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Human Development &
Capability Association

Multi-Disciplinary and People-Centred

In Memoriam – Hans Uwe Otto

Hans Uwe Otto (1940-2020)

The HDCA is sad to announce the death on 27 October 2020 of Hans Uwe Otto, Senior Research Professor at Bielefeld University. Hans Uwe was a pathbreaking leader of work using the capability approach to research youth, work, and unequal societies through the Bielefeld Centre for Capability Research. Colleagues, former students, and friends recall his warm smile, his trenchant questions, and a tireless commitment to make projects work, even  in the face of what seemed like insurmountable obstacles. The testament to his sense of ‘never give up’ was the significant research and network building output his collaborations put in place.

Hans Uwe’s interest in the capability approach built on a well established career  working in sociology, social work and social education at Bielefeld and other universities in North Rhine Westphalia. He led two large research collaborations  on the capability approach involving many European universities, building connections with academics at  different stages of their careers and convening some exciting investigations. These were  Education as Welfare. Enhancing opportunities for socially vulnerable youth in Europe, (Eduwel), a Marie Curie network, which trained a talented cohort of doctoral students. Making Capabilities Work' (WORKABLE) looked at strategies to enhance the capabilities of young people in Europe, exploring ways they could be supported to actively shape their personal and work lives to cope in societies marked by high rates of youth unemployment, early school leaving and dropout. Both projects generated a significant volume of research and publication, and laid the foundations for many future collaborations amongst researchers and practitioner organisations.

For the HDCA, Hans Uwe was a core member of the team that organised the HDCA conference in Athens on the theme of Human Development in Times of Crisis: Renegotiating Social Justice. The Conference was a joint project of the University of Ioannina and the Bielefeld Centre. Hans Uwe was the President of the Programme Committee. Throughout the conference, he was an attentive listener to a wide range of speakers reviewing the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, prompting some intense discussions on economic and social policy long into the night.

Hans Uwe’s publications are a lasting testament to all the work he nurtured. He co-edited a number of collections on the capability approach  including  Education, Welfare and the Capabilities Approach. A European Perspective. Opladen / Farmington Hills (2010 ) with Holger Ziegler , Closing the Capabilities Gap. Renegotiating social justice for the young. Opladen / Farmington Hills (2011) with Ortrud Leßmann and Holger Ziegler and Capability promoting policies , (2017 ) Bristol University Press with Holger Ziegler and Melanie Walker.

Many others are remembering Hans Uwe’s personal and scholarly contributions, including his close colleague Holger Ziegler whose tribute is below. In the HDCA we will miss his warmth, his determination, his scholarship, sense of urgency and openness to use the capability approach and research-led inquiry to investigate some of the harsh areas of contemporary experience, in a hope for change.

– Elaine Unterhalter


Until the end of October 2020 Hans-Uwe Otto worked as Senior Research Professor at Bielefeld University and Head of the Bielefeld Center for Education and Capability Research. He has been engaged in the Thematic Group on education within the HDCA and collaboratively organised the 2014 HDCA conference on Human Development in Times of Crisis in Athens. He coordinated and conducted numerous interdisciplinary and international research and training projects based on the capabilities approach in the fields of education and welfare.

For nearly fifty years Hans Uwe was among the most renowned and influential academics and intellectuals in Social Work. He lectured in many countries and was the recipient of a number of honourary doctorates and professorships at universities around the world.

As a critical social scientist Hans-Uwe Otto was devoted to challenging barriers arising from structural inequalities, as they affected real life within capitalist societies. While he was convinced that the capabilities approach offered significant evaluative yardsticks for substantive, critical social analysis and progressive social policy and practice, he was also concerned at readings of the capabilities approach, used in pleas for welfare reforms, which shifted res­pon­sibility from the state (or the public) to the individual in a context of widening inequality. This was an important background to his quest to combine the capabilities approach with understandings of power, domination and structural inequality drawn from the social sciences.

Hans-Uwe Otto stressed that both, the capabilities approach and the tradition of critical social science generate knowledge relevant to understanding  the conditions in which people can live flourishing lives. Both are oriented to realise that all people should have genuine and broadly equal access to the material and social means necessary to live flourishing lives. Both underscore that all people everywhere should be equally empowered to contribute to the collective control of the conditions and decisions which affect their common fate. While Hans Uwe was convinced that the capabilities approach and the HDCA could gain from critical social science, his work was centred on achieving a political stand in relation to social theory and educational and welfare practice, appealing to values of dignity, autonomy and the requirements of human flourishing.

With Hans-Uwe Otto the HDCA loses a generous and warm-hearted colleague and friend. Proponents of a critical social science and an emancipatory educational and welfare practice lose a seminal academic ally and an inspiring intellectual.

– Holger Ziegler


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