Capabilities Approach Through the Looking Glass of Empirical Psychology

Besirevic, Zinaida; Banas, Amy (2016). 'Capabilities Approach Through the Looking Glass of Empirical Psychology' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

The capabilities approach posits itself not only as a theory of justice but also as a project for human thriving, concerned with full human potential rather than just a check list of functions. As both a human development theory and a political project, it provides, at once, an ethical platform and an actionable roadmap to human well-being. However, as a theory about people, for people, what the capabilities approach still lacks is a closer relationship with empirical theories that study how people reason about their social world. In this paper we propose how such a relationship may be established and how it may lend the capabilities approach a much needed empirical grounding, as well as a method for continuous self-evaluation. As developmental psychologists, studying how individuals reason about morality, laws, and personal agency, we examine the possible limitations of the capabilities approach’s appeal, both as a theory and a political project. We ask why some people may misunderstand or resist the idea or the application of central capabilities; how people view their own and others’ development and thriving; and what types of reasoning might lead people to lexically order the ten capabilities in a certain way.   
We write from the perspective of social domain theory (Turiel, 1983), which offers a theoretical framework for studying how people reason across cultures and across the human lifespan.  Some psychologists (Shweder, 2006; Haidt, 2002) who focus on cultural comparisons of human development would stand in opposition to a political project of universal capabilities, claiming that well-being is dependent -- cross culturally -- on different metaphysical understandings of the world. From the standpoint of social domain theory, we disagree with such positions. We argue, in line with the capabilities theory, that not only are cultures not homogeneous, but that people are active rather than passive participants in their cultures and their interpretations of the social world around them. Moreover, we argue that studying the way people interpret and push back against cultural practices can tell us a lot about how they understand their own capabilities, as well as how that reasoning develops across time and across contexts.
Social domain theory aligns well with the capabilities approach. It posits that people are in reciprocal relationship with their environment and that through interactions with adults, peers, and siblings, they construct forms of social knowledge (Smetana, 1999; Turiel, 1983). These forms of knowledge are categorized into three domains: the moral, the personal/psychological, and the social-conventional. The moral domain is understood as prescriptive notions regarding how individuals ought to behave toward each other (Smetana, 1999) and deals particularly with concepts related to rights, justice, and welfare/prevention of harm (Turiel, 1983, 2002). Moral prescriptions are seen as universal, not legitimated by agreement or law, and are impartial to one’s preferences (Turiel, 1983, 2002).
The social-conventional domain in our theoretical framework is concerned with how people reason about social organizations, rules, and authority and how they apply that reasoning to the coordination of social interactions (Turiel, 2002). Looking at reasoning in the social-conventional domain, therefore, can tell us something about the practical challenges of the capabilities project being realized on the ground, as well as reasons why it may face resistance.
Lastly, the personal domain in social domain theory consists of decisions that are understood to primarily effect the actor and should not be governed by a societal rule or law (Nucci, 1981).
Looking at reasoning in the personal/psychological domain can tell us something about which types of situations people consider to be “their own business,” rather than a social or a moral concern, and how that might affect their tendency to evaluatively order the central capabilities.  
We therefore argue that insofar as the capabilities approach is concerned with enabling the exercise of rights, welfare, and justice in a way that addresses the psychological, social, and moral features of how people function and flourish, it is well suited to study within social domain theory.
Moreover, we argue that, on the whole, studying the capabilities approach through the lens of social domain theory can help us understand what happens developmentally, particularly when it comes to people’s perceptions of their own and others’ capabilities and functionings. It can also show us something about how and why people may coordinate or prioritize the ten capabilities. Social domain theory shows how people consider the full complexity of their social world when making a critical judgement, leading them to coordinate domains, often subverting the moral to the social-conventional. These findings have been corroborated in studies done across the Middle East, Africa, North, Central and South America, Europe, and Asia. The particular strength of social domain theory is that it is not just a theory of human development, but it is also an empirical methodology of studying development. We show that, as such, it offers the capabilities approach a means of testing and measuring its own claims, thus lending the capabilities approach an even more robust framework and giving it further reach. This paper is intended as a conceptual discussion of what we would develop into an empirical study.

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