Amartya Kumar Sen, CH, FBA (born 3 November 1933) is an Indian economist and philosopher, who since 1972 has taught and worked in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Sen has made contributions to welfare economics, social choice theory, economic and social justice, economic theories of famines, and indexes of the measure of well-being of citizens of developing countries.
He is currently the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor at Harvard University and member of faculty at Harvard Law School. He is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 and India’s Bharat Ratna in 1999 for his work in welfare economics. In 2017, Sen was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science for most valuable contribution to Political Science.
Sen’s work on ‘Choice of Techniques’ complemented that of Maurice Dobb. In a Developing country, the Dobb-Sen strategy relied on maximising investible surpluses, maintaining constant real wages and using the entire increase in labour productivity, due to technological change, to raise the rate of accumulation. In other words, workers were expected to demand no improvement in their standard of living despite having become more productive. Sen’s papers in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped develop the theory of social choice, which first came to prominence in the work by the American economist Kenneth Arrow. Arrow, while working at the RAND Corporation, had most famously shown that when voters have three or more distinct alternatives (options), any ranked order voting system will in at least some situations inevitably conflict with what many assume to be basic democratic norms. Sen’s contribution to the literature was to show under what conditions Arrow’s impossibility theorem applied, as well as to extend and enrich the theory of social choice, informed by his interests in history of economic thought and philosophy.
Sen began his career both as a teacher and a research scholar in the Department of Economics, Jadavpur University as a Professor of Economics in 1956. He spent two years in that position. From 1957 to 1963, Sen served as a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Between 1960 and 1961, Sen was a visiting Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, where he got to know Paul Samuelson, Robert Solow, Franco Modigliani, and Norbert Wiener. He was also a visiting Professor at UC-Berkeley (1964-1965) and Cornell (1978-1984). He taught as Professor of Economics between 1963 and 1971 at the Delhi School of Economics (where he completed his magnum opus Collective Choice and Social Welfare in 1969). During this time he was also a frequent visitor to various other premiere Indian economic schools and centres of excellence like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Indian Statistical Institute, Centre for Development Studies, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics and Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. Sen was a companion of distinguished economists like Manmohan Singh (Ex-Prime Minister of India and a veteran economist responsible for liberalizing the Indian economy), K. N. Raj (Advisor to various Prime Ministers and a veteran economist who was the founder of Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, which is one of India’s premier think tanks and schools) and Jagdish Bhagwati (who is known to be one of the greatest Indian economists in the field of International Trade and currently teaches at Columbia University). This is a period considered to be a Golden Period in the history of DSE. In 1971, he joined the London School of Economics as a Professor of Economics where he taught until 1977. From 1977 to 1988, he taught at the University of Oxford, where he was first a Professor of Economics and Fellow of Nuffield College, and then the Drummond Professor of Political Economy and a Fellow of All Souls College from 1980. In 1987, he joined Harvard as the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor of Economics. In 1998 he was appointed as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, becoming the first Asian head of an Oxbridge college. In January 2004, Sen returned to Harvard. He also established the Eva Colorni Trust at the former London Guildhall University in the name of his deceased wife.
He has served as president of the Econometric Society (1984), the International Economic Association (1986–1989), the Indian Economic Association (1989) and the American Economic Association (1994). He has also served as President of the Development Studies Association and the Human Development and Capability Association. He serves as the honorary director of the Academic Advisory Committee of the Center for Human and Economic Development Studies at Peking University in China.
Sen has been called “the Conscience of the profession” and “the Mother Teresa of Economics” for his work on famine, human development theory, welfare economics, the underlying mechanisms of poverty, gender inequality, and political liberalism. However, he denies the comparison to Mother Teresa, saying that he has never tried to follow a lifestyle of dedicated self-sacrifice. Amartya Sen also added his voice to the campaign against the anti-gay Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.