Goldin, Jacqueline Ann (2017). 'Challenging Inequalities of Identity' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Sen has addresses the important question of how individuals’ identify themselves (Sen 2002), and has had a long-standing concern with the inequalities associated with these identities due to poor bargaining positions, which are particularly prevalent in the case of women in the household or community (Sen, 1999). Unequal identities result in a lower level of participation in market based activity and exclude, or actively deny, opportunities to participate in public and political life. In the case of disadvantaged minorities, the capability approach has been used to argue that identity choice can be severely constrained due to certain forms of education (Qizilbash, 2014). The ability of educational institutions and community norms to constrain individual identities is the focus of this panel. The papers in this panel share a common concern with the limitations imposed on individuals and address this concern by drawing on capability theory to examine how individuals might be able to use informed choice to achieve better lives.

The first paper examines how the teaching of history in schools provides an opportunity to use capability theory to understand how a young person views a valuable life. The paper makes the case that in societies that are marked by severe divisions along the seams of gender, caste, ethnicity and religion, these identities can limit individual choice. Using interview data collected from Sri Lanka, the paper shows that it is the blocking of informational pathways in the school curriculum and the consequent reductions in the role of public reason, that creates ‘unfreedoms’ for Sri Lankan youth: the first source of unfreedom, is identified as the tolerance of prejudice and marginalization through the erasure of the history of the minority Tamil group; the second restriction on freedom is identified as the restrictions on the access to knowledge when particular events in Sri Lankan history are omitted from the national curriculum.

The second paper addresses the question of education as a process that influences value formation, and this might itself be a means of creating forms of marginalization within society. The paper focuses on rethinking education as a space for thinking about the implications of local (African) language based instruction, over global (English or French) language instruction for improving learning outcomes and enhancing the capabilities of youth. The paper shows that the introduction of a local language medium of instruction creates a more dynamic flow of language, and increases the participation level in the classroom, as a consequence of the greater fluency on the part of both teachers and students when they are engaged in local language interactions.

The third paper takes up the subject of the intersectionality of identities, and the need to recognize that these play a fundamental role in women’s decision-making in the household and the community. The paper focuses on the case of energy in rural India, and the gendered nature of inequalities in decision-making regarding access to energy. Drawing on the case of Barefoot College, a NGO training organization in India, that has created the initiative of ‘solar grannies’ (women over the age of 50 years, who are trained to install and maintain solar home systems), the paper shows that older women can be a powerful catalyst for introducing renewable energy interventions into villages. The central argument is that older women have greater agency and bargaining power because of their age, which gives them a more privileged position in the household. If gendered interventions target such groups it could permit the reconfiguration of power relations, by encouraging coalitions between different generations of women – grandmothers, mothers and daughters within the same households. This new configuration of power could change the nature of bargaining in relation to energy needs in the household with more weight accorded to childrens’ schooling, the need for lighting, better stoves with reduced smoke emissions, and warmth and safety in the night that would improve the well-being of women across generations.


Sen, A. (2002) Rationality and Freedom, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

Sen, A. (1999) Development as Freedom, OUP, Oxford.

Qizilbash, M. (2014) ‘Identity, Community and Justice: locating Amartya Sen’s work on identity’, Politics, Philosophy and Economics, 8 (3), pp. 251-266.

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