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Robinson, Joan Violet (1903–1983)

Robinson, Joan Violet (1903–1983)

British post-Keynesian economist who developed the theory of imperfect competition and linked neoclassical economic theory to that of Karl Marx. Born Joan Violet Maurice on October 31, 1903, in Camberley, England; died on August 5, 1983, in Cambridge, England; daughter of Helen (Marsh) Maurice and Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice; attended St. Paul's Girls' School and Girton College, Cambridge University; married E.A.G. Robinson (an economist), in 1926; children: two daughters.


honorary fellow at Girton College, Newnham College, and King's College, all Cambridge.

Father retired from the British Army (1918); admitted to Cambridge University (October 1922); passed the Economics Tripos, Cambridge (1925); taught in India (1926–28); returned to Cambridge (1928); appointed junior assistant lecturer (1931); appointed full lecturer (1937); appointed reader (1949); husband retired (1965); appointed full professor (1965); became chair of the Economics Faculty (1965); retired from Cambridge University (September 30, 1971); suffered a stroke (February 1983).

Selected writings:

The Economics of Imperfect Competition (London: Macmillan, 1933); Essays in the Theory of Employment (London: Macmillan, 1937); Introduction to the Theory of Employment (London: Macmillan, 1937); An Essay on Marxian Economics (London: Macmillan, 1942); The Rate of Interest and Other Essays (London: Macmillan, 1952); The Accumulation of Capital (London: Macmillan, 1956); Exercises in Economic Analysis (London: Macmillan, 1960); Essays in the Theory of Economic Growth (London: Macmillan, 1962); Economic Philosophy (London: C.A. Watts, 1962); Economics—an Awkward Corner (London: Allen & Unwin, 1966); Freedom and Necessity (London: Allen & Unwin, 1970); The Cultural Revolution in China (London: Penguin, 1970); Economic Heresies: Some Old-fashioned Questions in Economic Theory (London: Macmillan, 1971); An Introduction to Modern Economics (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1973); Contributions to Modern Economics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978); Collected Economic Papers (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979); Aspects of Development and Under-development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Further Contributions to Modern Economics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980).

The daughter of Helen Marsh Maurice and Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice, Joan Violet Robinson was born in Camberley, Surrey, on October 31, 1903. When she was 15, her father resigned from the British Army due to public scandal, having accused Prime Minister Lloyd George of deliberately misleading Parliament about the strength of British forces on the Western Front towards the end of World War I. His open letter, published in several London newspapers, rocked the government, and led to Sir Frederick's resignation. The action echoed the behavior of her great-grandfather, Frederick Denison Maurice, a Christian Socialist who forfeited the chair of theology at King's College, London, after his disavowal of eternal damnation. Joan Robinson came to share similar character traits. She was self-assured and unconventional, stubborn and principled.

Following her matriculation at St. Paul's Girls' School, Robinson gained admission to Cambridge University in October 1922, studying economics at Girton College. The works of Alfred Marshall and Arthur C. Pigou greatly influenced her early thinking. While Marshall retired from Cambridge in 1924, his writings, which assumed either perfect competition or monopoly in the economy, remained tremendously influential. In later life, Robinson was to reassess his views:

The profit motive contains no mechanism to ensure that technical progress will take digestible forms…. Modern capitalism is well adapted to produce fabulous technical successes but not to provide the basis for the noble life accessible to all that Marshall dreamed of.

When Robinson was an undergraduate, Pigou, Marshall's student, was still teaching at the university. John Maynard Keynes also taught there, dividing his time between Cambridge University and London University. At the time, Keynes' lectures focused primarily on orthodox monetary theory and policies. The environment at Cambridge was steeped in a deep conservatism.

In 1925, Robinson graduated with second class honors. The following year, she married economist Austin Robinson, who was six years her senior and taught at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Soon after the wedding, the couple moved to India. There, Austin served as tutor to the Maharajah of Gwalior, while Joan taught at the local school. Upon their return to England in 1928, Robinson's husband was offered a position as a lecturer in economics at Cambridge University.

Returning to Cambridge, Robinson undertook the supervision of undergraduate students, as well as research into economic theory. Keynes had become the editor of the Economic Journal, and Piero Sraffa, who led the attack against Marshallian economics, had joined the faculty. Keynes attracted many scholars of like mind to Cambridge, including Frank Ramsay, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Richard Kahn. Robinson and Kahn developed a professional partnership which was to last for the rest of their lives. A spirit of liberalism and innovation permeated the institution.

In 1931, Joan Robinson was appointed junior assistant lecturer. Economists at Cambridge were increasingly conscious of the problems surrounding the meaning of the theory of value, in light of perfect competition. The rethinking of value theory was to advance a stage because of an essay that Charles Gifford had written to Austin Robinson in 1931. Wrote Austin:

He used a concept, I think derived from something that Yntema had written, that I subsequently suggested naming "marginal revenue." It so happened that Richard Kahn was lunching with us that day. I passed on to Joan and him the idea that Charles Gifford had produced, and they started playing with it. Gradually the game became more serious. It became substantially easier to tackle a number of problems. And out of this grew Joan's first book.

Her Economics of Imperfect Competition appeared in 1933.

Up to this point, there had been little analysis of market forces which did not assume either perfect competition or pure monopoly. Joan Robinson demonstrated great analytical skill, particularly when dealing with the problem of the classification of market forces. She attacked Marshall's theory of perfect competition, which was defined as a situation in which the products of one company could be substituted for those of another. Monopoly characterized a situation in which there were no substitutes for the products of a company. Piero Sraffa suggested that each company should be treated as a separate monopoly, and economic sectors should be treated as oligopolies. As a result, Robinson argued that goods were often partial substitutes for one another. Her theory analyzed price and output in the two marketplaces. She concluded that monopolistic corporations restricted output in order to maintain high prices, thus resulting in poor performance at the manufacturing level. Such companies also engaged in cartel behavior, wrote Robinson:

So long as all adhere to the same set of conventions each can enjoy his share of the market, and each can imagine that he is acting according to strict rules of competition, though in fact the group as a whole, by unconscious collusion, are imposing a mild degree of monopoly upon the market.

The Economics of Imperfect Competition won international recognition. Perfect competition assumed that government regulation of the economy should be confined to the regulation of aggregate effective demand, and that the allocation of a nation's resources should be left to the free market. Competition, however, Robinson argued, did not effectively allocate available resources, given the socio-political agenda of a society. Neither could competition regulate aggregate demand. Imperfect Competition taught an entire generation of economists the geometrics of price theory. Writes Dorothy Lampen Thomson:

Robinson's pioneer work on imperfect competition did provide a major breakthrough in theoretical economics by revitalizing price theory, stimulating research into various aspects of microeconomic behaviour, and causing analysis of market behaviour once again to become relevant to the real economy—a world populated by oligopolies.

During the early 1930s, Keynes was in the process of completing his revolutionary work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, which was published in 1936. Robinson became increasingly influenced by his views. Along with Kahn, Sraffa, Sir Roy Harrod and James Meade, Robinson became part of what later was known as the "Cambridge Circus." The Circus played a vital role in critiquing and editing the drafts of Keynes' book.

His research focused on the profound social implications of employment, and appealed to Robinson's evolving social consciousness as Britain suffered through the ravages of the Great Depression. Keynes' thesis stressed that equality of savings and investment was maintained by variations in the level of income and the level of unemployment, not merely by adjustments to the rate of interest as neoclassical economists had suggested.

In Robinson's view, Keynes' work constituted a fundamental change in economic theory, challenging all previous doctrine. As a result, she published Essays on the Theory of Employment and Introduction to the Theory of Employment in 1937. Both works clarified the Keynesian analysis of investment, savings, unemployment, interest rates, and price. Robinson became one of the leading popularizers of Keynes' work. She argued that interest rates did not remunerate the financial sacrifice of savings. She also elucidated the role of disguised unemployment and generalized the Marshall/Lerner theory of international trade.

By the end of the decade, Robinson began to delve into Marxist economic theory. She described her Marxist writings as an attempt to "separate the wheat of science from the chaff of ideology." Robinson sought to reinstate Marx as a preeminent economic analyst, while shedding much of the political baggage associated with his writings. She emphasized the historical, social, and institutional structures which affected distribution, and juxtaposed these with the conventional analysis of resource allocation and equilibrium. While she was sympathetic to Marxian analysis, her decoupling of his economic and political philosophies fostered antagonism among doctrinaire Marxists. Wrote Robinson years later:

For a discussion of the problems nowadays found to be interesting—growth and stagnation, technical progress and the demand for labour, the balance of sectors in an expanding economy—Marxian theory provides a starting point where academic teaching was totally blank…. Marx, as a scientist, pro claimed this grand program, and made an impressive start upon it. But it got very little further. A school of thought flourishes when the followers continuously revise and sift the ideas of the founder, test his hypotheses, correct his errors, reconcile contradictions in his conclusions, and adapt his method to deal with fresh matter. It takes a great genius to set a new subject going; the disciples must admire, even reverence, the master, but they should not defer to him. On the contrary, they must be his closest critics.

During the postwar era, Robinson's work The Accumulation of Capital (1956) sought nothing less than a reconstruction of economic theory. This book is widely accepted as an example of Robinson at her intellectual best. The title echoes those chosen by both Adam Smith and Rosa Luxemburg . Robinson recast the definitions of capital accumulation, labor supply, technical innovation, and natural resources in Keynesian terms, and in light of her own analysis of writings by Marshall, Marx, Luxemburg, and others. Robinson's focus on the process of capital accumulation in the building of a capitalist economy attacked the traditional concept of the production function and elicited angry responses from conventional economists. As Warren J. Samuels noted:

She has generally and pointedly challenged the complacency of conventional economists more concerned with analytical and professional respectability and career and less with the exigent problems of distribution, poverty, and injustice and oppression resident, for example, in class use of government.

Robinson's later research moved towards a dynamization of Keynesian economics, which gradually evolved into a post-Keynesian theory of economic growth. The contributions made by Robinson, however, were not purely in the realm of economics. She also sought to deal with larger philosophical issues. In Economic Philosophy (1962), she argued that an economy should have a moral underpinning. "Some standard of morality is necessary for every social animal," she wrote. "Any economic system requires a set of rules, an ideology to justify them, and a conscience in the individual which makes him strive to carry them out."

In 1965, Joan Robinson was promoted to full professor and took over the chair of economics. During the 1960s, she sparked the socalled "Cambridge Controversies" over the neoclassical theory of capital and the associated principle of marginal productivity. The debate was an acrimonious one, which pitted Cambridge University against Harvard.

Robinson, who retired from the chair of economics on September 30, 1971, continued to lecture occasionally at Cambridge and maintained a rigorous schedule of lectures at various international institutions. Throughout her career, she traveled extensively, giving public lectures and seminars around the world. Hundreds of students in Asia, Africa, Europe, South and North America were exposed to her ideas firsthand. Robinson was extremely popular with her students. She inspired great admiration among some colleagues, and distrust among her conservative political foes in the academic community.

During the late 1970s, King's College, where John Maynard Keynes had taught, finally agreed to drop its longstanding objection to the admission of female students. This move was welcomed wholeheartedly by Robinson, who

became the college's first female honorary fellow. In February 1983, Joan Robinson suffered a stroke. She died six months later.

Robinson's works influenced an entire generation of economists. Her Economics of Imperfect Competition propelled microeconomics into the mainstream. Introduction to the Theory of Employment was one of the most widely read prewar popularizations of Keynesian economics. Her 1942 work, An Essay on Marxian Economics, framed Karl Marx as a forerunner of Keynes, and remains one of the most important works on the subject. In 1956, The Accumulation of Capital marked a departure in Robinson's development as an economic theoretician, by attempting to dynamize Keynes and propose a new analysis of long-term capital growth. Her writings demonstrated that not all economists wrote poorly. As John Eatwell pointed out, "Her books and articles are often outstanding examples of English prose."

The economics of Joan Robinson were characterized by two fundamental assumptions. Firstly, that any economic theory must take into account specific social factors. Thus, any analysis must address issues such as the ownership of the means of production, control of the process of production, and the superstructure of social control. Secondly, any serious economic analysis must accept the unique nature of historical time. Economic theory cannot exist in a vacuum. Both prerequisites were antithetical to neoclassical economics. Wrote Eatwell:

Joan Robinson's unique contribution to economics lies not only in her recognition of the full significance of the Keynesian revolution, and its relationship to Marxian theory, but also in the manner in which, on these bases, she has forged new theoretical tools to tackle a remarkable variety of economic problems. Moreover, beneath the sophistication of her theoretical writings lies a clarity version, exemplified by the way she dissects and simplifies the most complex of problems. It is this combination of originality, sophistication and the ability to identify the crucial elements in complex phenomena, which gives her writings such vitality. Her work has always been, and continues to be, a formidable challenge to orthodoxy of all kinds.

Robinson was the only woman of her generation to achieve prominence in the field of economic theory. This says as much about the difficulty of economic theory, as it does about the involvement of women in higher education. In 1971, The New York Times conducted a study which classified 101 social science contributions, in 62 major fields of endeavor. Joan Robinson was the only woman named in the survey.

Joan Robinson thrived on scholarly interaction and debate. Thus, one finds traces of Alfred Marshall, A.C. Pigou, John Maynard Keynes, Piero Sraffa, Michal Kalecki, Richard Kahn, and Karl Marx in her writings. She possessed a strong ability to synthesize and incorporate the ideas of others into her own research. This ability made her one of the leading unorthodox economists of the 20th century. Her approach to economics is best summed up by the words of Pietro Pomponazzi, the Italian Renaissance philosopher: "It is better to be a heretic if one wishes to find the truth."


Blaug, Mark, ed. Joan Robinson (1903–1983) and George Shackle (1903–1992). Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 1992.

Feiwel, George R. Joan Robinson and Modern Economic Theory. NY: New York University Press, 1989.

Loasky, Brian J. The Mind and Method of the Economist. Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 1989.

Screpanti, Ernesto, and Stefano Zamagni. An Outline of the History of Economic Thought. Trans. by David Field. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Skouras, Thanos. "The Economics of Joan Robinson," in Twelve Contemporary Economists. Ed. by J.R. Shackleton and Garth Locksley. NY: John Wiley and Sons, 1981.

Spiegel, Henry William. The Growth of Economic Thought. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1983.

Thomson, Dorothy Lampen. Adam Smith's Daughters. NY: Exposition Press, 1973.

suggested reading:

Harcourt, Geoffrey C. "Harcourt on Robinson," in Contemporary Economists in Perspective. Ed. by William Brief and Kenneth G. Elzinga. Greenwich, CT: Jai Press, 1984.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

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