Who Is Amartya Sen?

Amartya Sen is an internationally renowned economist who currently serves as Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University. Sen has also held positions at many other universities, including the University of Cambridge, the Delhi School of Economics, the London School of Economics, and Oxford University.

He is well known for his contributions to development economics. In 1998, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Key Takeaways

  • Amartya Sen is an economist currently serving as Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University.
  • He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998, for his contributions to development economics.
  • One of his central areas of concern is the alleviation of poverty through economic development.

Understanding Amartya Sen

Born in India in 1933 on a university campus in Bengal, India, Amartya Sen was the son of a chemistry professor and the grandson of a scholar of ancient and medieval India. It could be said that perhaps Sen was a born academic and scholar, but experiences in childhood may have helped shape the direction his scholastic achievement took in addressing economic and social inequality. 

As a youngster in 1943, Sen was a witness to the Bengali famine where three million died. Another incident that may have shaped him was witnessing an impoverished man with a knife in his back during the partitioning of India in 1947. It is likely that these and other experiences helped to shape his scholarship and his many interests into the nature of the human experience and how to make life better for its poorest citizens.  

Sen earned an undergraduate degree from Presidency College at Calcutta before attending the University of Cambridge for an additional BA, then stayed on there to acquire a Master’s degree and a PhD in the discipline. A Trinity College fellowship followed, and today, Sen teaches at Harvard but has additional honorary and guest teaching posts in universities across the United States, the United Kingdom, and India. He has been called “the consciousness of the profession” of economics.

In 1981 he published a seminal book called “Poverty & Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation,” but it was to be the first of many writings that Sen has undertaken in his career. Since then, Sen has been a noted author of many books on welfare economics, development economics and other subjects. Additional areas of research include social choice theory, economic measurement, public health, rationality and economic behavior, economic methodology, gender studies, moral and political philosophy, and the economics of war and peace.

Real World Example of Amartya Sen’s Ideas

One notable example of Amartya Sen’s ideas is the capability approach to development economics, to which he was a major contributor.

The capability approach is a theoretical framework that has helped inform efforts to promote economic development and poverty alleviation. In addition to its academic interest, the capability approach has informed the creation of new statistical indices that help governments and policymakers to track the well-being of citizens in a more robust and appropriate manner. 

For example, the capability approach contributed to the creation of the Human Development Index (HDI), a composite measure of life expectancy, per-capita income, and education that is used to estimate the economic development of societies. HDI can be used alongside traditional economic measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to offer a more nuanced and complete perspective on the economic well-being of a nation. Other indices, such as the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), have built upon this foundation and further developed the ideas of the capability approach.