About Alice Amsden

A prolific scholar, Alice Amsden wrote extensively about the process of industrialization in emerging economies, particularly in Asia. Her work frequently emphasized the importance of the state as a creator of economic growth, and challenged the idea that globalization had produced generally uniform conditions in which emerging economies could find a one-size-fits-all path to prosperity. Amsden wrote or co-authored seven books, and dozens of journal articles, essays and chapters in edited volumes. She also wrote frequently for general-interest publications; her work appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, Dissent, Boston Review, Technology Review and others.

For those who have yet to encounter her formidable works, Alice Amsden was one of the most accomplished heterodox economists in the world, specialized in the field of economic development, as well as a consummate teacher. Amsden, who received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and her PhD from the London School of Economics, became an economist at a time when women held only 7% of the doctorates in the field (in the USA). She was a non-conforming empiricist, challenging dominant economic development orthodoxy by looking at the facts inductively.

With an uncanny ability to see and predict the consequences of mechanisms overlooked or rejected by others, Alice Amsden was one of the first scholars to anticipate and explain how a diverse group of emerging countries, both in Asia and in Latin America, had risen to become established economic powers in their own right. Central to Amsden’s theory of late industrialization was the assertion that economic activity capable of lifting wages is connected to a reciprocal rise in productivity following that increase. Her research sought to identify how firms could shift from primary commodity production to the production of more sophisticated and competitive goods.

Alice Amsden’s insights were multiscalar, starting at the firm and reaching upward to the state and ultimately global institutions. She advocated that development depends on learning to make goods satisfactorily – utilizing domestic markets as proving grounds at first, but ultimately with the objective target of performance achieving global standards. Her empirically informed, theoretically rich contributions continue to serve as building blocks for the practice of both policymakers and scholars – not just economists but also planners, political scientists, sociologists, and others – interested in understanding how countries can and do develop successfully. Even the World Bank itself has recently, albeit grudgingly, admitted that it went too far by requiring the rollback of policies and programs while promoting deregulation of the public sector through the unrelenting pursuit of privatization – that institutions such as this are now supporting some state (re)interventions is evidence of the impact of her ideas.

In addition to numerous journal articles, Amsden published:

This text is composed of excerpts from the article “Revisiting development theory: Alice H. Amsden’s impact on the field”, by Judith Clifton, Amy Glasmeier, and Alpen Sheth, published in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 2017 Festschrift in honor of Alice Amsden (Vol. 10, Issue 1).

MIT obituary: Alice Amsden