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Capability approach

In recent decades, the capability approach has emerged as a new theoretical framework for thinking about concepts such as wellbeing, development and justice. The approach was pioneered by economist-philosopher Amartya Sen, though aspects of it can be traced back to, among others, Aristotle, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx (see Nussbaum 1988, 1992; Sen 1993, 1999). The capability approach argues that the freedom to achieve wellbeing is:

  • of primary moral importance; and
  • to be understood in terms of people's capabilities, that is, their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value.

The capability approach aims to provide an alternative to theories, such as utilitarianism, which rely solely on "the judgements of states of affairs to the utilities in the respective states (paying no direct attention to such things as the fulfilment or violation of rights, duties, and so on)" (Sen, 1999, p.59). It is generally conceived as a flexible and multi-purpose framework, rather than a precise theory of wellbeing.

Sen proposes that a society's development should be judged by the extent to which individuals possess various kinds of 'functional capabilities', which afford them effective opportunities. Sen (1999) identifies five instrumental freedoms that contribute to the general capability of a person to live more freely: i) political freedoms, ii) economic facilities, iii) social opportunities, iv) transparency guarantees, and v) protective security. He argues that freedom, in all its dimensions, is both "the primary end and the principal means of development" (1999, p.36). In his view, neither opulence (income, consumption) nor utility (happiness, satisfaction of desires) constitute or adequately represent human wellbeing and deprivation.

While Sen considers freedom itself to be the ultimate goal, he also emphasises the interactions among the above instrumental freedoms, which makes them critically important as a means to achieve social development. For example, he notes that "political freedoms (in the form of free speech and elections) help to promote economic security. Social opportunities (in the form of education and health facilities) facilitate economic participation. Economic facilities (in the form of opportunities for participation in trade and production) can help to generate personal abundance as well as public resources for social facilities" (1999, p.11).

Sen also considers distribution to be important, and recognises that individual heterogeneity means that different people will need different levels of resources to have the same level of capabilities. His capabilities framework explicitly takes into account "not only the primary goods persons respectively hold, but also the relevant personal characteristics that govern the conversion of primary goods into the person's ability to promote her ends" (Sen, 1999, p.74).[5]

Sen's theory has led to a new and highly interdisciplinary literature in the social sciences resulting in new statistics and social indicators (including the Human Development Index discussed above), and to a new policy paradigm that is mainly used in development studies, the 'human development approach'. Sen's approach is not without criticism, however. For example, several commentators have criticised Sen for failing to supplement his framework with a coherent list of important capabilities (Nussbaum, 1988; Qizilbash, 1998). Others have cast doubt on the usefulness of the capability approach for making inter-personal comparisons of wellbeing, or have pointed to the high informational requirements to provide an adequate analysis of capability.

The capability approach has been developed and extended by a number of scholars. The most well-known extension is that of feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum developed a list of what she considers to be the central human capabilities, which include bodily health, practical reason and play (Nussbaum, 2005).

The capability approach emphasises the importance of ensuring that people have the opportunities necessary to participate in society and live a fulfilling life. Applied to public policy, this leads to consideration of how to support the expansion of human capabilities, and to ensure that all persons have a basic level of capabilities. For example, policy might focus on ensuring people have adequate income to achieve a minimal level of functioning (Sen, 1993), or that children are given adequate support to develop their capabilities. This may require analysis of the transmission of capabilities across generations.


  • [5]Primary goods are those goods that allow a person to meet their objectives and include rights, liberties and opportunities, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect (Sen (1999), p.74).
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