Amartya Sen, one of the most significant economists of our age and an outstanding voice for justice in the world today, was born in 1933 on the campus of Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan, the famous institution established by the great Rabindranath Tagore. Like Tagore, Sen would go on to win the Nobel Prize.
The child of Amita Sen and of Ashutosh Sen, who taught chemistry at Dhaka University, Sen inherited his skill with words from his grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen, a distinguished scholar and teacher of Sanskrit and Indian history at Visva-Bharati, and his sparkling and erudite work challenges the reputation of economics as the ?dismal science?.
Between the ages of three and six, Sen lived in Mandalay, Burma, where his father was a visiting professor. Much of his childhood, though, was spent in Dhaka, where he attended St. Gregory?s School. He went on to Tagore?s school at Santiniketan, which is renowned for its emphasis on cultivating the child?s curiosity, for its openness to cultural influences from all over the world, and for its opposition to the sectarian bigotry and violence which swept India in the period leading up to partition.
It was during his time as a student at Presidency College, Calcutta, from 1951 to 1953, that Sen began to develop his thinking about the themes which would preoccupy him throughout his career. He characterises them as ?welfare economics, economic inequality and politics, on the one hand ? and the scope and possibility of rational, tolerant and democratic social choice (including voting procedures and the protection of liberty and minority rights) on the other?.
After completing his first degree, in 1953, Sen went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he completed a further BA in economics. He then enrolled for doctoral study at Cambridge. At the age of 23 he was appointed to a chair of economics at Jadavpur University, Calcutta. Soon afterwards he won a Prize Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1963 he accepted a professorship at the Delhi School of Economics and the University of Delhi, where he remained until 1971.
During his years in Delhi, Sen developed his seminal work in social choice theory. In 1970 he published his path-breaking book, Collective Choice and Social Welfare, which deals with the relationship between individual preferences and their aggregation into collective preferences. In 1971, Sen moved to London, where he taught at the London School of Economics. In 1977 he was appointed Professor of Economics at Oxford University and, in 1980, Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford. In these years he published numerous papers in the field of welfare economics, dealing with issues including the assessment of poverty, the evaluation of inequality, the measurement of national income, unemployment, questions of personal liberty and rights, and gender inequality. These were collected in the books Choice, Welfare and Resources and Values and Development.
From the mid-1970s, Sen pursued his vastly influential work on the causes and prevention of famine, which produced, among other things, his classic 1981 book Poverty and Famines. In Sen?s own words, his approach is to understand ?famines as broad economic problems (concentrating on how people buy food, or otherwise get entitled to it), rather than in terms of the grossly undifferentiated picture of aggregate food supply for the economy as a whole.? Much of the work was conducted under the auspices of World Institute of Development Economics Research, Helsinki.
From the mid-1980s, Sen developed his notable collaboration with the Belgian economist, Jean Dr?. At this time Sen?s work became increasingly directed to the nature of individual advantage, which he approaches from the point of view of understanding personal ability, which depends on physical and mental characteristics as well as on social opportunities and advantages. Much of this work evolved in collaboration with the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Sen, whose work involved a close but critical engagement with the philosophy of John Rawls, has also contributed to debates on questions of rationality, objectivity, facts and values.
At the end of the 1980s, Sen took up a professorship at Harvard University. He remained there until 1998 when he became Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. In the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. Since 2004, he has been back at Harvard, where he holds the position of Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy.
His 1999 book, Development As Freedom, brought his social and economic ideas to a wider non-specialist audience. He has also used the breadth of his learning to become a public intellectual on issues ranging well beyond economics. His recent book of literary essays, The Argumentative Indian, has been an outstanding success.
Armartya Sen has remained closely involved with India and Bangladesh throughout his time abroad. He used part of his Nobel Prize money to establish the Pratichi Trust, which works in the fields of literacy, basic health care, and gender equity in those countries.
Sen is married to the historian of economic thought, Emma Rothschild. He has two children, Antara and Nadana, from his first marriage, to Nabaneeta Dev, and two, Indrani and Kabir, from his marriage to Eva Colorni, who died in 1985.