What is the Capability Approach about?

The capability approach (CA), developed by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and other social theorists is a broad, human-centred normative framework for the evaluation of individual and group well-being, quality of life and social justice. Sen and Nussbaum’s ideas have influenced global, national and local policy, such as the annual Human Development Reports of the United Nations Development Programme since 1990, over 500 regional or country-level Human Development Reports and many local policy initiatives in different countries. The CA has also been influential in a number of academic disciplines, inspiring a vast and expanding literature in diverse fields of academic and policy research, evaluation and practice. The approach has been taken up most notably in development, international justice and human rights and, more recently, also in welfare, social policy, the labour market, education, gender, health and disability. However, so far have the CA remains largely unnoticed in sociology. In this interview, Martha Nussbaum explains briefly the rationale behind her version of the capability approach.  In this article, I try to explain why this is, and why the capability approach could be very interesting and useful for sociologists and can contribute to a publicly engaged sociology.  Below are some resources on the Capability approach and examples of its application.

ALKIRE, Sabina. 2002. Valuing Freedoms. Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
ALKIRE, Sabina. 2005. Briefing Note: Capability and Functionings: Definition and Justification, Human Development and Capability Association, 1 September, http://hd-ca.org/pubs/HDCA_Briefing_Concepts.pdf CA_Briefing_Concepts.
ARROW, Kenneth J., SEN, Amartya K. and SUZUMURA, Kotaro. 1999. Functionings and Capabilities, in Handbook of Social Choice and Welfare. Amsterdam, Elsevier Science.
BGSS (Bundesministerium für Gesundheit und Soziale Sicherung). 2005. Lebenslagen in Deutschland: Der Zweite Armuts- und Reichtumsbericht. Berlin: Bundesanzeiger.
BONVIN, Jean-Michelle and FARVAQUE, Nicholas. 2003a. ‘Towards a Capability-Friendly Social Policy. The Role of Local Implementing Agencies.’ Paper at VHI Conference, ‘Transforming Unjust Structures. Capabilities and Justice.’ Von Hügel Institute, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, 26–27 June.
BONVIN, Jean-Michelle and FARVAQUE, Nicholas. 2003b. ‘Employability and Capability: The Role of Local Agencies in Implementing Social Policies’. Paper at 3rd Conference on the Capability Approach ‘From Sustainable Development to Sustainable Freedom’, University of Pavia, 7–9 September.
BONVIN, Jean-Michelle and THELEN, Lionel. 2003. ‘Deliberative Democracy and Capabilities. The Impact and Significance of Capability for Voice.’ Paper at 3rd Conference on the Capability Approach ‘From Sustainable Development to Sustainable Freedom’, Pavia, 7–9 September.
BONVIN, Jean-Michelle and THELEN, Lionel. 2005. What Informational Basis for Assessing Job-Seekers?: Capabilities vs. Preferences. Review of Social Economy. 63(2), 269–289.
CARPENTER, M. 2009. ‘The capabilities approach and critical social policy: lessons from the majority world?’ Critical Social Policy, 29(3). 351–373.
CARPENTER, M., SPEEDEN, S., FREDA, B., and BARBARA, M. 2007. Beyond the Workfare State: Labour Markets, Equality and Human Rights. Bristol: Policy Press.
CORTEEL, Delphine and ZIMMERMANN, Bénédicte, with DUHIN, Anne. 2006. Employability, Voice and Security. An Inquiry into the Capabilities of Workers in French Firms, Documents de travail, serie Regles, institutions, conventions, No. 06–01.
DEAN, Hartley, BONVIN, Jean-Michel, VIELLE, Pascale and FARVAQUE, Nicolas. 2005. ‘Developing capabilities and rights in welfare-to-work policies.’ European Societies 7(1), 3–26.
DEAN, Hartley. 2009. ‘Critiquing capabilities: the distractions of a beguiling concept.’ Critical Social Policy, 29(2), 261–278.
DENEULIN, Séverine and McGREGOR, J. Allister. 2009. ‘The capability approach and the politics of a social conception of wellbeing.’ European Journal of Social Theory. 13(4), 501–519.
DENEULIN, Séverine and SHAHANI, Lila. 2009. An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach: Freedom and Agency. Earthscan.
FELDMAN, Shelley and GELLERT, Paul. 2006. ‘The seductive quality of central human capabilities: sociological insights into Nussbaum and Sen’s disagreement’, Economy and Society, 35(3), 423–452.
GUILLEN, Ana M. and DAHL, Svenn-Åge. Eds. 2009. Quality of Work in the European Union. Concept, Data and Debates from a Transnational Perspective. Series Travail & Société / Work & Society, vol. 67. Peter Lang.
GASCOIGNE, Steven and WHITESIDE, Noel. 2009. ‘The promotion of capabilities in Sweden: a case study of the contraction of shipbuilding in Gothenburg.’ International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. 29 (11–12), 587–598.
GAZIER, Bernard and GAUTIÉ, Jérôme. 2009. The ‘Transitional Labour Markets’ Approach: Theory, History and Future Research Agenda, Documents de Travail du Centre d’Economie de la Sorbonne, January, http://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/docs/00/36/34/04/PDF/09001.pdf.
GOERNE, Alexander. 2010. ‘The Capability Approach in social policy analysis. Yet another concept?’ REC-WP 03/2010 Working Papers on the Reconciliation of Work and Welfare in Europe. RECWOWE Publication, Dissemination and Dialogue Centre, Edinburgh.
HOLMWOOD, John. 2013. ‘Public Reasoning without Sociology: Amartya Sen’s Theory of Justice.’ Sociology 0(0), 1–16.
LANCASTER, Kelvin J. 1966. ‘A new approach to consumer theory.’ Journal of Political Economy, 2(74).
de MUNCK, Jean and ZIMMERMANN, Bénédicte. Eds. 2008. La liberté au prisme des capacités. Amartya Sen au-delà du libéralisme. Paris: éditions de l’école des Hautes études English Sciences Sociales.
MITRA, Sophie. 2006. ‘The Capability Approach and Disability’, Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 16( 4), 236–247.
NUSSBAUM, Martha C. and GLOVER, Jonathan. Eds. 1995. Women, Culture, and Development: A Study of Human Capabilities. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
NUSSBAUM, Martha C. 2000. Women and Human Development. The Capabilities Approach, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
NUSSBAUM, Martha C. 2001. Symposium on Amartya Sen’s philosophy: 5 Adaptive preferences and women’s options. Economics and Philosophy Economics, 1, 67–88.
NUSSBAUM, Martha C. 2003. ‘Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social Justice.’ Feminist Economics Special issue on Sen. 9(2), 33.
NUSSBAUM, Martha C. 2004. ‘Beyond the Social Contract: Capabilities and Global Justice. An Olaf Palme Lecture, Oxford, 19 June 2003.’ Oxford Development Studies, 32(1).
POGGE, Thomas. 2002. ‘Can the Capability Approach Be Justified?’ Philosophical Topics. 30(2), 167–228.
ROBEYNS, Ingrid. 2003. ‘The Capability Approach and gender inequality.’ Feminist economics. 9(2–3), 3–12.
ROBEYNS, Ingrid. 2005. ‘The Capability Approach: A theoretical survey.’ Journal of Human Development. 6(1), 93–114.
ROBEYNS, Ingrid. 2006. ‘The Capability Approach in Practice.’ The Journal of Political Philosophy. 14(3), 351–376 .
ROBEYNS, Ingrid. 2007. ‘Bibliography on the Capability Approach, 2006–2007.’ Journal of Human Development. 8(3).
ROBEYNS, Ingrid. 2008. ‘Bibliography on the Capability Approach, 2007–2008.’ Journal of Human Development. 9(3).
ROGOWSKI, Ralf, SALAIS, Robert and WHITESIDE, Noel. Eds. 2011. Transforming European Employment Policy: Labour market transitions and the promotion of capability, Edward Elgar.
RSF. 2013. Statement released on the 10th day of the Refugee Strike for Freedom, http://refugeestruggle.org/en, 14 October 2013, accessed 19 October 2013.
RUGER, Jennifer. P. 1998. ‘Aristotelian justice and health policy: capability and incompletely theorized agreements.’ PhD thesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
RUGER, Jennifer P. 2004. ‘Ethics of the social determinants of health.’ Lancet 364, 1092–97.
RUGER, Jennifer P. 2010. ‘Health capability: conceptualisation and operationalisation.’American Journal of Public Health. 100, 41–49.
SALAIS, Robert and VILLENEUVE, Robert. Eds. 2005. Europe and the politics of capabilities. Cambridge University Press.
SALAIS, Robert. 2005. ‘Incorporating the capability approach into social and employment policies’, in Salais and Villeneuve, Europe and the politics of capabilities, Cambridge University Press.
SALAIS, Robert. 2009. ‘Deliberative democracy and its informational basis: what lessons from the Capability Approach.’ Paper at SASE conference Paris.
SAYER, Andrew. 2012. Capabilities, Contributive Injustice and Unequal Divisions of Labour, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities: A Multi-Disciplinary Journal for People-Centered Development. 13(4), 580–596.
SCHMID, Jürgen. 2013. ‘Public Services in Erfurt and Frankfurt am Main Compared (c. 1890-1914): Capabilities in Prussia?’ Urban History. First view (10), 1–18.
SEN Amartya K. 1977. ‘Rational fools: a critique of the behavioral foundations of economic theory’, Philosophy and Public Affairs. 6 (summer), 317–344.
SEN, Amartya K. 1979. ‘Equality of What?’ Stanford University: Tanner Lectures on Human Values. 160–220.
SEN, Amartya K. 1982. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford University Press.
SEN, Amartya K. 1985. ‘A Sociological Approach to the Measurement of Poverty: A Reply to Professor Peter Townsend.’ Oxford Economic Papers (New Series). 37(4), 669–676.
SEN, Amartya K. 1988. ‘Poor, relatively speaking.’ Oxford Economic Papers (New Series). 35(2), 153–169.
SEN, Amartya K. 1988. ‘Freedom of Choice: Concept and Content.’ European Economic Review 32, 269–294.
SEN, Amartya K. 1992. Inequality Reexamined. Oxford University Press.
SEN, Amartya K. and NUSSBAUM, Martha. 1993. The Quality of Life. New York, Oxford Clarendon Press.
SEN, Amartya K. 1998. ‘The possibility of social choice: Nobel lecture.’ American Economic Review. 178–215.
SEN, Amartya K. 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press.
SEN, Amartya K. 2004a. ‘Capabilities, Lists, and Public Reason: Continuing the conversation.’ Feminist Economics. 10(3), 77–80.
SEN, Amartya K. 2004b[1985]. Commodities and Capabilities. North-Holland.
SEN, Amartya K. 2005. Preface. In Kuklys, Wiebke. Ed. Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach: Theoretical Insights and Empirical Applications. Berlin, Springer Verlag.
SEN, Amartya K. 2008. ‘The Economics of Happiness and Capability’, in Bruni, Comim and Pugno. Eds. Capability and Happiness. New York, Oxford University Press.
SEN, Amartya K. 2009. The idea of justice. Allen Lane, London.
TANG, Lynn. 2013. ‘Recovery’ from What to Where? A Case Study of Chinese Mental Health Service Users in the UK’. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
TOWNSEND, Peter. 1985. ‘A Sociological Approach to the Measurement of Poverty – A Rejoinder to Professor Amartya Sen.’ Oxford Economic Papers, New Series. 37(4), 659–668.
UNTERHALTER, Elaine. 2003a. ‘Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries: The Potential of Sen’s Capability Approach for Sociologists of Education (Review of Rationality and Freedom by Amartya Sen; Valuing Freedoms and Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction by Sabina Alkire).’ British Journal of Sociology of Education, 24(5), 665–669.
UNTERHALTER, Elaine. 2003b. ‘The capability approach and gendered education: an examination of South African complexities.’ Theory and Research in Education. 1(1), 7–22.
VOLKERT, Jürgen. Ed. 2005. Armut und Reichtum an Verwirklichungschancen. Amartya Sens Capability-Konzept als Grundlage der Armuts- und Reichtumsberichterstattung. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
WALKER, Melanie and UNTERHALTER, Elaine. Eds. 2008. Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach and Social Justice in Education. Palgrave Macmillan.
WELLS, Thomas. 2012. ‘Amartya Sen’, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/sen-cap, retrieved 29 August 2013.
WHITESIDE, Noel. 2005. Security and the working life: new perspectives, in Salais, Robert and Villeneuve, Robert. Eds. Europe and the politics of capabilities. Cambridge University Press.
WHITESIDE, Noel. 2007. ‘Unemployment revisited in comparative perspective: labour market policy in Strasbourg and Liverpool, 1890–1914.’ International Review of Social History. 52, 38.
WHITESIDE, Noel. 2011. Creating collective capability: historical perspectives on co-ordinated public action?, in Rogowski, Ralf, Salais, Robert and Whiteside, Noel. Eds. Transforming European Employment Policy: labour market transitions and the promotion of capability. Edward Elgar.
WHITESIDE, Noel and MAH, Alice. 2012. ‘Human rights and Ethical Reasoning: Capabilities, Conventions and Spheres of Public Action.’ Sociology, 46(5), 921.
ZIMMERMANN, Bénédicte. 2006. ‘Pragmatism and the Capability Approach: Challenges in Social Theory and Empirical Research.’ European Journal of Social Theory 9(4), 467–484.

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