Capability approach

Capability approach

The Capabilities Approach - Philosophical and Policy Context

The Capability Approach is a conceptual framework developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum for evaluating social states in terms of human well-being (welfare). It emphasizes functional capabilities ("substantial freedoms", such as the ability to live to old age, engage in economic transactions, or participate in political activities); these are construed in terms of the substantive freedoms people have reason to value, instead of utility (happiness, desire-fulfilment or choice) or access to resources (income, commodities, assets). Poverty is understood as capability-deprivation. It is noteworthy that the emphasis is not only on how human beings actually function but on their having the capability, which is a practical choice, to function in important ways if they so wish. Someone could be deprived of such capabilities in many ways, e.g. by ignorance, government oppression, lack of financial resources, or false consciousness.

This approach to human well-being emphasises the importance of freedom of choice, individual heterogeneity and the multi-dimensional nature of welfare. In significant respects, the approach is consistent with the handling of choice within conventional micro-economics consumer theory although its conceptual foundations enable it to acknowledge the existence of claims, like rights, which normatively dominate utility based claims (see Sen (1979)).

What Capabilities Matter?

Nussbaum (2000) frames these basic principles in terms of ten capabilities, i.e. real opportunities based on personal and social circumstance. This approach contrasts with a common view that sees development purely in terms of GNP growth, and poverty purely as income-deprivation. It has been highly influential in development policy where it has shaped the evolution of the human development index HDI has been much discussed in philosophy and is increasingly influential in a range of social sciences.

The ten capabilities Nussbaum argues should be supported by all democracies are:
# "Life". Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one's life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
# "Bodily Health". Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
# "Bodily Integrity". Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
# "Senses, Imagination, and Thought". Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason-- and to do these things in a "truly human" way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one's own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one's mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.
# "Emotions." Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one's emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)
# "Practical Reason." Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)
# "Affiliation."
## Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)
## Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin and species.
# "Other Species." Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
# "Play." Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
# "Control over one's Environment."
## "Political." Being able to participated effectively in political choices that govern one's life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.
## "Material." Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.

The approach was first fully articulated in Sen (1985) and discussed in Sen and Nussbaum (1993). Applications to development are discussed in Sen (1999), Nussbaum (2000), and Clark (2002, 2005) and are now numerous to the point where the capabilities approach is widely accepted as a paradigm in development.

Can Capabilities be Measured?

Applications to welfare economics and health in high income countries are now also beginning to emerge, Anand Hunter and Smith (2005). A key dilemma for the capabilities approach has been how to measure what people could do, as opposed to what they actually do, and this has been the subject of a large international research project based at the Open University (UK). Bringing together researchers from economics, philosophy and psychology, their work demonstrates that capability indicators can be found in standard data-sets and more significantly that it is possible to develop new survey instruments which operationalise Nussbaum's list above. The project solves an important problem for the approach and will be of use to any researchers interested in measuring muli-dimensional aspects of poverty or quality of life. The main capabilities measurement instrument has over 60 indicators, is being used by a number of research groups and is discussed further in Anand Santos and Smith (2008).


*Alkire, S. (2002). "Valuing Freedoms: Sen's Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction". Oxford: Oxford University Press.

*Anand P, Hunter G and Smith R, 2005, Capabilities and Wellbeing: Evidence Based on the Sen-Nussbaum Approach to Welfare, "Social Indicators Research", 79, 9-55.

*Anand P, Santos C and Smith R, 2008 (in press) "The Measurement of Capabilities" in Festschrift for Professor Amartya Sen, Basu K and Kanbur R (eds) Oxford, Oxford University Press

*Clark, David A. (2002) Visions of Development: A Study of Human Values (Edward Elgar, Cheltenham).

*Clark, David A. (2005) 'Capability Approach' in D. A. Clark (ed.) (forthcoming 2006) The Elgar Companion to Development Studies (Edward Elgar, Cheltenham). Draft available online at

*Kuklys, Wiebke (2005) Amartya Sen's capability Approach: Theoretical Insights and Empirical Applications (Springer, Berlin).

*Nussbaum, Martha C. (2000) Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).
* Nussbaum, Martha C. and Amartya Sen, eds. (1993). "The Quality of Life" Oxford: Clarendon Press. [,+eds.+%22The+quality+of+life%22+Oxford:+Clarendon+Press++&pg=RA1-PA322&ots=mLErtNowVf&sig=dobxut-rdiyB8Wh4VHjPljMeU0k&prev= (Google book preview)]
*Sen, Amartya K. (1979) 'Utilitarianism and Welfarism', "The Journal of Philosophy", LXXVI (1979), 463-489.

*_____(1985). "Commodities and Capabilities". Oxford: Oxford University Press. [ (OUP description)]

* _____ (1999). "Development As Freedom". New York: Knopf. [,M1 (Google book preview)]

External links

* [ Human Development and Capability Association]
* [ Journal of Human Development]
* [ The Measurement of Human Capabilities]
* [ "Justice Across Boundaries"] Radio interview with Martha Nussbaum on Philosophy Talk

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