Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Sen from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

Amartya Kumar Sen 1933–     Brit. (Indian-born) econ.


Summary Article: Sen, Amartya
from Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa

Amartya Kumar Sen, Indian economist and philosopher, was born on November 3, 1933, in Santiniketan in the province of West Bengal in India. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in economic sciences in 1998 for his work in the field of development and welfare economics. His greatest contribution to the field is his theory of social choice, in which he explains the interdependence of economic freedom, social mobility, security, and political freedom. His approach strongly opposes the Public Choice Theory. Sen further became known for his analysis of the causes of famine, and his work largely contributed to the development of practical solutions. Sen's suggestions are the basis of the Human Development Index, which was first used by the United Nations Development Program in 1990.

Sen's father was a chemistry professor at the University of Dhaka. Sen recalls in his autobiography: “I was born in a University campus and seem to have lived all my life in one campus or another.” After graduating from high school, Sen studied economics at Presidency College in Calcutta, India. He graduated in 1953 and left the subcontinent.

He enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, and received the prestigious Adam Smith Prize, which allowed him to study a further subject of his choice. He decided to study philosophy, because he considered it closely related to economics in many aspects. He received his B.A. in economics in 1955. Afterward, he continued his studies at Cambridge and earned an M.A. in 1959 and a Ph.D. in 1959.

Deciding to stay in academia, Sen taught economic sciences at several universities in India and the United Kingdom, including the universities of Jadavpur (1956-58) and Delhi (1963-71), the London School of Economics, and the University of Oxford (1977-88). Sen was one of the founders of the World Institute for Development of Economic Research (WIDER), based in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. The institute is part of the United Nations University (UNU), and Sen acted as research advisor for several UNU-WIDER projects between 1985 and 1991. He moved to Harvard University in 1988, where he taught both economics and philosophy. In 1998, his British alma mater honored its former student by appointing him master of Trinity College, Cambridge. In 2004, he moved back to Harvard University. Since 2008, Sen and his colleague, Joseph Stiglitz, have led a scientific commission initiated by French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Its aim is to find new qualitative measurements for economic growth and welfare.

Sen devoted most of his academic life to the study of welfare economics and became known as the “conscience of his profession.” In his monograph Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970), he reflects on Kenneth Arrow's concept of social choice. He states that economists must focus on basic welfare indicators, such as access to information, individual rights, and majority rule.

Work on Famines and Food Crises

One important event in Sen's biography stemmed from his long-lasting interest in famines. While still in school, he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, which caused more than 3 million deaths. Despite this large number, only the poorest in the Indian society perished. Sen later pointed out that the immense famine was avoidable because there was enough food available at that time. The problem was its distribution. Certain groups, such as the rural workers in this particular case, were unable to buy food because they had lost their jobs. As Sen points out in his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), insufficient food supply is often not the principal cause of famines. In most cases, only certain groups within a society are affected, as famines are closely related to diverse economic factors, such as unemployment, decreasing wages, increasing food prices, or poor food-distribution systems.

Sen's work was highly important for governments and international organizations such as the United Nations in handling food crises. Policy makers must not only focus on short-term solutions, such as alleviating starvation through food supply, but also keep in mind long-term determinants, such as sufficient income for the poor or stable food prices. Sen also explained that famines are linked to political freedom. He claimed that food crises would not happen in functioning democracies, as the political leaders need to be more responsive to the demands of their voters. Political freedom is an important basis for further economic reforms, but a country can achieve stable economic growth only when social factors such as public health and education are also targeted.

The social and economic role of women is of special interest to Sen. His theoretical work about inequality provides an explanation for the fact that in several developing countries, there are more men than women, even though male children have a higher infant mortality rate. Sen argues that a poor family's low income is often invested in male children, offering them better health treatment and childhood opportunities such as more education and less child labor.

Perhaps his best-known book, Development as Freedom (1999), is based on six lectures he gave at the World Bank. It reached a large audience, because he summed up his ideas without using formal economic expressions.

See Also:

Economies, New , Gandhian Economics , Poverty , Social Change and New Classes , Women

Further Readings
  • Basu, Kaushik and Kanbur, Ravi, eds. Arguments for a Better World. Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Morris, Christopher W., ed. Amartya Sen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Sen, Amartya. Collective Choice and Social Welfare. San Francisco: Holden-Day, 1970.
  • Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf, 1999.
  • Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines. An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
  • Michele, Carmen De
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles


    Full text Article Sen, Amartya
    Capstone Encyclopaedia of Business

    Amartya Sen is a Nobel Prize-winning economist with a conscience. His first name means ‘one who deserves immortality’. His...

    Full text Article Sen, Amartya
    Economic Thinkers: A Biographical Encyclopedia

    Born: November 3, 1933, in Santiniketan, West Bengal, India; Indian; social choice theory, economic welfare, developmental economics, Nobel Prize (1

    Full text Article Sen, Amartya (1933-)
    Encyclopedia of Political Theory

    Amartya Sen is one of the most influential contemporary economists. His work spans a range of disciplines, including political and moral...

    See more from Credo