations Bulletin for Asia and the Far East 24 (23): 111.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1976. Poverty, an Ordinal Approach to Measurement. Econometrica 44 (2): 219223.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1976. Real National Income. Review of Economic Studies 43: 1939.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1977. Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory. Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (4): 317344.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1979. The Welfare Basis of Real Income Comparisons: A Survey. Journal of Economic Literature 17 (1): 140.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1981. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1983. Poor, Relatively Speaking. Oxford Economic Papers 35 (2): 153169.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1985. Commodities and Capabilities. Amsterdam: North Holland.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1992. Inequality Reexamined. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1992. Missing Women. British Medical Journal 304 (6827): 587588.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 2003. Missing Women Revisited. British Medical Journal 327.

Arjun Jayadev