Individual features and efficiency of conversion in the capability approach
Sebastianelli, Marco (2016). 'Individual features and efficiency of conversion in the capability approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.
The capability approach is an innovative framework for the evaluation of social arrangements and individual wellbeing, and posits that the freedom to achieve valuable beings and doings is important besides the achievement itself. One of the bedrocks of the capability approach's methodological and normative stances is its focus on human diversity: this allows it to acknowledge the distinctiveness of some portions of society that are commonly disregarded by traditional economic approaches and normative theories of justice. One of the essential means employed by the capability approach to account for human diversity (the other major one being the plurality of purposes included in its conceptualisation of wellbeing) is the concept of conversion factors.
Conversion factors are the element of the capability approach architecture that accounts for the different efficiency of individuals in converting material resources into capabilities to be and do valuable things. They have been the subject of some important studies within the capability approach (including, but not limited to, Kuklys, 2005), which have clarified far-reaching aspects of the state of deprivation in which some individuals and their households live, and of the causes of their condition. Nevertheless, despite the momentous results uncovered by these studies, conversion factors have yet to be examined thoroughly from the conceptual point of view: many pieces of research have dealt empirically with conversion factors, while a fully fledged undisputed definition is still missing.
Both Amartya Sen and Ingrid Robeyns opt for a definition based on the role of conversion factors, i.e. 'the sources of variation between our real incomes and the advantages […] we get out of them' (Sen, 1999; p. 70). Although there is nothing inherently wrong with defining something on the basis of its purpose within a greater structure, the definition traditionally adopted in the literature lacks clarity. More specifically, I will argue that the connotative (or intensional) part of such definition is underspecified because it fits other elements as well: for example, choices can be the sources of the variation of conversion efficiency without being conversion factors per se. Starting from the possible ambiguity arising around the concepts of choices and conversion factors, I will move towards a more straightforward definition of the latter.
My definition will resort to the genus and difference principle according to which something is defined as a) being part of a group and b) having certain characteristics that distinguish it from other members of the group. In particular, I will define conversion factors as a) the features of an agent's life b) that determine the efficiency of transformation of her resources into capabilities. By doing so I will distance myself from interpretations of conversion factors as constraints – which, I argue, tend to revitalise the confusion between choices and conversion factors. Moreover, I will elaborate such definition drawing on the alternative approach to consumer theory pioneered by William M. Gorman and Kelvin J. Lancaster according to which individuals satisfy their needs through command over resources' features. I will indeed suggest that individuals convert resources into capabilities through the interaction between the features of resources and their own relevant features – the latter being conversion factors.
The second part of the paper will deal with the classification of conversion factors. Another shortcoming of the conceptual analysis of conversion factors is indeed the lack of a strong, coherent and helpful taxonomy. Most taxonomical efforts in the literature on the capability approach, indeed, present a tripartite classification of conversion factors as individual, social and environmental, which, I will argue, is purely locational, meaning that it differentiates conversion factors solely on the basis of where they exert their influence. I will criticise this taxonomy for adding little to our knowledge of what lies at the origin of a conversion factor (individual conversion factors, for example, can range from natural conditions to others that are strictly social, and from self-imposed features to others that are purely accidental). In opposition to the traditional taxonomy I will present an alternative one, based on the intersection of two axis of classification: the locus of influence and the type. The locus of influence distinguishes conversion factors that are individual from those that are contextual, while the type distinguishes natural conversion factors from social ones. The intersection of the two axis generates a two by two matrix presenting four sorts of conversion factors, which I will describe and compare to those emerging from the traditional taxonomy.
In order to conclude the conceptual analysis of process of conversion within the capability approach, in the third section of the paper I will introduce the principles of intersectionality and relativity. Both principles provide an explanation to why conversion factors are not meaningful per se and need to be considered in their ontological totality. In order to make sense of the idea of conversion factors we shall indeed consider them within their mutual interaction (intersectionality) and with respect to a specific target or functioning (relativity). For instance, being a woman is an individual feature that is neutral in itself, but generates particular effects when coupled with the context of a male dominated society. The quality of those effects once again cannot be judged a priori, but depends on the specific functionings that are considered at each time: being a woman in male-dominated society determines a low conversion efficiency with respect to the functioning “have a successful work career”, but the same condition generates a different conversion efficiency with respect to the functioning “spend time with one's newborn child”.
The concluding section of the paper shows how the four aforementioned pillars (new definition, new taxonomy, intersectionality, and relativity) work together to generate a conceptualisation of conversion factors that is both unequivocal and sheds some light on the process of capability generation as a whole. The new conceptualisation is expected to help reduce the ambiguity that may surround the study of social arrangements and human wellbeing through the capability approach and its operationalisation.