Pham, Lien Thi (2017). 'Capital and capabilities: Re-imagining social justice in and through education' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


In this paper, I draw on Amartya Sen’s capability approach to social justice and human development (Sen, 1985, 1999, 2002, 2009) and Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of capital (Bourdieu, 2011; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990) to understand the factors constructing educational disadvantage, and the implications for policy development to improve opportunities and processes of education for those that encounter educational disadvantage.

Sen’s (1985, 1999, 2009) capability approach is a normative evaluative framework for assessing wellbeing, justice and human development. Sen (2009) argues that a person’s life is a combination of various doings and beings (i.e. functionings), and understanding the quality of a person’s life requires assessing the substantive freedoms (i.e. capability) to choose the life he or she has reason to value. The policy implication is to ask whether or not people have real opportunities to achieve what they value in life rather than resources they have access to or the level of satisfaction that are able to attain. As Sen underscores, ‘A person’s advantage in terms of opportunities is judged to be lower than that of another if she has less capability – less real opportunity – to achieve those things that she has reason to value” (Sen, 2009: 231).

Bourdieu (2011) identifies four forms of capital: economic (money and assets), cultural (for example, knowledge, taste, language, aesthetic), social (affiliations and networks, family, religious and cultural heritage), and symbolic (transformed forms of other capital for example recognition of credentials, knowledge and expertise, financial resources; legitimacy of one’s actions and inactions over others). Bourdieu argues that one’s stock of capital depends on his or her socio-economic background, and plays a critical role in shaping educational opportunities and experiences. Unequal scholastic values and attitudes, and differences in cultural resources valued in the education system means that students of different social origin are not equally positioned to benefit from equal access to education. Seen from Bourdieu’s perspective, educational institutions act as a social filter of privilege and exclusion in the sense that they select and socialise students on the basis of implicit social and cultural resources, or capital.

This paper examines the intersection of capital and capability in relation to educational opportunities, experiences and outcomes of individuals. That is, how might people’s ownership of capital (economic, cultural, social, symbolic) shapes their opportunities or access to education, and their processes or participation and achievement in education? How might people’s education enable them to have the real choices and capabilities to improve their wellbeing and effectively pursue the kind of life that they value?

I will draw on some of the findings of the OECD’s reports on its 2015 Programme of International Students Assessment (PISA) to examine how capital mediates capabilities for education and capabilities through education. Capabilities for education refer to understanding the forms of capital that constitute educational disadvantage, and how these capital shape the opportunities for students to access schools and effective learning. Capabilities through education point to the processes in which students deploy these capital to negotiate schools, teachers, curriculum, and peers in their engagement in schools and uptake of learning offered. For example, PISA 2015 reported that across countries, individual outcomes of reading, mathematics and science literacy are influenced by individual factors such as students’ socioeconomic background, their parents’ educational level, and availability of educational resources at home. At the classroom level, individual outcomes are influenced by instructional settings including teacher’s pedagogical beliefs, teachers’ subject matter qualifications, teaching practices, and how teachers engage with students. At the school level, the type of school, its location, sources of funding, wealth, educational values, and parents’ involvement impact students’ outcomes. At the educational system level, macro-economic context and demographic context influence the distribution of wealth and cultural diversity within and between schools, which influence equity related outcomes and academic inclusion of students (OECD 2016).

The intersection of capital and capabilities extends the informational bases to examine the factors that contribute to educational disadvantage (or advantage) at the institutional level (school systems and schools structure) and at the individual level (students, teachers, principals). As Sen envisions, capabilities cannot be understood unless we examine both the derivation of opportunities as well as the processes of education, because student’s experiences of the processes in schools shape their perception of opportunities for education as much as the actual opportunities themselves, and how they might then pursue future opportunities.

Along with other scholars who have combined Sen’s and Bourdieu’s concepts (for example Hart (2012), Gale & Molla (2015), Pham (2015)), this paper examines the intersection of capital and capabilities to highlight relational and structural factors that mediate access to and success in education. It questions the structures and practices of educational institutions that privilege certain forms of capital while marginalize others. Re-imagining social justice in and through education entails problematising the policy framing of educational inequality beyond the lack of access to quality education or the lack of positive environment for learning experiences at school and at home. It broadens the evaluative spaces of educational disadvantage and implications for social arrangements, including equity policies programs. Rather than assuming a set of narrowly composed and assumed economic goal of jobs and deployment of skills – which underpin the OECD’s framework of educational assessment - this paper offers a pathway to better understand the forms of capital that people own as conditions and conditionings (conversion factors) that work for people in different circumstances. In doing so, it brings forth an ethical dimension of social justice by accounting for individuals’ values and goals in policies to improve opportunities and processes in schools and post schools.

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