Economics meaning, definitions, nature, scope and subject matter of Economics

Man being born in this world is influenced by biological, physical and social needs, which keep him always busy in searching out the means to keep him satisfied.

To fulfill his requirements arising out of various needs, he involves in an activity called economic activity.

Because of the scarcity of resources imposed by the nature, humans always deeply engage in arriving at an equation, which balances their unlimited wants and limited means.

By engaging themselves in the economic activity people aim at maximizing their satisfaction from their scarce resources.

Thus scarcity is the pivot for the economic activity of the people representing consuming and producing segments leading to the origination of a field of study called economics.

Economics tells us how a person tries to satisfy his unlimited wants with his limited means; in other words how to use scarce goods that he has to his best advantage or how to economize.

Economics teaches us to make the best use of our limited resources. It tells us how the scarce means at our disposal can be put to several alternative uses so as to derive the maximum benefit out of them.

Economics is a very wide subject.

It concerns itself not only with the behavior of individual consumers and individual producers of firms, but also with industries, national income and economic growth.


The word economics has been derived from the Greek word “OIKONOMICAS” with “OIKOS” meaning a household and “NOMOS” meaning management. It is understood that the beginning was made by the Greek Philosopher, Aristotle who in his book “Economica” focused that the field of economics deals with household management. The concepts on which various definitions of economics given are

  1. wealth
  2.  Welfare
  3. Scarcity and
  4. Growth.

Wealth’ Definition of Economics

Adam Smith (1776) who is regarded as “Father of Economics in his book entitled “Wealth of Nations” defined economics as “An enquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations”. J.S. Mill, another classical economist defined economics as “The practical science of production and distribution of wealth”.

Here, the term, economics is defined as the field of science concerned with wealth. Wealth in this context refers to abundant supply of money or affluence. These definitions invited the criticism of Carlyl as he called economics as a ‘dismal science’.

‘Welfare’ Definition of Economics
Alfred 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 material requisites of wellbeing”.

This definition of economics has received the acceptance of a number of economists, as it considered that wealth was not the end itself but a means of achieving welfare, i.e., it is a source of attaining human welfare. However, the idea of Marshall was condemned by Lionel Robbins on the points that economics was treated as a social science rather than a human science; and the term “human science” is more apt on the ground that any individual either as a member of a society or in isolation does have economic problems. Secondly, emphasis on material requisites of wellbeing was objected, as demarcation was created between material requisites and non-material activities, when both are equally important. Thirdly, his approach of economics is limited to the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life, leaving the human life in the extra-ordinary business of life such as famines, wars, etc., is another point of criticism.

‘Scarcity’ Definition of Economics

Lionel Robbins opposing the Marshall’s definition put forth the
following definition based on the scarcity concept. “Economics is the
science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between
ends and scarce means which have alternative uses” according to
Robbins. In this definition ‘ends’ indicate human wants. ‘Means’ are
the sources with which wants are fulfilled. Though the resources are
scarce, they have numerous alternative uses. This definition examines
as to how an individual either as a consumer or a producer or a
businessman, etc., shortlists the unlimited wants in the light of limited
available resources. Indeed, this is an important aspect of human
Robbins’s definition is superior to ‘wealth’ and ‘welfare’ definitions
because ‘welfare’ aspect is embodied in the definition and ‘wealth’ is
represented as means which is always scarce. However, some
limitations were pointed out with Robbin’s definition. ‘Scarcity’ is not
the problem always and ‘abundance’ also gives rise to problems, which
was not recognized by Robbins. His definition treats economics as a
positive science only without touching normative aspects of economics.
It has not taken into account the growth aspect of the economy, the
dynamic nature of adjustment, etc.
‘Growth’ Definition of Economics
Keynes defined economics as “The study of the administration of scarce
resources and of the determinants of employment and income. Thus
besides studying the theory of value or of resource allocation,
economics studies how the levels of income and employment in an
economy are determined. In other words, it also studies the cause of
economic fluctuations to see how economic stability could be


Scope means the sphere of study. We have to consider what Economics
studies and what lies beyond it. The scope of Economics will be brought
out by discussing the following:
1. the subject matter of Economics
2. Economics is a Social Science
3. Whether Economics is a Science or an Art
4. If Economics is a Science, Whether it is a Positive or a Normative
Subject matter of economics: A man wants food, cloths and shelter. To
get these things he must have money. For getting money, he must work
or make an effort. Effort leads to satisfaction. Thus, Wants-Efforts-
Satisfaction sums up the subject – matter of Economics.
Economics – a Social Science
Economics studies human beings as members of the society
participating in the economic activities. It does not study humans as
isolated individuals. He is interdependent. Thus economics is a social
Is Economics a Science or an Art?
By definition, science is a systematized body of knowledge having an
empirical correspondence. Analogous to science, an art is also
systematized body of knowledge. It directs through a system of
procedures to attain a given objective or goal it tells us how to do a
Treating economics as a science, a given theory is formed through
conduct of experiments, recording observations, analysis of data
recorded, drawing the conclusions and finally testing them. In
economics also the same procedure is followed to present any principle
or theory. Hence economics is as good as any science. Only the
question is regarding precision. The scientific experiments are
conducted under laboratory conditions, while economic theories are
subjected to several causal factors that influence human behaviour.
The situation of controlled experiments in economics is not a
possibility, since it deals with human behaviour, which is unpredictable.
This indicates the fact that the degree of precision of economics as a
science is less, when compared with the pure sciences, but nonetheless
economics is a science.

As an art, economics shows solutions to the problems. It helps us
how to do a thing. The role of economics as an art can be found in any
sphere of economic activity. For example, it advocates how to
maximize the profits of a firm given the resource constraints. Given a
problem, the field of economics guides us to solve the same. Thus, the
field of economics has the attributes of science and art. Economics
therefore is a science as well as an art.

Economics –Positive Science or Normative-Science.
In economic theory, we make an effort to explain the nature of
economic activity and predict the events in the economy as facts
change. Such an effort helps us to know the environment in which we
live and what part is related to others and what causes what.
Economists differentiate between positive economics and normative
economics. Positive economics is completely objective and is limited to
the cause and effect relationship of economic activity. It is simply
concerned with the way the economic relationships are present in
different economic activities (what they are).
Normative economics studies the way that economic relations ought
to be. Normative economics evaluates. Policy making, a conscious
intervention in the economy for the welfare of the people is essentially
a normative in character.
Methods of Economic investigation.
Every field of science follows certain methods to formulate the laws of
principles. There are two methods followed in the scientific study of
economics. They are: 1) Deductive method and 2) Inductive method.
Deductive Method
Economists belonging to classical school viz., J.S. Mill and Bacon
advocated this method. This method is called analytical or abstract or
apriori method. Here the economists proceed from general to
particular. It proceeds from certain fundamental assumptions or
truths. Through this method theoretical abstractions are derived from
the real world. We further analyse these abstractions and hypotheses
with the data and finally make logical conclusions about the objectives
of the research studies.
Inductive Method
This method is known as historical or empirical or posterior method.
The economists belonging to historical school like Roscher, Frederick,
etc., advocated this method. In this method facts are generated
through surveys. Here the investigator moves up from particular to
general. It is a realistic method because, it is bas3ed on facts. We
collect data from sample units and analyse the data and infer or draw
conclusions relevant to the study. Here we give importance to the
predictive power of models.
Though distinction does exist between deduction and induction
methods both are needed for scientific investigation, as neither
deduction nor induction alone is suffice to formulate and test theories,
hypotheses and economic laws.
Relation of Economics with other Sciences:
Economics has relation with almost all other sciences. All sciences have
been developed by man for the benefit of mankind. As a science, which
is primarily concerned with mans welfare; Economics freely makes use
of the other sciences in its study. It uses its own reasoning, the
conclusions at which the other sciences may have reached. But its
relation with social sciences like Politics, history and Ethics is the
Economics and Politics:
Economics and politics are very closely mixed up these days. All political
events have their roots in economic causes. All political problems are economics in nature. If you follow discussions in the legislature, you will
find that most of the time of the legislature is taken up by economic
matters. Political institutions also affect economic conditions, and vice
versa. Dictatorship moulds economic conditions in a different manner
from a democracy. Foreign rule in India was largely responsible for
Indian poverty. Thus, there is a very close connection between
Economics and Politics
Economics and History:
Economics makes use of History in understanding the background of
the present – day economic problems. History is also useful in
establishing or verifying economic theories and laws. But History is
incomplete unless it discusses the economic condition of man. History
must devote its attention to the discussion of the economic condition
of the people. Thus Economics with out History has no root; History
with out Economics has no fruit.
Economics and Ethics:
Ethics is a science of what ought to be. It tells us whether a thing is right
or wrong. Now ethical or moral considerations govern all economic
activity. The economist cannot justify immoral activities. Economics
cannot be dissociated from Ethics. Ethics is indeed a handmaid of
Economics. The economists are being called upon more and more to
give their advice in economic affairs, and they should not shirk this task.
That is why it is said that Economics is both a positive science and a
normative science.
Economic Laws:
Economic laws are the principles that govern the actions of the
individuals in their economic activities. Just like any law of science,
economic laws too are conditional i.e., applicable when certain
conditions are fulfilled. What economists do is that they consider the
basic factors into account while developing a theory, keeping other
factors influencing the theory as constant. This implies that for
developing a theory in economics some kind of abstraction is
necessary. There is an important role for assumptions.
“Economic laws are statements of uniformities, which govern human
behaviour concerning the utilization of limited resources for the
achievement of unlimited ends (Robbins)”.
Characteristics of Economic Laws
1. Economic Laws are not the Governmental Laws: The laws of
Government are very stringent and any violation of these laws
amounts to punishment. Economic laws, on the other hand, are
applicable, only if certain conditions are satisfied.
2. Economic Laws are Merely the Statements of Tendencies: These
are based on the tendencies of humans who behave in a
particular way to a given phenomenon. This is the expected
behaviour. This expected behaviour, however may not be found,
for certain reasons. This leads to unpredictable character of
economic laws. Certainty is one thing, which is not guaranteed
with regard to economic laws.
3. Economic Laws are Hypothetical: These hold good under the
assumption of a number of things. Economic laws are
charact6erized by the phrase ceteris paribus (other factors are
held constant).
4. Economic Laws are Positive but not Normative: They only
describe the economic phenomenon but do not prescribe how it
should be.
5. Some Economic Laws are Axiomatic in Character: It means that
they are self-evident as that of law of diminishing marginal utility
and generalizations drawn are universally valid.
6. Economic Laws Lack Exactness of the Laws of Science: This
prompted Marshall to compare the economic laws to the laws to
the laws of tides rather than the simple laws of gravitation.

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