Leßmann, Ortrud (2017). 'Capability, Collectivity, and Social Change' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


This panel discusses the concept of collective capability and the role of collectives in social change. Following a survey of the various approaches to incorporating collectives into the capability approach, the concept of cultural tradition is revisited and finally the influence of communities on democratic deliberation in development processes examined. For both the concept of cultural tradition as well as democratic deliberation the panel contributions ask if they should be regarded as a collective capabilities and how they enable or impede social change.

Since Stewart and Deneulin (2002) broached their fundamental critique of the capability approach as too individualistic, a debate on the issue of how to incorporate collectives in the capability approach is ongoing. Evans (2002) introduced the term “collective capabilities” arguing that collectives are a necessary link between the individual and society. He further established a close link between “collective capabilities” and collective action. The appeal of “collective capabilities” to capability approach scholars lies in explicitly taking note of the role of collectivities in enhancing people’s lives. The notion is contested since most scholars of the capability approach also agree on its “ethical individualism” (Robeyns 2005) holding that situations should be evaluated according to the individual well-being they offer (cf. Nussbaum’s (2000, 74) principle of each person as end). Further, there is no agreed-upon definition of the concept collective capability but rather a number of competing conceptions. Deneulin (2008) suggests an alternative concept of “structures of living together” trying to capture the embedding of individuals in communities. She follows Gore (1997) in this respect who was the first to criticize the capability approach for staying in the individualistic tradition of economics.

A core argument for highlighting the importance of collectivities is their role in forming people’s ideas. They differ, however, in the kind of collective they have in mind: While Evans (2002) referred to groups for political activism such as women’s groups, unions, political parties, and Ibrahim (2006) uses the concept of collective capabilities for analysing the effects of self-help groups, Gore (1997) and Deneulin (2008) have the more general social environment in mind. They give the example of language and culture which they see as “irreducible social goods” in the life of an individual while they cannot be assigned to any particular individual. What these approaches do have in common is an orientation towards social change (Alkire 2008). The concept of collective capabilities actually tries to capture the potential of groups to change people’s well-being by broadening the scope of their capabilities. In contrast to this practical role of collectives, Deneulin and Gore point to the importance of the culturally embedded meaning of social practices and warn against the idea that individuals can decide on their own by rational choice to change the track of their lives. This is similar to Giddens’ (1984) point about the duality of structure as restricting and enabling at the same time.

The debate around individualism in the capability approach has been summarised by Robeyns (2005), Alkire (2008) and Leßmann and Roche (2013). Lately, there have been some additional contributions to the literature, both from empirical work as some more theoretical contributions, hence the need for an update. Further, Leßmann provides at a more comprehensive survey beyond the concepts of collective capability and structures of living together. The panel includes such a survey of the literature that goes beyond the mentioned strands on “collective capability” and “structures of living together”. The survey by Leßmann further proposes a framework for classifying the various attempts to incorporate collectives in the capability approach and includes an illustration how this framework can be used for analysing the methodology of a project.

The panel further comprises two papers focusing on collective practices of societies which may be regarded as collective capabilities. Kramm revisits the concept of cultural tradition drawing on literature from philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. He discusses the role of cultural tradition in development processes and asks whether cultural tradition should be seen as a collective capability. In a related way, Wall focuses on processes of democratic deliberation in development. Based on empirical field work in a panchayat (village) in Wayanad, Kerala, South India he shows how individual expressions of priorities can help influence public debate and policy in the community. He suggests that democratic deliberation thus may be seen as a collective capability.

In short, the panel critically discusses the concept of collective capabilities by providing a survey of the approaches to collectives taken within the capability approach as well as by discussing in depth whether cultural tradition and democratic deliberation can and should be called collective capability. All three papers further highlight the link to social change.


Alkire, Sabina. 2008. “Using the Capability Approach: Prospective and Evaluative Analyses.” In The Capability Approach: Concepts, Measures and Applications, edited by Flavio. Comim, Mozaffar. Qizilbash, and Sabina Alkire, 26–50. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.

Deneulin, Séverine. 2008. “Beyond Individual Freedom and Agency: Structures of Living Together.” In The Capability Approach: Concepts, Measures and Applications, edited by Flavio. Comim, Mozaffar. Qizilbash, and Sabina Alkire, 105–24. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Peter B. 2002. “Collective Capabilities, Culture and Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom.” Studies in Comparative International Development 37 (2): 54–60.

Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Polity Press.

Gore, Charles. 1997. “Irreducibly Social Goods and the Informational Basis of Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach.” Journal of International Development 9 (2): 235–50. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1099-1328(199703)9:2<235::AID-JID436>3.0.CO;2-J.

Ibrahim, Solava. 2006. “From Individual to Collective Capabilities: The Capability Approach as a Conceptual Framework for Self‐help.” Journal of Human Development 7 (3): 397–416. doi:10.1080/14649880600815982.

Leßmann, Ortrud, and Jose Manuel Roche. 2013. “Introduction from the Editors.” Maitreyee E-Bulletin Der HDCA 2013 (June).

Nussbaum, Martha. 2000. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. The John Robert Seeley Lectures. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Robeyns, Ingrid. 2005. “The Capability Approach: A Theoretical Survey.” Journal of Human Development 6 (1): 93–117.

Stewart, Frances, and Séverine Deneulin. 2002. “Amartya Sen’s Contribution to Development Thinking.” Studies in Comparative International Development 37 (2): 61–70.

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