Veblen: The exigencies of modern industrial life

Marc R. Tool A neoinstitutional theory of social change in Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class”

An excellent article touching on many important aspects of Veblen’s work:

Veblen develops original analytical constructs–the instinct of workmanship, invidious distinctions, conspicuous consumption, conspicuous waste–to explain in causal terms motivations and habituations that drive conduct, determine the structural ordering of economies, identify sources of productivity, arrange the distribution of income, and define the loci of power. He seeks to understand how the institutional fabric is constituted, how it functions, and what the actual consequences of its operations are. His analyses examine a social order in process; his mode of inquiry is then necessarily processual. It incorporates concepts that have a provisional status, that can be adapted to observable changes in institutional form and substance.


For Veblen, scientific inquiry is a quest for “an articulate recognition of causal sequence in phenomena, whether physical or social” (1934, 386). “The exigencies of modern industrial life,” he insists, “have enforced the recognition of causal sequence in the practical contact of mankind with their environment” (387). The rudimentary pursuit of such systematized knowledge is impaired by “anthropomorphic sentiment,” by “an expression of an archaic, animistic habit of mind,” by “professions of devotional zeal,” and the like (178).

Science is a pursuit of “knowledge for its own sake, the exercise of the faculty of comprehension without ulterior purpose” (1934, 383). The pursuit of scientific knowledge in universities–the “higher learning”– is retarded, regrettably, by judgments of status (382), by invidious distinctions rooted in gender (376), and by resistance from established scholars. “New views, new departures in scientific theory, especially new departures which touch the theory of human relations at any point, have found a place in the scheme of the university tardily and by a reluctant tolerance, rather than by a cordial welcome” (380).


Veblen disclaims, perhaps mischievously, any normative intent or responsibility in his approach to inquiry. He contends, for example, that he has “nothing to say in the way of eulogy or depreciation of the office of the leisure class as a vehicle of conservatism or reversion in social structure” and that “right” and “wrong” are “used without conveying any reflection as to what ought or ought not to be”(1934, 208-07).

This, and similar comments notwithstanding, Veblen’s inquiry is everywhere driven by an intellectual purposiveness that seeks to explain reality in order to foster identification and revision of the “imbecile” institutions that prevent a community from solving its problems of adequate provisioning and more equitable distribution. He distinguishes on the one hand, between those activities that actually enhance the community’s ability efficiently to generate and sustain the flow of real income, and on the other hand, those activities that invidiously divert resource creation and use to comparatively noncontributive forms reflected in invidious display, conspicuous consumption, and ceremonial waste. Veblen seeks to generate an inquiry approach that will facilitate the replacement of imbecile institutions with more culturally and intellectually warranted institutions. Although he is not remembered as a persistent and influential policy advisor, many of his students took on such responsibilities. In sum, Veblen’s theory of social change is culturally embedded, processually constituted, analytically cogent, scientifically warranted , and normatively evaluative as an explanation of causal phenomena.

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