Nature and Scope of Economics

Economics is a dynamic science and it is acquiring new dimensions with the passage of time. In the words of DURBIN,

“Economics is the intellectual religion of the day.”

Initially this challenging science was named as Oikonomos, i.e. “The Management of Home Affairs.” Later, a well-known economist David Ricardo called it “Political Economy.” With the passage of time, it was realized that political affairs and economic affairs should be discussed separately. Thus “Political Economy” was divided into two separate branches of science, i.e. “Political Science” and “Economics”.

Definition of Economics

Various economists have defined Economics in their own ways. There is no single definitions of Economics on which all economists agree. Dr. Keynes has rightly pointed out that:

“Political Economy is said to have strangled itself with definitions.”

Anyhow, a prominent economist L.M. Fraser has divided these definitions of Economics into two categories: First category is related to material welfare while the second category is related to scarcity of means. We discuss these categories of definitions under three schools of thoughts.

  • i. Classical school of thought
  • ii. Neo-Classical school of thought; and
  • iii. Modern school of thought.
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Classical Definition of Economics

Adam Smith, a Scottish professor of philosophy, is considered the representative of classical school of thought. He wrote first-ever regular book on traditional economic literaterature entitled “An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of Wealth of Nations” in 1776.Hence he is known as “Father of Economics”. He divided his book into four sections, i.e.

  • i. Production of wealth;
  • ii. Consumption of wealth;
  • iii. Exchange of wealth; and
  • iv. Distribution of wealth.

Thus “wealth” stands at the heart of Economics and according to classical economists,

“Economics is a science which deals with wealth.”

Many other prominent economists like J.B. Say Ricardo Malthus, Walker etc also favoured Adam Smith’s view point. According to J.B. Say,

“Economics is a science of wealth” 

F.A walker writes that

“Economics is that part of knowledge which relates to wealth.”

Hence classical economists are of the opinion that all economic activities revolve around the concept of wealth. We have four basic functions of any economy; i.e. production, consumption, exchange and distribution and all these functions are based on the concept of wealth.

Misinterpretation of the Concept of Wealth

The over-stressed concept of wealth was misinterpreted by fundamentalists and social reformers like Carlyle and Ruskin. They tried to confine the concept of wealth to money and gold only where as wealth is a comprehensive term and it is used for all those goods and services which have the following three characteristics:

  • i. Utility, i.e. the power to satisfy any economic want;
  • ii. Transfer-ability, i.e. the transformation from one sector to another sector or from one region to another region; and
  • iii. Scarcity, i.e. a situation in which demand is greater than supply.

Due to this misconception, the definition introduced by Adam Smith and favored by other classical economists was harshly criticized. The critics like Carlyle and Ruskin called it “Dismal Science” which teaches mammon worship, “Science of Bread and Butter” which preaches materialism and Carlyle crossed all the limits when he called Economics “A Pig Philosophy.”

Such a harsh criticism was quite unjustified. It looks astonishing that men of letters like Carlyle and Ruskin could not understand the real sense of the term “wealth.” Either it was jealousy factor or the misconception of the concept of wealth, this propaganda led to underestimation of the importance of this subject. Perhaps it was too early to propound such a sophisticated definition of Economics.

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Though it is a sophisticated definition, yet it is not free from the following restrictions.

1. Man is more important

This definition gives more importance to wealth while man is more important and wealth is only a source to satisfy human wants.

2. Unclarified concept of wealth

The pivot of this definition is the concept of wealth but this central concept remains unclarified due to which harsh criticism appeared.

3. Ignores means

There is much roar of wealth in this definition but how to earn wealth; this definition is silent about it.

4. Narrow scope

It is a controversial and unscientific definition due to which its scope remains narrow.

5. Misconception of economic man

Adam Smith is of the view that a self-centered person is an economic man while A.C. Pigou and other modern economists are of the opinion that a rational person is an economic man.

6. Not comprehensive

Adam Smith considers only material goods as wealth where as modern economists treat both goods and services as wealth.

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7. Wealth – Not the sole end

Adam Smith pointed out that wealth is the sole end of all economic activities. Robbins and other modern economists believe that we have multiple ends in human life.

8. Wealth – Not the sole sources

Adam Smith believes that wealth accumulation is only the source of human happiness while it is an established fact that we cannot achieve it until and unless we strictly observe moral and spiritual values.


Despite all these flaws, Adam Smith’s definition of Economics proved a foundation stone in Economics literature.

Neo-Classical Definition of Economics

Though a harsh criticism over Adam Smith’s controversial definition brought about a bad repute of Economics, yet it started a tradition to define Economics. Dr. Alfred Marshall (1842-1924), a British Economist of Cambridge University, defined Economics in his book “Principles of Economics” published in 1890. Marshall’s definition was based on the concept of human material welfare. Hence Marshall and his followers, i.e. Cannon, Pigou etc were called “Welfare Economists.” 

According to Dr. Marshall,

“Economics is the study of man in ordinary business of life. It enquires how he gets his income and here he uses it. 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………………..It is the study of wealth on one side and on the other side, which is more important, it is a part of the study of man.” 

Simply speaking, Marshall is of the view that:

“Economics is a science which deals with human material welfare.”


1. Social science

Economics is a social science because it is the study of ordinary business of life. An isolate person is not the subject matter of Economics.
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2. Income pattern

Income pattern is the major concern of Economics.

3. Individual & collective efforts

Both individual and collective (i.e. micro and macro) activities are discussed in Economics.

4. Material welfare

All economic activities revolve around the major concern of material welfare. Economics has no concern with non-material welfare.

5. Prime importance of man

Wealth is not the end of all human activities; it is only a source to maximize human material welfare. Hence prime importance goes to man; and not to wealth.

6. Normative science

Major focus on material welfare reveals that Economics is a normative science.


Marshall has enriched the definition of Economics with the following merits.

1. Social science

Marshall has given the status of social science to Economics as he considers it a science which deals with individual and social action of ordinary business of life.

2. Removes misunderstanding

Adam Smith’s definition created a misunderstanding towards the subject matter of Economics but Marshall removed it and gave Economics a very important status.
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3. Micro and macro activities

Marshall considers not only individual efforts but also collective efforts for the attainment of material welfare.

4. Human welfare

Marshall concentrates on human welfare in his definition which is the ultimate objective of all economic activities.

5. Corresponds to modern economic theories

Human material welfare is the pivot of Marshall’s definition which corresponds to modern economic theories.

6. Declares status of wealth

This definition declares that wealth is not the sole end of all economic activities and it cannot be preferred to man. It is only a major source of human material welfare.

7. General approach

Marshall’s definition is general in approach because in this definition we study ordinary business of life. We do not confine ourselves to economic activities of a selected group or commodity subject to certain constraints.

8. Leads to definite aim

According to Marshall, we do not study Economics just for knowledge sake but we have to be very particular about our definite aim, i.e. material welfare.


Marshall’s definition of Economics has following demerits:

1. Vague concept of welfare

Material welfare is the pivot of Marshall’s definition of Economics. It is purely a subjective term and it varies from man to man, place to place and country to country.
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2. Isolated person – Not considered

This definition focuses on ordinary business of life and an isolated person is not considered whereas an isolated person has also economic problems.

3. Welfare – Not measurable

According to Lord Kelvin,

“Your knowledge is of meager and unsatisfactory kind if you cannot measure what you are speaking about” The central theme of Marshall’s definition i.e. welfare is not measurable. Hence it is an unsatisfactory definition. Robbins argues that:

“If Economics is to be called a science, we should not talk of welfare at all”

4. Narrow down the scope of Economics

Marshall’s definition is concerned with material requisites. He has ignored non- material requisites, i.e. services for human welfare. Hence he has restricted the scope of Economics.

5. Involves likings and disliking

The word “welfare” in the definition involves value – judgment, i.e. personal assessment or personal opinion about something. Robbins says that an economist must be neutral and he should not comment about something.

6. Impracticable

Marshall classifies economic activities into two categories:

i. Activities which promote material welfare

ii. Activities which do not promote material welfare

It is not possible in practice to divide the activities of an individual into material and non material categories.

7. Problem for policy making

“Welfare” is purely a relative term based on liking and disliking. It creates problem for the government in framing economic policies. For example, some people may object the production of cigarette on the ground that it retards welfare but on the other hands some people may appreciate its production as they get satisfaction by this product.

8. Not comprehensive

It is not a comprehensive definition as it considers material requisites and ignores non – material requisites, i.e. services of doctors, engineers, professors etc. for human welfare. Moreover, it considers material welfare only and ignores non-material welfare.
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9. Ignores ethics / values

Marshall does not keep into account the observation of ethics, moral values, and customs etc. which are the origin of an individual’s activities.

10. Partial classification

Marshall includes in his definition of Economics only those products which promote material welfare and excludes those products which do not promote material welfare. This partial classification is not justified.

Robbins contends: “Just satisfy wants and don’t bother whether they are for the better or the worse” is enough to discard Marshall’s definition of Economics. He adds,

“Why talk of welfare at all? Why not throw away this mask altogether?”

Thus Robbins rejected the concept of material welfare as the base of definition of Economics. He introduced a new definition of Economics in his book, “Nature and Significance of Economics Science”, published in 1932.


In spite of all above-mentioned flaws, the definition of Economics introduced by Marshall is considered a valuable asset in Economics literature. It is consensus by all economists that welfare is the ultimate objective of all economic activities. The concept of welfare not only upgraded the status of Economics but also opened a gate-way for modern Economics. 

Modern Definition of Economics

Lionel Robbins, a well – known British economist of London School of Economics wrote a book entitled “Nature and Significance of Economics Science” in 1932. He harshly criticized Marshall’s definition of Economics in his book and presented a new definition as under:

“Economics is the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between multiple ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”

Simply speaking, 

“Economics is a science of choice and scarcity.”


The salient features of Robbin’s definition are as under:

1. Multiple ends

Every body is confronted with multiple ends or unlimited wants. These wants increase in quantity and quality over time, even some wants occur again and again. When one want is satisfied, other wants occur and this process goes on for ever. No one can claim that all his wants have been met. As the Holy Quran points out:

اَلْہٰكُمُ التَّکَاثُرُ ۙ﴿۱﴾ حَتّٰی زُرْتُمُ الْمَقَابِرَ ؕ﴿۲﴾

A poet has also pointed out the same fact as:

ہزاروں خواہشیں ایسی کہ ہر خواہش پہ دم نکلے

بہت نکلے میرے ارماں لیکن پھر بھی کم نکلے

2. Unequal and varying Importance

All wants are not equally important. Some wants are more important than others. People arrange their wants in order of preference as (a) basic needs (b) comforts and (c) luxuries. Most urgent wants are satisfied first and less important wants are satisfied later. For example, the want of food is more important than the want of TV. Hence the want of food is met first than the want of TV. Moreover, importance of wants varies with the passage of time and with the change of sources.
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3. Scarce means

Scarcity of means shows a situation where resources are limited to meet unlimited wants. Means or resources always remain scarce to meet unlimited wants. Scarcity is a fact of life. It is equally applicable to the poor and the rich. Even the richest person of the world cannot get rid of scarcity. 

4. Alternative uses

There are alternative uses of scarce resources. For example, electricity can be used for industrial, commercial or domestic purpose. Similarly, land can be used for agriculture, industry or housing. A student may spend his money to take meal, or to purchase book or to entertain himself along with his fellows. Particular resource can be used to satisfy only one want at a time; we cannot meet any other want at the same time with the same resource. Moreover, first of all, top priority want is met by the given limited resource.

5. Problem of choice

Within the constraint of limited resources, an individual has to face the problem of choice, e.g. selection of the best possible use of scarce means to satisfy the most urgent want. It leads towards an economic problem. Every rational individual adopts an attitude to tackle this economic problem. According to Robbins, Economics is the study of that human behaviour which is adopted to satisfy the economic problem. 


Robbins definition is superior to other definitions due to the following merits:

1. Neutral

Robbins has given Economics the status of positive science. According to him, Economics has nothing to do with liking or disliking, material welfare or non-material welfare etc.

2. Scientific

This definition is scientific as it is not based on a vague and immeasurable concept of welfare but it is based on the concept of scarcity which is measurable.
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3. Realistic

This definition describes an established reality that every individual has unlimited wants and limited resources. 

4. Universal

This definition describes the universal fact that every individual has unlimited wants and limited resources.

5. Wider in scope

This definition has extended the boundaries of Economics. Both material and non-material activities are discussed in it. 

6. Precise

Economic problem, the pivot of all economic activities, has been precisely and comprehensively described in this definition.

7. Analytical

This definition is analytical as it analyzes human behaviour as a relationship b/w multiple ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.

8. Explicit

Robbins definition is clear on the nature, scope and subject matter of Economics.

9. Systematic

Robbins has developed the definition in a systematic manner on the basis of established realities of unlimited wants and limited resources.


Certainly Robbins definition is superior to earlier definitions but it is not free from the following demerits:

1. Economics – Not a natural science

Robbins considers Economics as natural science like Physics, Chemistry etc while Economics is based on social behaviour of human being. Hence Economics is not a natural but a social science.
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2. Economics – Not a positive science

Robbins considers Economics as positive science. He says that it should only describe the facts as they are. But Post–Robbins modern economists are of the view that Economics is not only positive but also normative science. Elley says that “Economics is something more than a science.”

Similarly, Wootton and Thomas are of the view that “Function of an economist is not only to explain and explore but also suggest solution of economic problems.”

3. Micro analysis

Robbins ignores macro aspect of Economics. He is concerned with individual behaviour. Economic problems are social rather than individual. 

Cairn-cross in his book “Factors of Economic Development” writes that “Individual choices having no social implications cannot form the subject matter of Economics.”

4. Undue wider scope

Robbins has made the study of Economics too wider. Robbins has discussed the wants in general. He has not specified wants which should be discussed in Economics. Hence, Robins has widened the scope of Economics unnecessarily.

5. Ignores key-concepts

Robbins has explained that how resources are allocated but he is silent about the major concepts like national income, economic development, unemployment, inflation etc.

6. Only a valuation theory

Robbins has made Economics only a valuation theory on the basis of unlimited wants and limited resources. Many economists like Fraser are of the view that Economics is something more than a valuation theory.

7. Colorless

Liking and disliking make a science interesting, charming and colourful. According to Robbins, an economist must remain neutral and impartial. Hence he has made Economics impersonal, abstract and colorless.

8. Lack of human touch

Robbins is silent about human welfare. Hence human element is missing in his definition of Economics.

9. Ignores ethics

Robbins is of the view that Economics is not concerned with ethics. He gives same weightage to all moral or immoral, legal or illegal activities. Souter says that:

“Robbins is a juggler with a static verbal logic.”
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Despite of all these flaws, Robbins definition is considered the most persuasive and popular definition of Economics. It is now universally accepted that scarcity of resources and unlimited wants are the essence of Economics.


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