Joan Robinson

From New World Encyclopedia

Joan Violet Robinson, née Maurice (October 31, 1903 – August 5, 1983) was a Keynesian economist, arguably the only great female economist born before 1940. She was well known for her work on monetary economics and development of undeveloped countries. Her 1933 publication The Economics of Imperfect Competition introduced the concept of monopolistic competition. She belonged to the "Cambridge Circus," a group of economists who contributed toward the Keynesian revolution. She was also among the economists who started the Cambridge Capital Controversy in the 1950s and 1960s, becoming one of the leaders of the Neo-Ricardian and Post-Keynesian schools, attacking the neoclassical view that capital could be measured and aggregated. In her later work she introduced Marxist ideas, and was openly supportive of left-wing regimes such as Mao Zedong's China and Kim Il Sung's North Korea.

Robinson never received a Nobel Prize for her work, a fact that has been considered a great "oversights" given the quality of her work and her contributions to the development of economic theory in the twentieth century. Some attribute this to gender discrimination—to her being a woman; others believe that her political views were more significant factors.


Joan Maurice was born in Camberley, Surrey, England, the daughter of Sir Frederick and Lady Helen Maurice. She was educated at St. Paul's Girls' School in London, after which she attended Girton College, University of Cambridge, earning her degree in 1925. She got married, immediately after graduation, to economist Austin Robinson.

The Robinsons spent the following two years in India, Austin tutoring the Maharajah of Gwalior and Joan teaching in a local school. After that they returned to England and settled down in Cambridge. Joan became an assistant lecturer in economics at the University of Cambridge in 1931, a lecturer in 1937, and a reader in 1949.

During the 1930s, Robinson was a member of a group that has become known as the "Cambridge Circus"—a group of economists gathered around John Maynard Keynes, which supported Keynes in the development of his General Theory.

During World War II, Joan Robinson worked on several different committees for the wartime government. During this time, she visited the Soviet Union as well as China. She developed an interest in underdeveloped and developing nations and contributed to what is now understood in this section of economics.

Robinson joined the British Academy in 1958 and was elected a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1962. In 1965 she was given the position of full professor and fellow of Girton College. In 1979, just four years before she died, she became the first female fellow of King's College. She retired in 1971, but continued to write, teach, and supervise students until her death.

Joan Robinson died on August 5, 1983, in Cambridge, England. She was survived by her two children, Ann and Barbara.


In one of her first works Economics is a Serious Subject: The Apologia of an Economist to the Mathematician, the Scientist and the Plain Man (1932), Robinson analyzed the historical development of economical thought. She saw economics as (1) an attempt to produce objective scientific knowledge of a business world, and (2) a branch of theology—a means of the ruling ideology and an instrument of social control. She believed that economists need to separate those two aspects.

Joan Robinson was initially a supporter of neoclassical economics; her first major work The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933) being largely within mainstream economics. There, she analyzed the theory of imperfect competition, trying to replace existing economic models based on perfect competition with ones based in imperfect competition. However, since most economists analyzed economic equilibria assuming perfect competition, Robinson’s models did not receive much attention at the time. Her work however, together with Edward H. Chamberlin’s Theory of Monopolistic Competition (1933), started wide discussion on monopolistic competition.

In her article on the neoclassical theory of distribution, Euler's Theorem and the Problem of Distribution (1934), Robinson further contributed to Marshallian economics.

Robinson abandoned her views on neoclassical economics after getting acquainted with John Maynard Keynes. As a member of the "Cambridge School" of economics, Robinson assisted with the support and exposition of Keynes' General Theory, writing especially on its employment implications in 1936 and 1937 (in the midst of the Great Depression it tried to explain). She eventually became one of the leading interpreters of Keynes, defending his ideas against the criticism of mainstream conservative economists. She also argued for expanding of Keynes’ General Theory to other fields of economics.

In 1942 Robinson's An Essay on Marxian Economics famously concentrated on Karl Marx as an economist, helping revive the debate on this aspect of his legacy. The book brought Marx’s political and economic ideas back into the spotlight of contemporary debate.

In 1949, she was invited by Ragnar Frisch to become the vice president of the Econometric Society but declined.

In the 1950s, Piero Sraffa and Robinson started what has been known as the "Cambridge Capital Controversy," concerning the nature and role of capital goods. In her 1954 article "The Production Function and the Theory of Capital," Robinson attacked the traditional neoclassical view that capital could be measured and aggregated. Sraffa’s and Robinson’s views became the Cambridge position. On the other side were Americans, including Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who claimed that capital could be aggregated.

In 1956, Joan Robinson published her magnum opus, The Accumulation of Capital, which extended Keynes’ ideas onto the issues of growth and capital accumulation. Six years later, she published another book about growth theory, which talked about concepts of "Golden Age" growth paths. Afterwards, she worked with Nicholas Kaldor, developing the Cambridge growth theory with him.

In the late career, she studied and concentrated on methodological problems in economics and tried to recover the original message of Keynes' General Theory. Between 1962 and 1980 she wrote many books to try and bring several economic theories to the general public. Robinson suggested developing an alternative to the revival of classical economics.

By the end of her life, Robinson became increasingly left-wing in her political views. She admired Mao Tse-tung's China and Kim Il Sung's North Korea. She even made several trips to China, reporting her observations and analyses in An Economic Perspective (1958), The Cultural Revolution in China (1969), and Economic Management in China (1975). Some believe that because of her political views she never won the Nobel Prize in economics, although many economists considered her worthy.


Unlike most economists, Robinson did not concentrate on a single idea, but rather was interested in and made contributions to very different areas of economics. Her early works on imperfect competition did not initially stir much debate, but created an important foundation for further work on monopolistic competition. She initiated what came to be called the “Cambridge Capital Controversy,” attacking the neoclassical view that capital could be measured and aggregated.

Robinson never received a Nobel Prize for her work, a fact that has been considered one of the greatest "oversights" in modern economics. Some attribute this to gender discrimination—to her being a woman; others believe that her political views and opposition to mainstream economic thought were more significant factors.


  • Robinson, Joan. 1932. Economics is a serious subject: The apologia of an economist to the mathematician, the scientist and the plain man. W. Heffer & Sons.
  • Robinson, Joan. [1933] 1969. The Economics of Imperfect Competition. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0333102894
  • Robinson, Joan. 1934. "Euler's Theorem and the Problem of Distribution" in Economic Journal. 44, 398-414
  • Robinson, Joan. [1937] 1969. Introduction to the Theory of Employment. Macmillan. ISBN 0333043952
  • Robinson, Joan. [1942] 1991. An Essay on Marxian Economics. Porcupine Press. ISBN 0879912707
  • Robinson, Joan. 1953. "The Production Function and the Theory of Capital" in Review of Economic Studies. 21, 81-106
  • Robinson, Joan. 1956. The Accumulation of Capital. Richard R. Irwin.
  • Robinson, Joan. 1958. China: An Economic Perspective. London: Fabian International Bureau.
  • Robinson, Joan. [1962] 2006. Economic Philosophy: An essay on the progress of economic thought. Aldine Transaction. ISBN 0202309088
  • Robinson, Joan. 1962. Essays in the Theory of Economic Growth. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0333095197
  • Robinson, Joan. 1969. The Cultural Revolution in China. Baltimore: Penguin Books.
  • Robinson, Joan. 1975. Economic Management in China. London: Anglo-Chinese Educational Institute. ISBN 090319306X

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