Is the Capability Approach a Valid Alternative Framework in Sociology? ―The development of social indicators in Japan and human development indexes―

KAMIYAMA, Hideki (2016). 'Is the Capability Approach a Valid Alternative Framework in Sociology? ―The development of social indicators in Japan and human development indexes―' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

The “capability approach” is often discussed in the contexts of economics and philosophy, but it is generally given little consideration in sociology, a field that is closely related to economics. This paper begins with an outline of the social indicators developed and utilized in Japan in the 1970s. It then attempts to fit the capability approach within the context of sociology, mainly by comparing these old indicators with human development indexes based on the capability approach.
Compared to economics, sociology can be described as an academic discipline that is premised on the “limits of rationality” as opposed to a “universal rationality,” and that is premised on “holism” as opposed to “methodological individualism.” Also, if we limit our focus to sociology alone, a detailed look at its historical development reveals that its center of gravity fluctuates with respect to these two axes.
In the 1970s a number of social indicators were created in Japan. One reason behind this was a growing recognition that GNP (GDP) alone was inadequate for measuring the prosperity of a country. Sociologists were deeply involved in creating these indicators in Japan. These were the leaders of functionalism, which at that time was a mainstream perspective in sociology. Viewed relative to the broad sociological framework that prevails today, functionalism could be described as an attempt to understand society as a whole, with an emphasis on rationality.
Since the 1970s a variety of social indicators have been created and utilized, and over time their objects of measurement, the concepts behind them, and their names have changed. However, these indicators have become less concerned with the public and less utilized for practical governance. Furthermore, social indicators are now no longer justified by sociological theory. Why did this decline in social indexes come about? One major reason is that the notion that “social prosperity” can be measured by a social indicator is not accepted by many people. More specifically, the process of aggregating individual indicators is seen as problematic. Undoubtedly, this idea reflects the functionalist view of the “rationality of society as a whole.” While functionalists criticize the rational indicator GNP (GDP), they seek another kind of rationality within society.
If we reflect on the features of human development indexes in light of the problems with past social indicators, these features can shed light on the limits of rationality, based on methodological individualism. That is, these features can help us to measure the capabilities of individual people— something that cannot be converted into a single indicator called “utility”. However, the measurement results presented to us when these indexes are actually applied suggest to me that it is not necessarily possible to identify the merits of these human development indexes with any clarity. Therefore, while human development indexes are likely to evolve and become more complex in the future, I believe it is necessary to preserve the features of these indexes.
If we follow this line of reasoning, we can view the capability approach as a unique framework that emphasizes the limits of rationality while still preserving methodological individualism. This definitely represents an alternative to the previous mainstream approach in sociology. Admittedly, though, as sociology has become increasingly diverse with the arising of symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, institutional theory, and other new approaches since the 1980s, the center of gravity of sociology is now generally shifting towards the capability approach. If we take account of this fact, we can view the capability approach not so much as an alternative to sociology, but rather as a framework that is complementary to or closely associated with it.

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