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Posted: 15 June 2007

Nobel economist rejects ‘clash of civilisations’ analysis of violence

The illusion of singular identity is skilfully cultivated and activated by the commanders of persecution and carnage, according to Professor Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics.

In a lecture delivered to an invited audience at UCD on 14 June 2007, Professor Sen argued that people do not identify themselves through the membership of any one particular group. In fact, he claimed that in our normal lives we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups. He explained that a person may at once, and without any contradiction, consider themselves an Irish citizen, a European citizen, a poet, a teacher, a writer, and a football fan. A person decides on the relative importance of their multiple associations and affiliations in any particular context.

In the lecture Professor Sen argued that the ‘the crude idea of the clash of civilizations’ is not an explanation for the terrorist violence we have witnessed in recent times. He also went on to dispel the widely held belief that poverty single-handedly generates violence. He told the audience that no single factor alone can explain violence. A more robust explanation of violence requires consideration of economic, social, and cultural contributing factors, he said.

According to Professor Sen, some of the divisions of identity are made more tangible and serious through their association with poverty and inequality, and it is mainly through this that poverty becomes a lethal cause of violence.

While identity politics can certainly be mobilised in the cause of violence, that violence can also be resisted through an understanding of the richness of human identities, claimed Sen. It is that understanding, that the instigators want to break down, and this we have to resist, he exclaimed.

Professor Sen’s insistence on posing questions of value made him unique among late twentieth-century economists.

In 1981, he published ‘Poverty and Famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation.’ In this book he showed that famine was not the result of a lack of food but rather the result of inequalities of the mechanisms of food distribution. He revealed that in many cases of famine food supplies were not significantly reduced. In relation to the Bengal famine of 1943, he pointed to several social and economic factors including declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices and poor food-distribution systems as the root cause of starvation among certain groups. His seminal work in this field influenced governments and international organisations handling food crises across the globe.

But Professor Sen’s revolutionary contribution to late twentieth-century development economics was the concept of ‘capability.’ Using this concept he argued that governments should be measured against the concrete capabilities of their citizens, because top-down development would always win over human rights as long as the definition of the terms remained in any doubt.

Sen argued that in the US, as in other democratic societies, a citizen’s hypothetical ‘right to vote’ was a fairly empty concept unless they had equal access to what he termed ‘functionings.’ Functionings ranging from broad elements like education, to specific elements like transportation to the polls.

Born in India in 1933, Professor Sen graduated from Presidency College, Calcutta in 1953 and from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1955. He completed his PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1959. In 1998, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on famine, human development theory, welfare economics, the underlying mechanisms of poverty, and political liberalism. He is currently Lamont University Professor at Harvard and formerly Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He has published more than ten books and they have been translated into thirty languages.

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Nobel Prize Winning Economist Professor Amartya Sen at University College Dublin on July 14 2007