A Social Science Perspective on the Capability Approach – Experiences from the International Research School Education and Capabilities
Schaefer, Sabine (2014). 'A Social Science Perspective on the Capability Approach - Experiences from the International Research School Education and Capabilities' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.
The Capability Approach is a normative and justice-based framework designed to conceptualize and to evaluate people's wellbeing or, in other words, to create public policies that provide people with plural options to be and to do what they have reason to value. However, the Capability Approach is neither a theory nor a methodology and requires to be combined with explanatory concepts and methods that have the potential to bring to light the conditions, requirements, assumptions, etc. that shape people's ideas of their options for different ways of life. Social sciences provide such concepts and are thus proper candidates to link empirical realities of the social world to the normative stance of social justice of the Capability Approach.
In my paper I want to report on experience in establishing such links between social sciences and the CA that have been made at the Research School Education and Capabilities, an international graduate school at the German universities of Bielefeld and Dortmund founded in 2008 where about 40 doctoral researchers from all over the world have been and are still working on their empirical PhD projects. The thematic focus of the Research School lies on the broad research field of education, including institutions of the educational system such as pre-schools, schools, or universities, families, the labour market but also educational policies and living conditions of children and young people in general.
So in the Research School we were able to bring together a great variety of research questions, methods and theories grouped around the CA. In this broad spectrum of research subjects some of the young researchers applied the Capability Approach to empirical research questions and combined it with methods like qualitative and biographical interviews or document analysis. Others linked the Capability Approach to theoretical concepts like Paul Ricoeur's notion of the capable human being, Critical Discourse Analysis or Critical Materialist Theory. Moreover, the Capability Approach was not only applied to research questions situated in developing countries but several studies dealt with research questions and problems in the field of education in Germany. Thus, questions about human development and social justice were examined in an industrialized country of the so-called Global North that was not very much affected by the 'Great Recession' of the past years and where nevertheless people face crises and social injustice in many areas of life.
These research strategies have been both challenging and fruitful: The application of CA-concepts to empirical research questions dealing with for example deprivation of young mothers or refugee children in Germany or subjective theories and practices of teachers in Serbia or Greece is challenging because these questions need a strong foundation in the social sciences and their theories and methodologies. So the CA-Concepts had to be thought through and adapted to these new fields of research. We belief that the Capability Approach can benefit from this work because an analysis informed by concepts and methodologies of the social sciences allows for reconstructing social contexts and conditions in which option spaces for agency and thus for the development of capabilities emerge.
On the other hand the work has been worthwhile and fruitful for the social science perspective because the strong orientation towards agency that is inherent in the Capability Approach opens up a view rather on the agents' resources than on their deficits which is quite usual in the social sciences research field of social inequalities.
In the projects of the Research School this mutual process of sharpening conceptual approaches led to further elaboration of the concept of conversion factors, the role of the social and historical context or the impact of power relations in the Capability Approach. In my paper I want to give a brief overview of some of the different approaches that have been implemented in the Research School Education and Capabilities and to show some considerations what that could mean for the next steps of the conceptual development of the Capability Approach.