Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857-1929), American sociologist and social critic, was born in Cato, Wisconsin, and brought up on subsistence farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota. His parents had migrated to the United States in 1847 from rural Norway; Veblen was the sixth of 12 children.
In that newly settled frontier region the Norwegian immigrants were divided from the Yankee upper class by religious, linguistic, and other cultural barriers. The first-generation immigrants held tenaciously to their ancestral peasant ways. Veblen’s father, for example, did not learn English. Even in college, Veblen and his brother Andrew— the first members of the family to attain higher education—were handicapped by lingering difficulties with English, their second language. Their generation tended to be “marginal”—oriented partly to the Yankee and partly to the Norwegian way of life and skeptical of both. In later years Veblen looked upon this kind of skeptical margi-nality as a stimulus to intellectual creativity, especially among Jews (Essays in Our Changing Order, p. 219). Veblen’s own alienation was reinforced by early encounters with the mutual hostility of townspeople and farmers.
In 1880 Veblen graduated from Carleton College, Minnesota. After one term at Johns Hopkins, he took his PH.D. in philosophy at Yale in 1884. Failing to find a job because of his agnosticism, he returned to the Minnesota countryside for seven years of reading and rustication. Finally, in 1891, wearing a coonskin cap, he enrolled as a graduate student in economics at Cornell, under J. Laurence Laughlin, who took Veblen with him when he moved to the University of Chicago the following year.
Fourteen years on the Chicago faculty were followed by three at Stanford, from 1906 to 1909. He was unemployed in 1910/1911 and then went to the University of Missouri for seven years. In 1918, he left the academic profession—his tenure therein had always been somewhat precarious because of his unorthodox classroom performance and his domestic difficulties—for a brief period of wartime government service, occasional teaching at the New School for Social Research, in New York, and writing. He retired to a California cabin in 1926 and died there three years later in obscurity and poverty.
The American Midwest, during Veblen’s youth, was the scene of repeated agrarian revolts and urban labor struggles. Many people were receptive to the reformist ideas of Henry George and Edward Bellamy, and scathing attacks on the great corporations by social critics like Henry Lloyd and Upton Sinclair were widely applauded. It was an age of head-on confrontations. But enthusiasm for Populism, radical unionism, Debs’s brand of socialism, and for other left-leaning movements was, in Veblen’s adult years, gradually eclipsed by increasing support for business and imperialist values. The outcome, which marked a major turning point in American history, was largely settled by 1920, at the expense of the radical protest movements; and Veblen, who was keenly interested in and sympathetic toward these movements, perceived far more clearly than most of his contemporaries the decisiveness of the triumph of business civilization. The study of that great development and of some responses to it became Veblen’s life work. This is not to say that Veblen thought that the nature of change was reducible to the clash of business values with protest movements. Instead, he believed it hinged on the long-run, indirect, and often “opaque” interactions of both business values and various institutional norms with the “machine process” (which included, among other key elements, technology).
Veblen took no direct part in any social movement. Although basically critical of modern capitalist institutions and culture, he claimed to be a detached observer, above the battle. His ironic wit did not spare his friends; if he did not chastise them as much as he did his foes, he did so enough to support plausibly his claim to objectivity. His general orientation, of course, was unmistakably leftward, and his career is a minor chapter in the history of American radicalism.
Main intellectual influences. Although Veblen’s major works in the social sciences were produced over four decades and cover a wide variety of concrete topics, their central ideas show a high degree of consistency. This unity derives from the fact that three important intellectual strands run through all of Veblen’s work: Darwinian evolutionism, Utopian anarchism, and Marxism, each of which Veblen developed in an original way.
The element in Darwinism that especially influenced Veblen was its implication that individuals have little or no control over the forces of change. His focus on this aspect of historical development helped to correct the overemphasis of the classical economists and of Marx on the role of rational decisions in social life. However, unlike many social scientists of the time, including William Graham Sumner, his own teacher at Yale, Veblen implicitly denied the relevance for social science of such other key Darwinian concepts as natural selection, the struggle for existence, and the survival of the fittest. Social Darwinism, he believed, tended only to reinforce capitalist values.
Somewhat more important in Veblen’s work than evolutionism was the strand of Utopian anarchism. His vague picture of the prehistoric “savage state,” in effect a primeval golden age, was based on the conjectural evolutionary theories of the anthropologist L. H. Morgan and on Veblen’s own interpretation of anthropological and archeological reports. This idyllic era was characterized by the absence of class hierarchies, states, and organized warfare. By implication Veblen judged social institutions to be “evil” and human instincts to be “good.” (More will be said below about his conception of instincts.) Veblen’s own ideal, never openly professed, seems to have been the irreverent “masterless man,” living frugally but independently in small rural communities too poor to support any overlords.
Certain of Veblen’s core ideas are strikingly similar to those of Marx, not in terminology but in content. The principal similarities are an emphasis on class and on economic and property institutions as keys to historical change, and the relegation of ideological elements to secondary importance; a belief in the proposition that crises of overproduction are inherent in capitalist economies; a conception of class structure as resting primarily on two mutually antagonistic groups of occupations (in Veblen’s case, these two groups consisted of business owners and industrial producers); a view of the modern state as “an executive committee for businessmen” and a conviction that states are bound to become involved in militarism and war. Unlike the Marxists, Veblen made little use of such concepts as surplus value, capital accumulation as a stimulus to imperialism, and the inevitability of socialism. Finally, he usually relied on vaguely defined sociological and psychological mechanisms to explain major social changes, rather than on the kind of tightly reasoned economic analyses used by Marx.
Analytical categories. Veblen analyzed human behavior primarily in terms of instincts and habits, and social processes in terms of culture lag.
He distinguished three “instincts,” all of which he considered benevolent and all of which, in fact, he used as norms: the parental bent, a benevolent feeling toward kin and fellowman; the instinct or sense of workmanship, a desire to maximize production of goods and services and to do a job well for its own sake; and idle curiosity, the most difficult of the three to define. Two interpretations of idle curiosity seem possible. The usual one is that it refers to the norm of disinterested pursuit of scientific knowledge, i.e., the pursuit of such knowledge for its own sake. But it may also be argued that Veblen was aware of the extent to which socioeconomic institutions mold knowledge and ideologies and that he anticipated—however awkwardly—our latter-day sociology of knowledge (Davis 1957).
The greater part of human behavior was attributed by Veblen to habit. The more persistent among the patterns of “use and wont” he designated loosely as social institutions. Veblen never classified institutions systematically. Rather, he characterized them broadly by such terms as “patterns of pecuniary emulation” or “patterns of conspicuous consumption” (which we would now call status competition) or, again, as “patterns for the maintenance of national integrity” (i.e., nationalism) or “patterns for the maintenance of the price system” (capitalism). Habits or institutions, unlike instincts, were according to Veblen far from benevolent. Indeed, he maintained that all social institutions have three properties in common: they are predatory; they are wasteful; and they are survivals from earlier historical epochs. Briefly, they are obstacles to Utopia.
The concept of culture lag, which Veblen used to analyze social processes, has been widely used by American sociologists to account both for social change and social problems. Change stems mainly from science and technology, and problems are due to the failure of institutions and organizations to keep pace. For example, factories were introduced in Western nations several decades before the institutional arrangements—safety rules, child-labor laws, and retirement pensions—needed to round out the industrialization process were established. On a broader scale, Veblen often contrasted the still-surviving eighteenth-century institutional framework of private property and national sovereignty with the twentieth-century “machine process” of industrial production, which was severely restricted, he argued, by its archaic eighteenth-century institutional context. In his later, more outspoken writings Veblen frequently spoke of the “triumph of imbecile institutions.”
The culture-lag approach has been one of the master concepts of modern social analysis. The realization that technologies may sometimes change faster than the organizational patterns and institutional norms which control their application is a germinal insight. However, Veblen did not adequately recognize that the concept of culture lag may give undue weight to factors of ignorance and drift, at the expense of vested-interest rationality, or that technology may not always change first. Thus, in his books on Germany (1915) and peace (1917) Veblen could readily show the waste created by the chauvinism and colonialism of the Great Powers, but he could not as clearly depict the organic relationship between capitalism, imperialism, and war; hence his interpretation of World War i as a clash between Germany’s obsolete yet still potent feudal dynasticism and England’s “free institutions,” instead of as an inevitable collision between two inherently expanding capitalistic imperialisms.
Veblen did not originate the important yet onesided culture-lag approach; the idea is central in Marx and in the emphasis on “survivals” evident in the Darwinian and other evolutionary traditions in social science. However, Veblen’s work did give considerable impetus to a culture-lag perspective, although it was left to W. F. Ogburn and others to develop the concept explicitly.
Social and economic analysis. Veblen’s primary interest was in the analysis of latter-day industrial society, but characteristically he took a long historical view. Thus, in his Instinct of Workmanship (1914) he attempted a social-evolutionary analysis of stages preceding the emergence of modern society.
He divided social evolution into two great phases; the prehistoric “savage state” and the “predatory society.” Except for the unduly idyllic description of the former phase, Veblen’s outlines of social evolution roughly parallel those of such later authorities as V. Gordon Childe and Leslie White. He saw the snail-like advance of technology ultimately producing, in the hunting-and-gathering economy of the savage state, an economic surplus, which was decisively enlarged by the appearance of agriculture. Society then took on a modern cast, with the development of property, classes, the state, priesthoods, and war. Predatory society, or historic times, has had two main subdivisions, according to Veblen: barbarism, wherein coercion was exercised directly by military and priestly agencies; and pecuniary times, the postmedieval age, wherein exploitation was effected by roundabout, semipeaceable methods. In turn, pecuniary society may be subdivided into the handicraft era (early modern Western times) and the machine age (the last two centuries). Veblen emphasized the wasteful nature of pecuniary institutions and their intrinsic bent toward crisis and change.
Veblen modified the Marxist analysis of machineage society, stressing the key importance of the conflict between “business” (profit-seeking ownership) and “industry” (maximum production of goods and services). He described production as a seamless web of specialized technological processes. The conflict between business and industry arises because, although the “industrial arts” have been developed over centuries by the whole community and are its proper heritage, they have come to be controlled by a few owners, in whose interest it is to restrict output in order to maximize profit. Welfare, to Veblen, meant maximum output at lowest cost—such is the spirit of industry. The spirit of business, on the other hand, he defined as sabotage and salesmanship, “charging what the traffic will bear.”
It is business management, according to Veblen, that is responsible for depressions. These are inherent in the profit-oriented control of competitive industrial enterprises, because new and more efficient firms (that is, efficient in profit making) force the liquidation of older ones. Moreover, the efforts of profit-oriented business to counteract depressions can only have undesirable consequences. Veblen predicted such consequences as increased mergers, the expansion of salesmanship, and “wasteful” consumption by the government and by the “kept classes.”
The dominance of business values, said Veblen, extends over many areas of American life, including higher education. His Higher Learning in America (1918) was a searing analysis of the effects of pecuniary canons upon university organization, administration, teaching, and research. In general, however, Veblen’s main focus throughout his life was on the development of American social and economic institutions in their international setting. Most of his major works have that sweeping outlook: two on the American economy (1904; 1923); the books on Germany (1915) and on peace (1917); and many of the essays in his collected papers, in The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation and the posthumously published Essays in Our Changing Order. Also in these two volumes are his occasional forays into technical economic theory. But Veblen was much more interested in the social milieu and the consequences of economic factors in modern industrial society than in abstract economic analysis. Perhaps the best short introduction to his leading ideas on social change, business versus industry, nationalism, and other modern developments is the small book called The Vested Interests and the Common Man (1919c).
By far the best known of Veblen’s work is his first book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) —the only one that became popular during his lifetime. This treatise is essentially an analysis of the latent functions of “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste” as symbols of upper-class status and as competitive methods of enhancing individual prestige. Veblen’s term “conspicuous consumption” has become part of everyday language. Although most relevant to the gilded age in which he wrote the book, the work is also based on many examples from leisure-class behavior in barbarian and feudal times. Most of the key concepts of Veblen’s thought are either present or clearly foreshadowed in The Theory of the Leisure Class—for example, his distinction between industrial and pecuniary pursuits; his concept of evolutionary stages; his definition of certain cultural traits as survivals, with consequent implications for the importance of culture lag; his nostalgic bias for the simple, preindustrial life. Although some of his evolutionary history and anthropology was conjectural and although racial theorizing was a recurrent vein in his earlier works, Veblen’s chief method was strikingly modern. He practiced, without so naming it, the analysis of latent or unintended functions of social phenomena. Veblen was never a methodologist; he was always concerned with substantive theories about empirical groups, structures, and processes. That is why commentators see his works both as exposes and as objective expositions.
Veblen believed that although business had acquired a dominant position in society since the eighteenth century, in the long run the incompatibility of business and industry would undermine that position. The real threat to profit-oriented business (based on eighteenth-century canons of mutual right) came not from the business cycle but from the impersonal, skeptical, matter-of-fact habits of thought engendered by the twentieth-century machine process. These would eventually erode the institutions necessary to business, such as nationalism, religious observance, and private ownership. The very tendency of the machine technology toward ever greater productivity seemed to Veblen increasingly likely to shatter the eighteenth-century institutional bonds that restricted output and bent it to wasteful nationalistic and class ends.
What then? Two inconsistent answers were advanced by Veblen. The more optimistic one, which he stressed less, but which occurred more prominently in his earlier work, was that the machine process, through its promise of unlimited abundance for all, might triumph over the obstacles to welfare created by profit-oriented business. The other answer, stressed more heavily, especially in his later writings (and also stressed in Dorfman’s classic biography, 1934) was the likelihood of a reversion to predatory, coercive barbarism. In what is perhaps his greatest book, Absentee Ownership (1923), he concluded that the forces of businessas-usual and of national integrity were steadily coalescing “by night and cloud” and that the continued supremacy of business nationalism would probably lead to a renewal of the servile despotism characteristic of earlier epochs. As he grew older, Veblen became increasingly doubtful that the “underlying population” could shake off its conventional faith in “business principles” and nationalism and come through “alive and fit to live.” The social consequences in America of World War i only served to confirm Veblen’s pessimism. The influence of the Machiavellian press, controlled as it was by vested interests, was being reinforced, he believed, by the influential weight of traditional values and by the unplanned drift of large social forces. “And the common man pays the cost and swells with pride” (1919c, p. 137).
Influence. Veblen founded no school. He influenced many scholars and public officials (often former students), but nearly always they differed from him more than they resembled him. Even so, those whose work in some respect touched his constituted a large portion of the intellectual leaders of two generations.
Among academic economists may be mentioned such diverse personalities as H. J. Davenport, Joseph Dorfman, and Walter Stewart. W. C. Mitchell, a pioneer in the field of business-cycle history and theory, often acknowledged his indebtedness to Veblen, his onetime teacher at Chicago. (In 1920 Mitchell founded the National Bureau of Economic Research; Stewart later created the Federal Reserve index of industrial production.) In labor economics Robert Hoxie, a former student, and Carleton Parker were both strongly influenced by Veblen. Some writers have grouped Veblen, Mitchell, and J. R. Commons together as “institutional economists,” along with Clarence Ayres, Sumner Slichter, and a handful of others. A view of these men as members of a school, however, would be difficult to defend.
When the New School for Social Research was founded in 1919, Veblen was one of the “big four” —along with Dewey, Robinson, and Mitchell—who lectured there intermittently for two or three years. Early workers in consumer economics (Hazel Kyrk, Theresa McMahon) owed something to Veblen. A stronger Veblen impress is discernible in the writings of Robert Brady, A. A. Berle, and R. A. Gordon on modern corporate development. At least one minor social movement was a direct heir of certain of Veblen’s ideas, although Veblen carefully avoided participation in that enterprise. This was technocracy, a movement founded about 1920 with the aim of maximizing engineering (i.e., productive) efficiency in modern society.
Veblen’s influence has been less pervasive among sociologists than among economists, although Ogburn developed the concept of culture lag in Social Change in 1922. During the 1930s Veblen’s germinal views on waste and lag reached a wide public through the popular books of Stuart Chase. About the same time, several leading legal and academic minds reflected Veblenian themes—especially Thurman Arnold, Felix Frankfurter, and J. Laurence Laughlin. The same can be said of a number of New Deal public administrators— Henry Wallace, R. G. Tugwell, Isador Lubin, and others. Several younger academics, like Max Lerner and David Riesman, have learned from Veblen. In the era after World War n it seems to have been C. Wright Mills who spoke the loudest in Veblen’s accents, although Mills was far more outspoken as a social critic than Veblen.
While most of the aforementioned persons disagreed with Veblen more often than they agreed with him, all of them had a penchant for a long, broad view of their several fields and for a more or less skeptical attitude toward “establishments.” In these respects, rather than in specific thought systems, they were spiritual followers of Veblen.
Someone once said that Veblen was the last man who knew everything. His interest ranged over several disciplines and long periods of time. Several writers have compared him to Keynes and Schumpeter. He was one of the few Americans who sensed that victory in World War i might prove to be an adverse turning point in American history. American intervention, wrote Veblen bitterly in 1922, had saved the war system. Indeed, his essays on international relations in the early 1920s are still meaningful for the years following World War n. He remains a source of astonishingly relevant insights, of ironic humor, of saving skepticism, and of a chilling presentiment of the present as tragedy.
Arthur K. Davis
[For the historical context of Veblen’s work, seeEconomic thought, article on theInstitutional School; and the biographies ofDarwin; George; Marx; Morgan, Lewis Henry; Sumner. For discussion of the subsequent development of Veblen’s ideas, seeEconomy and society; Education, article on Educational organization; Fashion; Marxist sociology; and the biographies ofCommons; Davenport; Mills; Mitchell; Ogburn.]
(1899) 1953 The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library. → A paperback edition was published in 1959.
1904 The Theory of Business Enterprise. New York: Scribner.
1914 The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts. New York: Macmillan.
(1915) 1964 Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution. New York: Kelley.
(1917) 1964 An Inquiry Into the Nature of Peace and the Terms of Its Perpetuation. New York: Kelley.
(1918) 1957 The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men. New York: Sagamore.
(1919a) 1921 The Engineers and the Price System. New York: Huebsch. → A series of papers reprinted from Dial. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harcourt.
(1919b) 1961 The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation, and Other Essays. New York: Russell. → Contains essays first published between 1891 and 1913.
(1919c) 1964 The Vested Interests and the Common Man: The Modern Point of View and the New Order. New York: Kelley. → First published as The Vested Interests and the State of Industrial Art.
(1923) 1945 Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Time: The Case of America. New York: Viking.
1925 Veblen, Thorstein (translator) The Laxdcela Saga. Translated from Icelandic, with an introduction by Thorstein Veblen. New York: Huebsch.
Essays in Our Changing Order. Edited by Leon Ardzrooni. New York: Viking, 1934. → Contains some essays first published between 1892 and 1925 and some previously unpublished.
Daugert, Stanley M. 1950 The Philosophy of Thorstein Veblen. New York: King’s Crown.
Davis, Arthur K. 1957 Thorstein Veblen Reconsidered. Science and Society 21:52-85.
Dorfman, Joseph (1934) 1961 Thorstein Veblen and His America. New York: Kelley.
Dowd, Douglas F. (editor) 1958 Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Reappraisal. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press. → Contains an extensive bibliography of Veblen’s writings.
Duffus, Robert L. 1944 The Innocents at Cedro: A Memoir of Thorstein Veblen and Others. New York: Macmillan.
Hobson, John A. (1936) 1937 Veblen. New York: Wiley.
Roman, Paul T. 1928 Contemporary Economic Thought. New York: Harper. → See especially Chapter 2.
Innis, H. A. 1956 Essays in Canadian Economic History. Univ. of Toronto Press. → See especially pages 17-26.
Institutional Economics; Veblen, Commons, and Mitchell Reconsidered: A Series of Lectures. 1963 Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → By Joseph Dorfman, C. E. Ayres, and others.
Johnson, Alvin 1935 Veblen, Thorstein Bunde. Volume 15, pages 234-235 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.
Parrington, Vernon L. 1930 Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature From the Beginnings to 1920. Volume 3: The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860-1920. New York: Harcourt.
Riesman, David 1953 Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Interpretation. New York: Scribner.
Roll, Erich (1938) 1963 A History of Economic Thought. 3d ed., rev. & enl. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → See especially pages 439-454, “Veblen.”
Thorstein Bunde Veblen, 1857-1957. 1957 Monthly Review 9:65-122.
"Veblen, Thorstein." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/veblen-thorstein-0
"Veblen, Thorstein." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/veblen-thorstein-0
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.
Veblen, Thorstein 1857–1929
Thorstein Bunde Veblen, an economist and sociologist (social critic and social and cultural theorist), was born to a Norwegian immigrant couple and grew up in rural Minnesota. He attended Yale University for graduate work in philosophy, where he met the sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840–1910). Upon graduation Veblen was not able to find academic employment. He eventually went to Cornell University to study economics, then taught at the University of Chicago (1891), later moving to Stanford University (1906), the University of Missouri (1911), and the New School for Social Research (1919). Veblen’s troubles with university administrations stemmed from his disregard for the norms of dress for “proper professors,” his uncommon living conditions (he lived in a shack of his own construction at one point), his classroom presentations (he often spoke softly in monotone or displayed unorthodox behavior), and his unconcealed extramarital affairs. At one point in his career he taught a class entirely in the Icelandic language to make the point that modern education was useless. Veblen saw himself as outside both Norwegian and American cultures and specifically asked those who knew him not to write his biography after his death.
Veblen posited certain human instinctual drives (mediated by cultural norms) that allow for technological and social advance, social organization, and social evolution: the instinct of workmanship, which is the most productive instinct for well-being, being an underlying creative impulse to manipulate the world with productive labor; the instinct of parenting, which leads to a concern for the well-being of others and an identification with community; and the instinct of idle curiosity, which leads to the development of knowledge. His use of the word instinct does not correspond to standard understandings from biology. Rather, he used instincts as socially refracted modifications of desire (Veblen 1914).
Influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution, Veblen was interested in the historical and evolutionary development of society and argued that humans interpret the world using categories based in biographic and historically shaped “habits of the mind,” which in turn are the basis for cultural norms passed on through socialization. Activities formed around these norms Veblen called “institutions,” with changes in productive activity leading to changes in society (Veblen 1914).
Veblen formulated a scale of three evolutionary stages of society based on changes in material forms of production: “savagery” (a peaceable, isolated, and stable society); “barbarianism” (a warlike and conquest-oriented society, hierarchical and dominated by religion, with distinct predatory and industrious classes and a surplus of wealth); and “civilization” (a modern, economically developed society that is rational and instrumental, with machine technology, mass production, and a high division of labor). For Veblen, the business class in modern society is “predatory” in that its livelihood is based on the acquisition of personal wealth and competitive capitalist profit making (Veblen 1914). In other words, Veblen labeled modernity as a form of latter-day barbarism.
Veblen is most famous for his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), which some view as a satire of American elite society but others interpret as a “coded” social criticism that was a product of his marginal social status (Riesman 1995). In either case, it establishes Veblen’s commitment to the idea that culture shapes economics, and as opposite from Marxist-derived, where Marx thought economics shaped society, it is an alternate analysis of society based on an understanding of production and consumption, material life, and economic stratification. In it Veblen shows the social and cultural causes and effects of economic changes (or economic evolution) and includes class, gender, and ethnicity in his economic analysis. He uses a materialistic approach in that he analyzes the changes in habit of productive activity.
Veblen’s social analysis draws a distinction between two classes of people. The first, the privileged, elite class of businesspeople and captains of industry, survive through the parasitic exploitation of the productive class and engage in pecuniary activities that detract from the further evolution of society. This is his critique of capitalism, which includes an attack on industrialists he labeled as “robber barons.” Veblen viewed this class as militant and predatory because its members do not engage in productive work; instead, they live off of the innovations of other people. The second class, made up of industrious workers, engineers, and inventors, produces both the wealth and useful goods for society. This class is focused on the well-being of society as a whole and includes women. Veblen tended to associate predatory culture with patriarchy and peaceful, productive culture with women—in this sense, David Riesman regards Veblen as an early feminist. In a capitalistic society within an economic price system, individuals are rewarded not for creative entrepreneurship but for ideals of competition, which for Veblen leads to “sabotage” rather than the advancement of the ideals of production (Veblen 1921). Hence Veblen critiques modernity as latter-day barbarism because of the wastefulness of capitalistic production (Veblen 1904).
For Veblen, competition exists within society due to individuals’ fear of loss of self-esteem. Patterns of consumption and conduct are seen as having symbolic significance and the latent function of enhancing status—Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) drew upon Veblen when writing about manifest and latent functions (Merton 1957). Veblen provides a theory about how individuals symbolize their own social status in the struggle for competitive advantage. Heightened self-evaluation comes with conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, conspicuous waste, and conspicuous display of symbols that indicate high status, all of which are used to communicate social position and improve social standing. Conspicuous leisure indicates elite status and must be expensive because it is a symbolic message that one is above laboring. Conspicuous consumption and waste, demonstrated by the socially visible consumption and display of expensive items, fashion, exotic pets, and so on, also sends the message that one does not participate in productive labor; thus the more wasteful a person is, the more prestige he or she has. Lower-status groups emulate higher-status practices in an attempt to increase their own status, and Veblen calls these habits of competitive display and consumerism wasteful.
Veblen argued that women are exploited by men through vicarious conspicuous consumption, waste, and leisure; that is, the conspicuous activity is performed by the female to benefit the status of the male. Ideals of feminine beauty (e.g., frailty, weakness, and paleness, indicating inability to labor), certain restrictive fashions that prevent laboring, and the removal of women from socially visible, productive labor enhance the status of the male and the good name of the household and its master.
In The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904) Veblen gives an account of the business enterprises of the 1900s, with a theoretical analysis of the large-scale corporation and the institutions of U.S. capitalism. This analysis highlights the associations of business and industry, the making of money and the making of goods, ownership and technology, pecuniary and industrial employment, and the roles of those who perform social functions versus those whose behavior leads to waste. Veblen highlights the individual businessperson, the powers he or she holds and what he or she can accomplish with those powers, and his or her effect on the economic and social community as a whole. Veblen looks at the world community as it enters into the industrial age, which is dominated by what he calls the “machine process,” and shows the importance of machines and their relation to business enterprise. This discussion is important for modernization theory. Interestingly, The Theory of Business Enterprise links stock market valuation to aggregate investment in the economy, prefiguring James Tobin’s Q model.
In Absentee Ownership (1923) Veblen attempted to explain U.S. business after World War I (1914–1918) and before the Great Depression, providing a theoretical analysis of absentee ownership and credit and the economic circumstances associated with economic growth and change through the late nineteenth century. He discussed the rise and fall of the captains of industry and the notion of sabotage associated with entrepreneurs.
Finally, in his essays on education Veblen argues that universities, colleges, and even elementary schools increasingly fall under the spell of predatory habits drawn from the business world. Even in the era in which he lived, he found trends such as the increase of administrative expense over funds devoted to teaching, competition and rating among teachers based upon business models of productivity, the rivalry among universities as if they were corporations based upon the profit motive, and so on. He regarded all these trends as the opposite of what education should represent, namely, “idle curiosity”—interest in knowledge for its own sake, not for profit.
In The Nature of Peace (1917) Veblen looked at the material conditions necessary to induce modern warfare as well as the varied meanings of patriotism within modern society. He saw militarism, nationalism, and patriotism as “predatory” in that they do not benefit the well-being of society as a whole, and he was concerned about military conflict and the patriotic exploitation of the industrious class.
In both Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (1915) and The Nature of Peace (1917) Veblen developed the ideal-type of the “dynastic state” to describe Germany’s and Japan’s hierarchical organization and identification combined with the subservience of their underlying populations. This situation, he argued, results in militant aggressive nationalism and finally war; indeed, he criticized nationalism itself because it involves honor and prestige and is therefore barbaric. Veblen used a historical comparison of Germany and Great Britain before, during, and after the Industrial Revolution to show the difference in their developments due to history and context that focused on material causes as well as social-psychological states, and he claimed that when a culture industrializes more rapidly, the country will use this industrialization to produce weapons because of the honor and prestige in being warlike. Militarism is barbaric because it enforces the values of obedience and is obsessed with honor and prestige. Hence if a nation becomes militaristic, this is a sign that it is crossing the border to barbarianism, where war is a natural outcome.
Veblen has been interpreted as a cultural theorist, most recently by Stjepan G. Mestrovic (2003) in his analysis of narcissism as central to understanding the unifying strand in Veblen’s approach to culture. Others have used Veblen’s ideas in cultural theory as well. For example, Riesman integrated Veblen’s thought with his own concept of marginal differentiation by the other-directed type and the striving for status by the inner-directed type (Riesman 1953). Riesman and Jean Baudrillard are influenced by Veblen’s idea that all forms of waste must be “conspicuous,” which is to say reflected in the opinions of the mass media and the peer group. These insights led to Riesman’s concept of “fake sincerity,” performed to gain approval from others, and eventually to Baudrillard’s notion of simulacra. The doctrine of separate spheres widely used in feminist theory, the notion of public versus private, was challenged by Veblen’s connection of social spheres through consumerism and status, reflecting a cultural whole with causally linked underlying economic and social class realities (e.g., domination, production, and consumption). Thus Veblen provided an opportunity to understand culture in terms of economics and vice versa. Perceived status and hierarchical social distinctions make status comparisons and symbolic representations central to Veblen’s theorizing.
Veblen had a particular influence in the social sciences with his symbolic representation of social class and social position, use of modernization theory, and analyses of economics (production, consumption, technology, business and industry, and economic growth and change). Veblen’s influence is wide-ranging. C. Wright Mills used Veblen’s work to develop his own ideas about leisure and social status in White Collar (1956) and updated Veblen’s theory of the dominant sociopolitical elite (the predatory business class) in The Power Elite (1956). Chris Rojek incorporated Veblen’s work into leisure studies with his analysis of leisure as taking on the characteristics of work (Rojek 1994), and Theodor Adorno used Veblen when discussing the aesthetics of ostentatious display. The French postmodern Baudrillard developed his own consumption theory concerning the significance of objects and images of consumption in designating prestige, where consumption and leisure should not be understood only as pleasure but also as a ranking and classification system of status itself.
SEE ALSO Business; Business Cycles, Real; Capitalism; Class, Leisure; Conspicuous Consumption; Economics; Modernity; Stratification; Tobin’s Q
Veblen, Thorstein. 1904. The Theory of Business Enterprise. New York: Scribner.
Veblen, Thorstein. 1914. Instinct of Workmanship and the State of Industrial Arts. New York: Macmillan.
Veblen, Thorstein. 1915. Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution. New York: Macmillan.
Veblen, Thorstein. 1917. An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace and the Terms of Its Perpetuation. New York: Macmillan.
Veblen, Thorstein. 1921. The Engineers and the Price System. New York: B. W. Huebsch.
Veblen, Thorstein. 1923. Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times. New York: B. W. Huebsch.
Veblen, Thorstein.  1994. Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Penguin.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1981. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis, MO: Telos.
Coser, Lewis A.  1977. Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Heilbroner, Robert L. 1955. The Worldly Philosophers. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Merton, Robert K. 1957. Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Mestrovic, Stjepan G. 2003. Thorstein Veblen on Culture and Society. London: Sage.
Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 1956. White Collar: The American Middle Class. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Riesman, David.  1995. Thorstein Veblen. Introduction by Stjepan G. Mestrovic. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Rojek, Chris. 1994. Decentering Leisure: Rethinking Leisure Theory. London: Sage.
Ryan Ashley Caldwell
"Veblen, Thorstein." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/veblen-thorstein
"Veblen, Thorstein." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/veblen-thorstein
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Thorstein Bunde Veblen
Thorstein Bunde Veblen
The American political economist, sociologist, and social critic Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857-1929) wrote about the evolutionary development and mounting internal tensions of modern Western society.
Thorstein Veblen was born on July 30, 1857, in Valders, Wis. He was the sixth of 12 children of Norwegian immigrant parents. Veblen graduated in 1880 from Carleton College, Minn., and in 1884 he took his doctorate in philosophy at Yale. He was a brilliant student, yet failed to get an academic post—apparently because of his "Norski" background and his skepticism of established institutions. For seven years Veblen read books on the farm in Minnesota, tinkered with farm machinery, and took part in village discussions. In 1888 he married Ellen Rolfe.
In 1891 Veblen revived his academic career by enrolling as a graduate student in economics at Cornell. A year later he moved to the University of Chicago, where he stayed for 14 years. Despite numerous papers and book reviews in learned journals, Veblen's academic advancement on the Chicago faculty was slow. His first and best-known book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), was followed by The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904).
Although he produced eight volumes between 1914 and 1923, Veblen's academic fortune did not prosper. In 1906 he had moved from Chicago to Stanford University for 3 years. His teaching performance was always considered poor: he mumbled inaudibly and consistently flouted the grading system by giving his students "Cs." His domestic difficulties and associations with other women complicated his situation, according to university administrators. Forced to resign from Stanford, Veblen remained without a post for two years. Then, in 1911, he was appointed lecturer at the University of Missouri, where he remained for seven years. He remarried in 1914.
After a short period of government service in World War I, Veblen wrote editorials and essays for magazines and gave occasional lectures at the New School for Social Research. In 1926 he retired to his California shack, "a defeated man, " in the words of his biographer Joseph Dorfman. He died in poverty in Menlo Park on Aug. 3, 1929.
Veblen's Leading Ideas
Veblen made his readers aware that, in his period, American small-scale competitive capitalism was giving way to large-scale monopoly trusts. Among the implications of this trend were: the monopolistic practice of administered prices—charging what the traffic would bear; the limitation on production in order to raise prices and maximize profits; the subordination of the national state and of universities to the role of agents for business; and the emergence of a leisure class devoted to wasteful and conspicuous consumption for the sake of status.
Veblen also rejected the prevailing late-19th-century social philosophy of the "survival of the fittest." Instead, he adopted a perspective of impersonal institutional change and conflict which owed much to Charles Darwin and even more to Karl Marx. Another major influence on Veblen was the utopian socialism of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888). Yet Veblen was never a social activist or even an open advocate of social reform. He remained for the most part an academic observer and analyst. Implicitly, however, some of his writings were severely critical of the existing social order, with overtones of agrarian populism and utopian socialism. A number of Veblen's basic concepts and insights have become widely accepted in American sociological analysis: these include the "sense of workmanship, " "culture lag, " "conspicuous consumption, " and "waste."
In his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) Veblen analyzed the status symbolism of modern bourgeois consumption, with interesting historical and anthropological antecedents. Social prestige, he pointed out, is enhanced by wasteful consumption of time and goods. With few changes, this book remains an excellent source work for many present-day social and liberating movements.
On modern America and its economy, two of Veblen's best books are The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904) and Absentee Ownership (1923). These works trace the inherent conflict between profit-oriented capitalists and the general welfare—defined by Veblen as maximum productivity of goods and services. The Higher Learning in America (1918), a biting analysis of the consequences of business domination of universities, should be read even today by those interested in contemporary issues and conflicts on North American campuses.
Veblen's Imperial Germany (1915) and The Nature of Peace (1917) are still relevant. His posthumously published Essays on Our Changing Order (1934) throws more light on the cold war than do most interpretations.
Though he left no disciples, Veblen influenced economists of varied views, political scientists, public administrators and policy makers in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal era, and a minor but significant social movement— technocracy. Originating in the early 1920s, technocracy identified the general welfare with maximum engineering productivity. But Veblen's organizational connection with technocracy was temporary and superficial.
Even his most orthodox contemporaries rated Veblen as one of the few really outstanding American social scientists. After his death his stature grew steadily, for his insights have proved both lasting and prophetic. His vision of America was a darkening one. As early as 1904 he wrote of a possible reversion to militarism. The deadpan humor of his literary style only highlighted his conception of America as a system of vested business interests propped up by indispensable canons of waste, artificial scarcity, unproductive salesmanship, war, and conspicuous consumption.
The standard biography of Veblen is Joseph Dorfman, Thorstein Veblen and His America (1934). A revealing portrait of Veblen in his Stanford years, written by a student who lived in his cottage, is contained in Robert Duffus, The Innocents at Cedro: A Memoir of Thorstein Veblen and Some Others (1944). J. A. Hobson, Veblen (1936), is the best early assessment of Veblen's work. One of the most authoritative evaluations is Douglas Dowd, ed., Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Reappraisal (1958). A good foil to the latter is David Riesman, Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Interpretation (1953).
Diggins, John P., The bard of savagery: Thorstein Veblen and modern social theory, New York: Seabury Press, 1978.
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), Aldershot, Hants, England: Edward Elgar Pub. Ltd.; Brookfield, Vt., USA: Distributed in the United States by Ashgate Pub. Co., 1992.
Riesman, David, Thorstein Veblen, New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A.: Transaction Publishers, 1995.
Griffin, Robert A. (Robert Arthur), Thorstein Veblen, seer of American socialism, S.l.: Advocate Press; Hamden, CT: Distributed by Roger Books, 1982. □
"Thorstein Bunde Veblen." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/thorstein-bunde-veblen
"Thorstein Bunde Veblen." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/thorstein-bunde-veblen
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Veblen, Thorstein Bunde
Veblen took the principal ideologies of late nineteenth-century entrepreneurial capitalism, in particular evolutionism and price theory, and turned them back on the society in which they flourished. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) he drew on fashionable evolutionary anthropology, comparing the conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure (see LEISURE CLASS) of the financially successful classes with the display rituals of ‘barbarians’ in tribal societies. He showed himself acutely aware of the ‘barbarian’ status of women and their continued exploitation by men in ‘civilized’ societies. In The Theory of the Business Enterprise (1904), and in numerous articles criticizing neo-classical price theories, he developed a systematic account of how the mechanism of the market in reality engenders waste, fraud, and the exploitation of the industry and inventiveness of the worker. His notion of ‘pecuniary business interests’ may, in some ways, be compared with the concept of finance capital developed by his Marxist contemporary Rudolf Hilferding. However, Veblen himself rejected the utopian character of Marxism, and at one time pinned his political hopes on a version of technicism. That Veblen, though unfashionable, remains important is attested to by the fact that many of his ideas and concepts have become commonplace in the social sciences.
"Veblen, Thorstein Bunde." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/veblen-thorstein-bunde
"Veblen, Thorstein Bunde." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/veblen-thorstein-bunde
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Thorstein Veblen (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
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).
"Veblen, Thorstein." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/veblen-thorstein
"Veblen, Thorstein." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/veblen-thorstein
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Veblen, Thorstein Bunde
"Veblen, Thorstein Bunde." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/veblen-thorstein-bunde
"Veblen, Thorstein Bunde." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/veblen-thorstein-bunde