Corrosive disadvantage and the imagination: exploring the adapted preferences of rural illiterate women in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Nussey, Charlotte (2014). 'Corrosive disadvantage and the imagination: exploring the adapted preferences of rural illiterate women in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

This paper considers some ways in which our understanding of the notion of adaptive preference might be expanded.  Drawing on life history interviews with poor, rural women in a marginalised community of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, the paper considers how intersecting capability constraints around race, gender, illiteracy, rurality, poverty and violence can interact to construct adapted imagined futures in which preferences are severely constrained.


Adaptive preference is a concept that draws attention to the ways in which external constraints, such as a lack of resources or prohibitive social norms, can become internalised (Bridges, 2006).  Particular forms of deprivation can thus serve to adjust 'desires and expectations' to what individuals 'unambitiously see as feasible' (Sen, 1999: 63), in addition to the more direct material effects of deprivation upon substantive opportunities.  The notion of adapted preferences is expressed by Martha Nussbaum in stronger terms than Sen, as one in which choices and wishes are 'deformed' (Nussbaum, 2001: 114), particularly, she argues, for women in disadvantaged contexts, such as the two Indian women whose life stories she uses as illustrative examples.  For both Sen and Nussbaum, adapted preferences are employed as a useful critique of utilitarian approaches to political principles, to argue that preferences alone cannot provide a normative account of wellbeing because of their tendency to be shaped by context.


In reflecting upon the language used to describe the notion of adapted preferences, however, a tension emerges around the language employed in describing these preferences as 'unambitious' or 'deformed'.  It is important to situate these within wider concerns of the Capability Approach to respect individuals, and thus to highlight that these words do not aim to pathologise the poor but rather to emotively stress the effect of disadvantage upon preferences.  A tension thus inheres in the concept: there is both the need to recognise the pernicious effects of structural disadvantage and the kinds of identity work that this does, and the need to apply this thinking from a position of respect for the poor, with clear understanding that they are 'capable' of imagining or articulating a substantially better form of life (Clark, 2009).  It is precisely this tension that will be teased out and questioned in this paper.


Studies in the field of education have taken up this philosophical discussion in a number of different ways, but with a broad aim of understanding how constrained preferences might operate. In the South African context, a further set of studies have also reflected upon how our understanding of poverty might be expanded by a Capability perspective (Qizilbash, 2002; Kingdon and Knight, 2006).   As Elaine Unterhalter argues, however, we need more work to help us to understand how education links to other dimensions of wellbeing (Unterhalter, 2005), particularly in relation to intersectional interactions across different forms of disadvantage.  My argument in this paper thus aims to build on this work to understand different forms of constrained capabilities and preference adaptation, through engagement with qualitative data.


This paper is drawn from in-depth qualitative research which traces meanings around gender and illiteracy within a national South African adult education intervention.   The intervention is funded and managed at the national level, but delivered by a cadre of local community actors, and focuses particularly on reaching those named and positioned in the discourse as 'marginalised' citizens, which includes the broad categories of women and those from low socio-economic backgrounds.   In the wider research from which this paper is drawn, discourse around gender and illiterate learners' identities produced through global and national policies on adult education and the national teaching and learning materials for this intervention were explored. Approximately forty interviews were conducted with designers, monitors, managers, supervisors and educators at local, regional and national levels questioning how they constructed and positioned learner identities.  At the heart of the research, micro-interactions and understandings of gender, literacy, and capabilities were explored through the engagement of learners with the adult education classes, in a rural community in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.  The data set thus comprises approximately sixty life history interviews and five focus groups with learners at early and late stages of engagement with literacy classes, reflexive observations of approximately one hundred hours of the classes, and supporting participatory ethnographic research strategies such as community mapping and field notes.


In analysing this data, I argue that the 'unfreedoms' which operated in my research (Sen, 1999) were overlapping and more than the sum of their parts, with the result that much more attention needs to be paid at the theoretical level to their interactions.  This focus on interaction is particularly necessary in research contexts of multiple intersecting inequalities such as those experienced by rural, poor communities subject to high levels of gender inequality and violence, in which forms of disadvantage cluster and become corrosive (Wolff and De-Shalit, 2007). 


In this paper I further argue, through engagement with life history and focus group data, that the spatialised nature of inequality and capability constraints also has an impact upon the social imaginations of communities, adapting preferences for possible beings and doings at both the individual and collective level.  I find that the forms of imaginaries that were available were constrained by a lack of community role models, by a lack of spatial and social mobility and opportunity, and by histories of multiple forms of exploitation and inequality.

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