Group rights and a group of girls

Fright, Matthew Philip James (2016). 'Group rights and a group of girls' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

Matthew P. J. Fright, University of Cambridge,
Supervisor: Shailaja Fennell
"Excuse me
standing on one leg
I’m half-caste."
John Agard
The notion of a solipsistic individual divorced from wider social identities is commonplace in economic thinking. When this assumption is relaxed however it poses multiple problems for many schools of thought.
This paper uses a thought experiment of eight hypothetical girls[1] to test notions in Sen’s Development as Freedom and the Idea of Justice. Each girl isolates important insights into group identity and the Capability approach more broadly. The girls illustrate that within the framework “the group” as a unit of analysis, and “group rights”, are contingent upon a well-informed membership decision by the constituent members of the group. This in turn raises questions over the notion of the level of commitment to a group identity.
One of the hypothetical girls in particular poses difficulties for the treatment of group rights – the girl who lives a group which has chosen voluntary isolationism. The threshold for any welfare based intervention or non-intervention by external agents appears to turn upon whether the girl has consented to the group decision to voluntarily isolate themselves.
Any sensible decision on whether an intervention should occur will require data to arrive at knowledge of the situation on the ground. But how can this be done when data collection this may violate the agency of the people who have opted for voluntary isolation? Without a clear weighting of the different capabilities which are involved here the framework remains agnostic as to whether an intervention is possible.
At the heart of the paradox is the nature of the individual who has a group identity. How can this identity be respected in an individualist framework? By looking to Sen’s work on women, black and minority ethnic groups and cultures, this paper argues that there are limitations to the Capabilities Approach treatment of group rights.
The paper argues that within the approach group rights come from the aggregation of the rights of the constituent members. Any increase in capability that could arise from an intervention which benefits a particular group of people is desirable and this helps to deal with some minorities. But when the increase in resources and opportunities comes at the expense of another group the solution is not clear.
Having considered all these points the paper considers a solution that the group identity dilemma can be solved through the notion of multiple identities (arguing that the reference point of the group should be the individual and that every person has multiple identities). Though this goes some way to removing the question of group rights, multiple identities are grounded in rich culturally diverse communities with regular exposure to and integration of other cultures. This is markedly different from the context of indigenous communities who often find their group rights and resource claims challenged by the state. It remains unclear quite how we should respond to such minority groups with the Capabilities Approach.
[1] The scenarios were posed to me by Gay Meeks at the University of Cambridge.

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