Linking the Capability Approach to English childcare staff

Wright, Hazel Rosemary (2014). 'Linking the Capability Approach to English childcare staff' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

This paper reports on a doctoral study (Wright, 2011) that set out to explore the experience of adult education on women's lives and, on analysis of the research findings, found that the data was enhanced by and could itself contribute to the application of the Capability Approach (CA). Thus, it reports on a usage of the CA that grew from a grass roots analysis in contrast to the original conceptualisations that, developing within the fields of Economics and Philosophy, have tended towards a top-down application, making operationalisation difficult (Comim, 2008).


The paper presents a case study of mature women in an English setting, women who decided to train to educate/care for young pre-school children. Its initial interest was to explore the relationship between vocational and liberal education in a UK context. At the time of commencement, the UK New Labour government was increasingly reducing the funding for adult education to contexts that were work related but the researcher believed that tutors and students often collaborated to break down this division and wanted to examine this distinction in a practical context. With hindsight this overarching interest in liberal values and education in its broadest sense, and the focus on adult women in childcare work who are traditionally underpaid and overworked, made the study an appropriate subject for analysis in capability terms but this was not yet anticipated.


The participants were drawn from ten cohorts of students who had been taught by the researcher over a ten-year period. It was possible to contact all 170 potential candidates and 150 agreed to participate in the study, completing background questionnaires that enabled the researcher to draw up a profile of the typical local early years worker (and later to demonstrate through comparison with labour force data (Simon et al, 2007) that these students were typical of workers across England and Wales). From this population of 150, the researcher chose a representative sample of 33 to participate further. The researcher quickly realised that it was fruitful to adopt a biographical approach to interviewing because she already had a good relationship with these students. She began to use psychosocial interviewing techniques (Hollway and Jefferson, 2000) when she found that the students were happy to dig deeper into their life stories and discuss their experiences of education more broadly. Thus the project moved away from the shared focus on teacher and student and into areas of personal life but still kept an interest in the role of education.


This was real world research and initially it was difficult to see beyond the possession of a large mass of transcribed but 'messy' accounts of real lives. However, a period of immersion in the data revealed patterns that enabled a more holistic analysis to develop alongside the traditional practice of coding by theme. It was possible to establish two sets of typologies, one that was later used to represent outcomes for students, and one that provided a means of capturing agency in action. Through a combination of thematic analysis, comparison within and across individual narrative accounts, and holistic thinking it became possible to identify and evidence a Model of Integrated Lives that revealed how the students chose to live within a framework bounded by their family, workplace and educational responsibilities. Indeed, this model was drawn up when the researcher finally realised that in trying to draw out the Educational strands from the narrative she was failing to really listen to her data. Separation was proving difficult because the students did not choose to divorce education from the rest of their lives. Far from struggling to juggle disparate responsibilities they were avoiding cognitive dissonance by bringing aspects of their lives together to build a unified support framework. Far from complaining about their busy lives, they embraced its complexity and engaged with activities that bound the different aspects together, rejoicing in the 'fuzzy' boundaries that allowed them to work and study without setting aside their family responsibilities.


The women's lives were complex. They were underpaid and overworked but content and very much grounded in the present rather than what they might do next. It was this focus on 'the life we lead' and the feeling that the women were 'choosing' complex lives that brought me to a consideration of the Capability Approach as a possible conceptual framework to support my study. I found an immediate fit between CA and the students' focus on the present and slowly came to see my 'Model of Integrated Lives' as a localised representation of the women's Capability Set for their lives were bounded by the triangular interaction of family, work and education. As Amartya Sen suggests, it was possible to draw upon additional theory to support this interpretation, in my case Lewis Coser's (1974) work on Greedy Institutions.


With these new connections in place, I was able to re-examine my data and saw that it contributed in other ways to operationalisation of the Capability Approach, for it interpreted grass roots research gathered at the local level rather than imposing theory. The themes that commonly arose across the narratives could be re-examined and re-framed as a set of 'Capability Indicators'. This created a grass roots version that embellished and individualised Martha Nussbaum's Universal Capabilities, one that is grounded within the real lives of a group of women. By adding simple scalar values to the themes it was possible to establish 'Capability Chains', simple profiles that began to analyse the process of conversion, particularly the role of agency in this activity.


These preliminary ideas around 'Indicators' and 'Chains' will be discussed in more detail in the presentation, and the audience invited to make suggestions for further refinement and application.

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