chapter  1
14 Pages

The capability approach: its interpretation and ‘limitations’


Introduction The ‘capability approach’ (CA) or ‘capability perspective’ as it has been developed in the writings of Amartya Sen since his Tanner Lecture (‘Equality of What?’) given at Stanford University in 1979 can be (and has been) interpreted in very different ways. Because Sen has used the approach in so many different contexts – from the conceptualization and measurement of development, to theo­ ries of justice and rights to issues about poverty, gender, social exclusion and disability, including empirical work – the literature on the approach has grown significantly as work in each of these contexts and areas has grown (see Alkire et al. 2008; Comim et al. 2008). Furthermore, the approach has been used by aca­ demics and practitioners in many fields and disciplines so that the literature is genuinely multi-disciplinary. The CA, while manifestly not a ‘theory’ in the sense relevant to theories of justice or morality – like John Rawls’ theory of justice (Rawls 1972, 1993 inter alia) or utilitarianism – yields a range of insights in several contexts. And some have supposed that something akin to a theory – to rival others, including Rawls’s theory – can indeed be developed out of it. In some ways, this seems to be precisely what some, including Martha Nussbaum who has developed her own ‘capabilities’ approach, have tried to do thereby addressing the ‘limitations’ of a mere ‘perspective’ or ‘approach’ by adding to the basic elements of Sen’s approach various principles and ideas which make it closer to a theory even if still somewhat incomplete – whether in the context of gender justice or development. The fact that the approach is merely an ‘approach’ has, for some, made it an inadequate response to the limitations Sen finds in the works of others – like Rawls and some utilitarians. But as can be seen from the quotation at the head of this chapter, Sen himself retains his view

that the chief contribution of the CA arises from its focus which involves a change in the informational basis of social evaluation. There seem to be poten­ tially significant differences amongst those who advance distinct versions of the CA and views of how it can be most usefully articulated and applied, with the most prominent being the versions of the approach which Sen and Nussbaum themselves have developed. In fact there seem – on the face of it – to be a range of approaches involved, not just one approach. In this chapter I argue that the CA can be interpreted in very different ways, with its scope, ambitions and reach being drawn very differently according to each interpretation. Consistent with the passage from Sen’s The Idea of Justice cited at the head of this chapter, the CA invites us to see things in a different way to other approaches by focusing attention on certain sorts of information. Those who advance or use the approach can then agree on a core of claims which they can develop differently. That avoids the danger of ‘schisms’ or disagreements amongst protagonists of the approach, which would distract from many possibil­ ities for research and insight generated by a general if limited perspective. Sen in particular argues that it is important to recognize the limitations of the CA. While his body of work on capability has often been criticized for its incompleteness, my reading of his work (and of work in this growing field) supports the case for restricting the scope of the approach itself while allowing for very different ways of further developing and using it in different contexts. Nonetheless, I argue that some lines of argument Sen advances in suggesting that the approach is limited are not meant as criticisms of the approach which highlight its weaknesses. Rather the aim is to restrict and delimit its scope with a view to identifying its contribution. Furthermore, some of Sen’s claims are not about the limitations of the CA, but about the limitations of the value of equality. The chapter is structured as follows: the first section distinguishes various ways in which the approach can be interpreted; various possible criticisms and ‘limitations’ of the approach are discussed in the second section; and the third section concludes.