de Souza, Caroline Beatriz Rodrigues (1); Comim, Flavio Vasconcellos (1,2) (2017). 'An Ethnographic Capability Approach to Education' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Issues of valuational dynamics and evolution are at the core of the Capability Approach (Nussbaum and Sen, 1989). Time divides our life and the way we are sensitive to different ‘reasons to value’. Time defines how we evolve and how education shapes our minds, personalities and civic morality (Nussbaum, 2013). Time and the idea of evolution are also at the essence of how families and school education develop children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills (Cunha and Heckman, 2007). Time determines the rhythm of teaching and learning processes and gives parameters to desirable individual and social learning outcomes. It separates capabilities – and its flourishment – from real life realisations. The acknowledgement of the significance of time within educational research offers ground to discuss how people’s set of capabilities can be developed as an expansion of substantive freedoms. Furthermore, it makes it possible to analyse to what extent capabilities may evolve, change and can be realised into particular functionings.

Within this context, this paper proposes the use of ethnographic research and instruments as a way of making the Capability Approach more sensitive to time. It also explores how ethnography itself can benefit from the use of the Capability Approach. Its focus is on education and on how an ‘Ethnographic Capability Approach’ (ECA) can provide a consistent instrument to appraise the development of capabilities and the concretization of functionings over time.

People’s context and circumstances also play a major role in determining their educational outcomes as well as their substantial freedoms and achievements in life. Nussbaum (2011) argues that unfavourable social, economic and political contexts may prevent people’s capabilities from being developed and converted into functionings. At the same time, she endorses the importance of paying attention to the complexity of people’s real contexts and particular circumstances, so that to perform appropriate ethical judgments regarding their situations and actions (Nussbaum, 1990).  In a similar direction, Sen (1997) argues that it is fundamental to distinguish culmination outcomes from comprehensive outcomes. He emphasises the intrinsic relevance of processes in determining results. Under this perspective, the use of different evaluation milestones may have different implications in terms of social justice (Sen, 2009).

Ethnography can provide a methodological structure that can facilitate evaluation dynamics within the Capability Approach. Ethnography represents a methodological framework to collect qualitative data that gives a great relevance to the social and cultural context in which the data are gathered, underlying evaluations on the detailed consideration and description of processes (Brewer, 2000). It is a methodology that demands a deep engagement with people’s social world, which implies observing individuals in their natural settings for a sufficiently long period of time. This allows to document people’s circumstances, habits, relevant happenings, things that are said and done, and, in addition, to ask particular questions about their context (Sherman and Webb, 1988; Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007). In that manner, ethnography provides a bottom-up method that enables to investigate people’s conditions from inside-out (Atkinson et. al., 2001).

This paper will be divided into three main sections. First, the influence of time on the creation of capabilities will be examined as a way to offer some understanding concerning the importance of time for assessments within a human development perspective. In the following section, the ethnographic framework will be discussed in order to explore its synergies with the Capability Approach. In the last section, an approach to examine the dynamic development of capabilities based on ethnographic analysis will be suggested. The use of an Ethnographic Capability Approach to education may provide a deeper panorama of the connections between individuals’ particular circumstances (as argued by Nussbaum, 1990) and the processes through which people’s capabilities evolve over time. This is relevant, on one hand, because it may give a clearer idea in terms of how different kinds of public policy interventions could be implemented with the aim of improving people’s substantial freedoms in distinct contexts and in reference to different stages of life. On the other hand, it may offer a sort of assessment that is more process-oriented and less focused on results (Sen, 2009). This may be especially relevant when it comes to evaluations within the field of education, in which processes have a major importance. Therefore, the sort of information that could be gathered with the use of an Ethnographic Capability Approach could possibly help to develop more accurate public policy strategies.

Keywords: Capability Approach; Ethnography; Dynamic capabilities; Education

Conference topic: Philosophical and ethical foundations and implications of the capability approach related to a variety of methods (e.g. participatory, quantitative, qualitative, mixed)


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Nussbaum, M. and Sen, A. (1989). "Internal Criticism and Indian Rationalist Traditions". In Krausz, M., Ed., Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation. South Blend: University of Notre Dame press, pp. 299-325.

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