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Robinson, Joan

Robinson, Joan 1903-1983


Among the great scholars who made significant contributions to economics in the twentieth century, one could say that there were scores of men but only one woman who really stood out. Of course there were well-respected female economists of the time, such as Mary Marshall (18501944) and Ursula Hicks (18961985), but for bravado none of them trumped Joan Violet Morris Robinson. She was swift, sharp, and influential. To her friends, admirers, and students, she was gentle, caring, and encouraging. To those who saw in her a menacing adversary and detractor, she was rude, ruthless, and inconsiderate. While she was at home or abroad, whether lecturing or listening, her presence was noticed.

Joan Robinson was born in Surrey, England, and was first educated in London. She then entered the University of Cambridge for economics, where she graduated in 1925. She married the economist Austin Robinson in 1926. Although she traveled extensively throughout the world, her heart remained in Cambridge, site of her home and her university position and where she died in 1983.

As an economist, Joan Robinson was not only a theorist and pragmatist but her knowledge and interest in history, a subject she had studied before economics, afforded her a good grasp of politics and world affairs. She was truly a complete social scientist who believed that knowledge and theory should be the handmaidens of policymaking. Two words could encapsulate the driving motivation for her research and leftist political persuasion: economic justice. Whether in her preoccupation with unemployment in the making of John Maynard Keyness General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), with the disparities of classes in her version of Marxian economics, or with economic development in her writings on China and India, she was compassionately engaged by all aspects of income distribution.

In her sixty-three-year academic career, Joan Robinson published 378 books, articles, and other writings, all noted in a bibliography compiled by Maria Cristina Marcuzzo (1991). There are numerous writings about Joan Robinson, the most notable being the enormous two volumes edited by George R. Feiwel and published in 1989. The collections essays, some critical, some laudatory, are of particular interest because their contents highlight reactions from economic theorists across the whole spectrum in relation to Joan Robinsons philosophy, methodology, macroeconomics, and economic theory and specifically the notions of equilibrium, time, capital and growth, and unemployment and the theories of general equilibrium, trade, imperfect competition, games, credit markets, and finance. On reading the various essays, one could not conclude that Joan Robinson had an answer to every theoretical issue, but she touched a sensitive chord for many foundational premises of economics.

For economic-theory purists, The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933, 1969) places Joan Robinson in the pantheon of economists. For economists in general, her work on employment and interest and especially The Accumulation of Capital (1956, 1969) was the catalyst to the highly charged Cambridge Capital Controversy, which pitted Joan Robinson and Pierro Sraffa of Cambridge, England, against Robert Solow and Paul Samuelson of Cambridge, Massachusetts, among others. Joan Robinson voiced opposition to the claims of the dominant neoclassical economics for the universality of its theory of production. Her critique, which targeted the circularity of the neoclassical interrelationship of capital value and interest rate, pushed economists of every stripe to ponder the relevance and logic of the production function, disembodied technical change, labor-capital substitution, relative prices, and capital accumulation, among other concepts, and led to a fruitful period of intense debate. Put simply, proponents of the Capital Controversy claimed to have shown that the neoclassical explanation of factor payments and substitution and to some extent growth is restrictive, only valid in a world of constant capital-labor ratio. For die-hard Robinsonians, a subgroup of post-Keynesians, for whom she was in battle with the foundations of neoclassical economics, Joan Robinson will forever remain a Joan of Arc.



Robinson, Joan. [1933] 1969. The Economics of Imperfect Competition. London: Macmillan.

Robinson, Joan. [1956] 1969. The Accumulation of Capital. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan.

Robinson, Joan. 1966. An Essay on Marxian Economics. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan. (Orig. pub. 1942.)

Robinson, Joan. 1978. Contributions to Modern Economics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Robinson, Joan. 1980. Further Contributions to Modern Economics. Oxford: Blackwell.


Feiwel, George R., ed. 1989. Joan Robinson and Modern Economy Theory. Houndsmills, U.K.: Macmillan.

Feiwel, George R., ed. 1989. The Economics of Imperfect Competition and Employment: Joan Robinson and Beyond. Houndsmills, U.K.: Macmillan.

Marcuzzo, Maria Cristina. 1991. Bibliography: The Writings of Joan Robinson. In The Joan Robinson Legacy, ed. Ingrid H. Rima, 250275. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

Rima, Ingrid H., ed. 1991. The Joan Robinson Legacy. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

Omar Hamouda

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