American economics professor Gary Becker, who shed light on the economic reasons for marriage and divorce, crime and punishment, won the 1992 Nobel Economics Prize on Tuesday.
The Swedish Academy of Sciences said the University of Chicago professor had "extended the sphere of economic analysis to new areas of human behavior and relations."
"Becker was out to discover how society works," said Karl Goran Maler, a member of the academy committee that awarded the $1.2-million prize.
The 61-year-old professor's quest for the economic rules governing everyday life began in the 1950s with an analysis of the family. He applied his analysis to marriage, divorce and fertility.
His theory of human capital _ the value of each individual as a result of environment, education and other factors _ has been applied to international trade, economic growth, migration and more controversial subjects such as capital punishment and the minimum wage.
"Becker broke down the traditional concepts of what a family actually does. A family produces what it needs, and one should look at a family as a kind of factory," Maler said in an interview.
"He built upon the hypothesis that humans act rationally and brought it into other realms. This is what was new at the time," Maler said.
For instance, in examining fertility in economic terms, Becker noted that parents behave rationally when deciding whether to have children. His ideas were used by others to explain why parents in developing countries have larger families to provide manpower.
Women in China with a superior educational background, for example, have fewer children. "They have human capital themselves and therefore do not need child capital," Maler explained.
Becker also argued that men and women were rational when they chose marriage partners. He said rising wages encouraged parents in industrialized countries to have fewer children and spend more on education. But higher wages attracted women to work outside the home and contributed to rising divorce rates.
Becker is perhaps best known in America as a columnist for Business Week magazine.
He was the third University of Chicago academic in as many years to win or share the Nobel economics prize, and the sixth since the prize was inaugurated in 1969. Over the years, 63 Nobel laureates, including 15 in economics, have been associated in some way with the university.
"I was surprised, very elated," Becker told reporters in Chicago, after academy officials had awakened him with the news.