The Veblenian dichotomy … to be or not to be.

Hollie Gruber
2 min readMar 14, 2016


There once was a guy called Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857–1929), born in Wisconsin, the fourth child of twelve children, his parents were originally from Norway. Veblen had an interesting career, completing his phd. at Yale in 1884 majoring in philosophy. He went on to study at many other universities such as Stanford, John Hopkins, Cornell, The New School and the University of Chicago. He was a man of free will and spirit, a true thinker who frequently disagreed and questioned the status quo. His thinking was particularly important on traditional economic theories during his time, for he laid the foundation of how the social and the economy are inextricably dependent on one another.

The Veblenian dichotomy I initially discovered by pure accident. I was researching for a paper I’m writing in the field of online communities and knowledge creation, however my topic had very little to do with economics and more about technology. But… as I began to read more and more about Veblen, I realised his theories of evolutionary economics had merit for studying online communities today. The Veblenian dichotomy is a concept first suggested by Thorstein Veblen in 1899, in The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions.

To Veblen, institutions determine how technologies are used. Some institutions are more “ceremonial” than others. A project for Veblen’s idealised economist is to be identifying institutions that are too wasteful, and pursuing institutional “adjustment” to make instituted uses of technology more “instrumental”. Veblen defines “ceremonial” as related to the past, supportive of “tribal legends” or traditional conserving attitudes and conduct; while the “instrumental” orients itself toward the technological imperative, judging value by the ability to control future consequences.

Now here comes the twist ….. could it be true that institutions determine how technology is used today, as Veblenian suggests or could it be Adaptive Structuration theorists DeSanctis and Poole are correct? Or can we see a reality where both theories exist and infact live in harmony?

Adaptive Structuration is a meta-theory describing the social existence of a group beyond their information processing activities (Chin et al. 1997). According to them, the social aspect of group work determines the adoption of technology supporting their own working processes, and therefore influences the information process and interaction features within the internal group work, and finally their output.

By this means, the appropriation of technology gives the group process a structuration and is thus produced and reproduced in social action (Comi et al. 2013).

So how can these two very complex heavy theories have relevance to each other and secondly how can they help us understand the phenomenon that is online communities today?

Part two soon to be posted ….. but I’m interested in hearing your thoughts…. email me your ideas!




Hollie Gruber

Beach lover, Narrabeen native, grad research student at UTS Sydney, Fashion Blogger