The Life and Contributions of Joan Robinson to Economics

Categories: Economics

Joan Robinson was a profound influence on the economic ideas and concepts we see today, not only because of her presence in a time when women weren’t widely accepted as high thinkers, but because of her ideas so relevant and clearly articulated. Joan was born in 1903 in Camberley, Surrey and died at eighty years old in Cambridge, England. Joan was the daughter to Frederick Maurice and Helen Marsh. Her father worked with the British army and her mother was the daughter of a Professor of Surgery at Downing College in Cambridge.

Joan possessed many traits as that of her honorable family members: toughness, standing firm in her beliefs, unorthodox views, and a passion toward the new and unknown information surrounding her. Joan attended high school and continued her education at the University of Cambridge until graduating in 1925 from Girton College. She married Austin Robinson, who taught as a lecturer in Economics at Cambridge. On an academic level, Robinson slowly worked her way up through the hierarchy at Cambridge.

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It was thought that her slow rise through the Cambridge ranks was due to the fact her husband was employed there as well. Although her husband may have been a factor in the slow ascension of her career, an article written by Economist’s View stated “she suffered professionally from being a women” revealing another factor in her slow climb at Cambridge (Economist’s View).

She became a full-time professor only after Austin retirement, in 1965. She was extremely popular with the students.

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She inspired strong feelings, such as passion and high goals among her students, but her opponents were frightened by her, and her friends really admired her nonconformity. She retired from Cambridge in 1971. Later in the 1970s, King’s College, named Joan an Honorary Fellow of King’s College, making her the first women to the receive the honor. She suffered a stroke February of 1983 and died peacefully six months later. In order to understand Robinson’s contributions to economic theory, it’s helpful consider the intellectual properties of her personality. Joan Robinson had an analytical ability that was remarkable. She typically did not use mathematics in her explanations. In her earlier pieces of work she used geometrical representations. Her style was hard to reproduce, but very effective in terms of conveying ideas and concepts. She was able to display her views best through opposition or support of another’s position.

This allowed her to be extremely open to concepts and contributions coming from others she encountered through her work, making it important when looking at Joan Robinson’s contributions, to keep in mind the other economists who influenced or drove her to produce the work, these include her teachers Marshall, Pigou, Keynes, Shove, but especially Richard Kahn, who read, criticized, and imposed wisdom upon every single one of her works, but also includes her students. Joan Robinson was a highly original thinker. One can see the evolution over time in Joan Robinson’s work with economics that strengthened her innovative ways of thinking. In her early years there is evidence of her being the cautious type, preoccupied at with building up a solid and stable foundation for herself.

When she was able to find comfort within her ideas and created that stable foundation for herself, she began to extend herself more and more into the exciting realm of possibilities. In her more developed works her style had been established. A mixture of educational and intellectual factors made her a great women economist, but also a leading economist with unorthodox views within the 20th century. Joan, herself, wrote numerous books and articles. These pieces of work fall into three groups, to go with the three phases of her development as an economist. The first group showcases her work on The Economics of Imperfect Competition written in 1933. The second group is a phase of explanation and defence of Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, which is more focused on ideas involving macroeconomics. Finally, the third phase was based of her work, The Accumulation of Capital in 1956.

Other works of hers have originated from different interests or from the need to provide student her students at Cambridge University with different sources. The most notable piece of work completed by Joan Robinson in 1933, The Economics of Imperfect Competition. It was the book of written in her younger time with older ideas. The book that appeared within a similar time frame as Economics of Imperfect Competition, was The Theory of Monopolistic Competition by Edward Chamberlin. The two books are commonly linked together displaying their removal from common economic theory during that time.

The Economics of Imperfect Competition was not Joan Robinson’s only contribution to microeconomic theory during this time period. Her name is seen over and over on the pages of the highly experimental and radical economic journals from this time. Within her papers there is also mention of “rising supply price”, a concept mostly seen in the microeconomics sphere of things and of her contribution to clarifying the meaning of Euler’s theorem within marginal productivities(Robinson, Joan Violet (1903-1983)). The Rate of Interest and Other Essays written in 1952 has an essay which follows the ideals of “Generalization of the General Theory”(Financial Development and Economic Growth: A Dynamic Panel Data Analysis). The Accumulation of Capital represents the central nucleus of what Joan thought of as a new desgin for economic theory.

Then the Exercises in Economic Analysis written in 1960, the Essays in the Theory of Economic Growth and a series of other articles that take the argument a bit further. Another of Joan’s notable pieces of writing is, The Accumulation of Capital written in 1956 serving as a tribute to another great economist, Rosa Luxemburg, although the book has a very different approach and time stamp. Joan’s later work reflected that of Keynesian and Harrod’s economic ideas and models and Wicksell’s theories. The question posed was, “what are the necessary conditions for the achievement of a growth of income and capital in the long-term; and what is the outcome of this process, in terms of growth of gross and net output and of the distribution of income between wages and profits, given a certain evolution through time of the labour force and of technology”(Robinson, Joan Violet (1903-1983))?

To answer this Joan created a model with a finite number and shows the interactions of the relationship between “wages and profits, the stock of capital and the techniques of production, entrepreneurial expectations and the degree of competition in the economy”(Robinson, Joan Violet (1903 1983)). The whole analysis of the question and the answer Joan posed, done without any mathematics, typical of Joan’s signature style. Joan had a deep love for economics students and teaching of economics, which lead to books, which contributed to an overall approach to economics. The ideas and reflections accounted for over the course of her life took the form of books. Pieces of work, which were concerned with bigger issues than economics. Even with her role as a women in society at this time, these writings and pieces of work place Joan Robinson among the influential and higher thinkers of her time. Her pieces of literature, informative, but at the same time they may well be enjoyed by the everyday reader.


  1. Chamberlin, Edward. The Theory of Monopolistic Competition. Harvard University Press, 1933. “Economist’s View.” Economist’s View: The Legacy of Joan Robinson,
  2. “Euler’s Product Exhaustion Theorem (With Diagram).” Economics Discussion, 1 Mar. 2016, diagram/18880.
  3. “Joan Robinson Theory Of Value Definiton.” Joan Robinson Theory Of Value Definiton“,
  4. “Joan Violet Robinson.” Joan Violet Robinson: The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics Library of Economics and Liberty,
  5. Keynes, John Maynard. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Palgrave Macmillan, 1933.
  6. Khalil Mhadhbi. Financial Development and Economic Growth: A Dynamic Panel Data Analysis. International Journal of Econometrics and Financial Management. 2014; 2(2):48 58.
  7. Luxemburg, Rosa. The Accumulation of Capital. Routledge, 1913.
  8. Robinson, Joan. Essays in the Theory of Economic Growth. Palgrave Macmillan, 1962.
  9. Robinson, Joan. Exercises in Economic Analysis. MacMillan, 1961.
  10. Robinson, Joan. The Economics of Imperfect Competition. Palgrave, 1933.
  11. Robinson, Joan. The Rate of Interest and Other Essays. Macmillan, 1952.
  12. “Robinson, Joan Violet (1903-1983)”,

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The Life and Contributions of Joan Robinson to Economics. (2021, Sep 25). Retrieved from

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