Joan Robinson

The English economist Joan Violet Maurice Robinson (née Maurice; 1903-1983) was one of the foremost economists of her generation and the most accomplished, productive, and eminent female economist. She stood as the leading heterodox or dissenting economist of her time.

Joan Violet Maurice was born in Camberley, Surrey, England, in 1903 into a distinguished family in which individuals sought achievement in both the military and the church and remained firm in their beliefs. She was educated at St. Paul's Girls' School in London and then at Girton College of the University of Cambridge. In 1926 she married another English economist, E.A.G. Robinson. They spent the first two years in India where he was a tutor of the Maharajah of Gwalior and she a sometime teacher in a local school. They returned to Cambridge in 1928 and she commenced a career of serious contemplation, theorizing, research, and writing. Her gender, coupled with her husband having a position in the same faculty, hindered her promotion. She did not become a professor until 1965, having been a lecturer and reader during the interim, positions of considerably lower stature. The low level of academic recognition accorded her reflects the discriminatory treatment of women while underscoring the enormity of her achievements. That Joan Robinson did not receive the Nobel Prize in Economic Science may reflect both her gender and her outspoken criticisms of economic orthodoxy. She did leave a group of dedicated students who themselves became productive scholars, working generally along the lines she set down.

Robinson's first major work, The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933), was largely within mainstream economics. It involved the working out of a theory of imperfect competition; that is, of competition limited because a firm may sell products which are not, in consumers' minds, perfect substitutes for those of its nominal competitors. Perfect competition is suggested to be a special case in the real world. Robinson intended for her analysis to eclipse or replace that of perfect competition, but economists, desiring to use the competition assumption to reach determinate equilibrium results, generally tended to pursue analyses using the assumption of perfect competition. This restricted Robinson's analysis, and the comparable analysis of certain other economists, to a separate analytical compartment, thereby rendering it relatively impotent.

Yet Robinson's work in the theory of imperfect competition had two remarkable, if substantially unintended, results. On the one hand, it helped redirect the theory of price and resource allocation toward the theory of the firm, rather than to markets as such; on the other hand, it established the mathematical techniques which came regularly to be used by economists working on price theory and the theory of the firm. Robinson therefore provided the geometrical mode of economic discourse but not the substitution of her particular theory for the mainstream focus on perfect competition.

Four decades later it became widely known that, during the same period in which she developed her theory of imperfect competition, Robinson was a member of an informal group, called the Circus, that served as a sounding board for John Maynard Keynes when he was developing the ideas contained in his epochal General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936). Robinson subsequently became a leading interpreter of Keynes, on the one hand opposing more conservative economists whose own interpretations would have, in her view, severely restricted, if not destroyed, the messages for macroeconomic theory and policy which Keynes was trying to convey; and on the other urging that Keynes' type of analysis could be expanded and extended to other fundamental economic questions.

Together with other writers, most notably Piero Sraffa, Robinson attempted to develop a new approach to political economy, one whose emphasis was on growth and distribution. It questioned the coherence and completeness of the mainstream theories of production, growth, and distribution by calling attention to certain points, fundamental but hitherto neglected. These points concern the coherence of the concept of capital and the relations of the quantity of capital to both the rate of aggregate economic growth and the distribution of income, especially in a world of disequilibrium, uncertainty, capital accumulation, alternative combinations of inputs in producing goods (called production functions) and (re)switching from one combination to another, and the institutional and power structure factors underlying the operations of these factors. Her approach centered in part on a vision of a dual relationship between profitability and economic growth: growth depends on (actual and expected) profits, and profitability depends on growth, a fundamental relationship involving complexities not readily absorbed by conventional economic theory and thereby largely ignored by its practitioners.

Finally, Robinson was an incisive interpreter of the history of economic thought. She believed that economics was both (1) a branch of theology and a vehicle for the ruling ideology of each period—that is, an instrument of social control—and (2) an attempt to produce objective scientific knowledge. She felt that economics was inevitably characterized by tensions between these two aspects and that the careful analyst had to separate the two, a task that was not easily accomplished and that likely would be done differently (or to different effects) by different thinkers. Because economics is a serious subject, one needs to be cautious and self-conscious, even skeptical, in its practice.

In 1971 Robinson presented the prestigious Richard T. Ely Lecture to the American Economic Association. Among her many awards was an honorary doctorate from Harvard University in 1980. She and her husband had two children, Ann, born in 1934, and Barbara, born in 1937. Joan Robinson died in 1983.

Further Reading on Joan Violet Maurice Robinson

There is no complete biography of Joan Violet Robinson. The closest to such a biography is Marjorie S. Turner's Joan Robinson and the Americans (1989). Detailed summaries and bibliographies of her technical and other work can be found in the entry by Luigi L. Pasinetti in The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics (1987), volume 4, and the essay by Geoffrey Harcourt in Henry W. Spiegel and Warren J. Samuels, editors, Contemporary Economists in Perspective (1984), volume 2. For a discussion of her Economic Philosophy (1962), see Warren J. Samuels, "In Praise of Joan Robinson: Economics as Social Control," in Society (January/February 1989).