Alfred Marshall’s Definition of Economics: An Explanation

Alfred Marshall's definition of economics remains a fundamental concept in the field of economics.

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Economics is a social science that studies how individuals, firms, and societies allocate scarce resources among unlimited wants and needs. Among the many contributions to economics, Alfred Marshall’s definition of economics is a fundamental and widely studied concept in the discipline. Marshall, an English economist, developed his definition in the late 19th century, and it remains relevant today. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive overview of Marshall’s definition of economics, its key components, and its implications for the field.

Alfred Marshall’s life and contributions to economics:

Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) was a British economist who is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern economics. He was a professor of political economy at Cambridge University and was a prominent figure in the late 19th and early 20th century economic debates. Marshall made significant contributions to several areas of economics, including microeconomics, macroeconomics, and economic methodology. His most famous work, Principles of Economics, was first published in 1890 and remains a foundational text in the field.

Marshall’s definition of economics

Marshall defined economics as “a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life; it examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of material requisites of well-being.” This definition is broad and encompasses both individual and social action. Marshall believed that economics should not be limited to the study of wealth or money, but should instead focus on the well-being of individuals and society.

Key components of Marshall’s definition

Marshall’s definition has several key components. First, he emphasized the importance of individual and social action. Marshall believed that economics should be concerned with how individuals and society use resources to attain well-being. Second, Marshall emphasized the role of material requisites of well-being. This includes goods and services that people need or desire, such as food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. Finally, Marshall believed that economics should not be limited to the study of wealth or money. Instead, economics should focus on how resources are allocated to promote well-being.

Implications of Marshall’s definition for the field of economics

Marshall’s definition of economics has several implications for the field. First, it broadens the scope of economics beyond the study of wealth or money. This allows economists to study a wide range of topics, including education, healthcare, and the environment. Second, Marshall’s definition emphasizes the importance of individual and social well-being. This encourages economists to consider the distribution of resources and the impact of economic policies on individuals and society. Finally, Marshall’s definition highlights the importance of understanding how resources are allocated. This allows economists to study the efficiency and equity of different economic systems and policies.

Criticisms of Marshall’s definition

Marshall’s definition of economics has been criticized for being too broad and vague. Some economists argue that it is difficult to define the boundaries of economics with such a broad definition. Others argue that the emphasis on well-being is too subjective and cannot be measured accurately. Finally, some economists argue that Marshall’s definition is too focused on material requisites of well-being and ignores the importance of non-material factors, such as social and cultural factors.

Contemporary relevance of Marshall’s definition

Despite these criticisms, Marshall’s definition of economics remains relevant today. It continues to shape the way economists think about discipline and its role in society.

One area where Marshall’s definition has gained particular relevance is in the study of development economics. Many economists argue that traditional measures of economic development, such as gross domestic product (GDP), fail to capture the broader aspects of well-being emphasized by Marshall. Development economists have therefore sought to develop alternative measures of well-being that incorporate factors such as health, education, and social welfare.

Marshall’s definition has also influenced the study of behavioral economics, which seeks to understand how individuals make decisions in the face of incomplete information and bounded rationality. Behavioral economists have argued that traditional models of economic behavior are too simplistic and fail to capture the complexity of human decision-making. Marshall’s emphasis on the well-being of individuals and society provides a broader framework for understanding economic behavior and decision-making.

In conclusion, Alfred Marshall’s definition of economics remains a fundamental concept in the field of economics. His emphasis on individual and social well-being, as well as the efficient allocation of resources, continues to shape the way economists think about the discipline and its role in society. While his definition has been criticized for being too broad and subjective, it remains a useful framework for understanding the complex relationships between individuals, society, and the economy.


  • Marshall, A. (1890). Principles of Economics. Macmillan and Co.
  • Stigler, G. J. (1941). Production and Distribution Theories: The Formative Period. The Journal of Political Economy, 49(3), 361-387.
  • Sen, A. K. (1985). Commodities and Capabilities. Elsevier Science Ltd.
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