Applying Capabilities: Insights from Village Level Study

Vidyarthee, Kaushal Kishore (2016). 'Applying Capabilities: Insights from Village Level Study' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

abstract The capability approach has almost largely been operationalised in the restricted sense of assessing certain basic functionings. The applicability, relevance and propositions of capability approach have not been analysed holistically at a micro-level especially in the context of a rural society in a developing country. The key goal of this paper is to discuss, scrutinise or evaluate the capability approach using the framework of a village level study (VLS). The VLS reveals the extent to which the capability sets are social and cultural products rather than opportunities between which individual choose. The VLS also calls for attention in theory, measurement and practice to the role of collective capabilities.     As a framework of thought, the capability approach is not entirely concerned with outcomes as capabilities refer to potentials rather than actualities for evaluation and comparison of well-being. Measuring the capability of a person rather than realised functionings is difficult. Realised functionings are a vector of beings and doings, the capability set contains potential beings and doings. Sen stresses the role of agency, the process of choice and the freedom to reason in the selection of relevant capabilities for evaluation of well-being. This become more important in the context of a village society in a developing country, where capability deprivation is concentrated.   In a village, an individual’s characteristic is generally defined by many social attributes or institutions (e.g. social norms, prejudices, habits, traditions). The social structure of a village is stratified through gender, class, caste, occupation and so on.  An intensive study of a village provides details about its setting, helps to understand the social structure and to integrate the capability approach. A village level study may provide the details on the living standards not easily available otherwise. For example, such a study can reveal whether the life style of a villager appears very different from that which might be implied by measured income; whether there are circumstances concerning the resources, social and physical environment of household members that might disrupt their income; whether caste, class, ethnicity and gender are likely to effect their well-being and development, and how. At the same time, a VLS can also identify the underlying mechanisms affecting the incidence and severity of poverty that might be concealed in a larger survey making them a rational choice to understand the intricacies of the application of capability approach at a micro level.   For this study, the selected village level study of Uttar Para, a small village in Uttar Pradesh in India, has been aimed to understand economic and social change and well-being in the terms of the levels and distribution of living standards. It has been studied over a period of almost a decade. The significance of Uttar Para relates partly to its location in India’s socio-economic geography and partly to its demographic context which is characterized by exceptionally high levels of mortality, fertility, morbidity, undernutrition, illiteracy, and social inequality, and a slow pace of poverty decline. Social stratification in Uttar Para includes extreme gender and caste inequalities. To analyse capability in Uttar Para, evidence for household and family structure, caste, class, occupation, income, gender, education etc and their interrelationships are available for interpretation. The disadvantaged community have comparatively restricted access to human development-enabling infrastructure such as education and credit, and to employment and market opportunities is comparatively restricted. Caste and class structures both affect what one can do and what one has reason to do. ‘Beings’ and ‘doings’ (i.e. to be employed outside a caste vocation, to engage in public participation, to be educated, to have respect, even to sell milk etc) are regulated by class, gender or caste. These social forces constitute the identity of a person and acknowledge the culture and normative importance of groups. A person’s capabilities are intensely determined by the perceptions and practices of such social and cultural groups. The village level study reveals socially restricted nature of opportunities. Further, the elitist and non-participatory character of local politics raises questions for Sen’s activist developmental philosophy of democracy, public discussion and social choice. The village level study gives many examples of opportunities for collective action that have not been materialized. They range from the lack of provision of bathing facilities for women to the protection of ground water resources. Again the poor development of collective action or functioning directly affects the individual’s functionings reflecting constrained capability sets. The capability approach needs deeper exploration in thie direction. Landless labour working under insecure contractual conditions, small cultivator’s poor product market access and women prevented from working outside the home are economic oppressions which have negative consequences on capabilities.   This paper makes five points to interpret the capability approach from micro-level perspective using the village level study. First, the assumption of the capability approach that the individual is the dominant agent in the sequence of events from endowments to ultimate well-being is challenged as the village level study shows that social phenomena and individual’s actions need analysis in their mutual dependence. Second, there are many group ‘functioning’ and ‘capabilities’ that may be beneficial for enlarging individual capabilities. If we recognise the collective practices of stratified societies as the village level study makes it clear, the advancement of human welfare in the framework of capability approach will be easier. Third, the oppressive coercive political power and political economy prevailing in a village society affects individual political freedom and undermines individual and collective capabilities. Fourth, while the capability approach focuses on the act of making choices; many capabilities depend more on public action and social policy rather than individual choice. Fifth, the informational requirement for a practical tool for interpersonal comparisons of deprivation and well-being using capabilities as parameters is very high.   In the first section this paper will briefly discuss the operationalization framework of the capabilityapproach based on Sen’s texts and literature survey. The second part deals with the concept of the village level study and analyses the capability approach perspective. Lastly, it critiques the capability approach at micro-level using insights from the village level study.

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