Craven, Luke (2017). 'Making Capabilities Relational' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


One of the most difficult and emerging areas of capability theory is the relational dimension of capabilities. Capability theory has made great analytical strides beyond aggregate approaches to assessing quality of life or wellbeing by isolating the atomic parts necessary for human flourishing. The next major challenge is to treat capabilities as properly relational within the entire context of human life.

This roundtable seeks to progress thinking and debate on this important and challenging topic with a view to developing theory in a way that can offer meaningful support to policymakers and practitioners who aspire to enhance human capabilities.

There are two main senses in which capabilities are relational:

  1. The capabilities a person has depend in large part on the material and social structures in which they are situated.
  2. Capabilities and their preconditions are interdependent and flourish or wane in complex feedback relations.

While these statements can be quite readily acknowledged, they raise significant challenges for both theorists and practitioners. For example:

  1. Human capabilities emerge from dynamic interactions between agents and multiple combinations of material and social structures. The ‘relational contexts’ that enable particular capabilities are thus complex and very difficult to analyse.
  2. Capabilities exist as causal ‘powers to’ that provide agents with the potential to realize particular functionings within and through their particular relational circumstances. This requires a reexamination of the account of social ontology that underpins capability theory, so that the causal influences that social and material structures have on agency can be properly understood and accommodated.
  3. Understanding capabilities in practice, including isolating causal variables affecting capabilities and identifying priorities for interventions to promote capabilities, requires an understanding of the complex relations between agents and their particular structural circumstances.
  4. Capturing and describing the complexity of a relational capabilities presents significant methodological challenges for researchers and practitioners.

The roundtable will bring together scholars who are working on different aspects of the relationality of capabilities with a community activist who will be able to describe and analyse the physical, cultural and socio-political context within which the majority of South Africans attempt to achieve new functionings. Together we shall explore the inter-relational nature of this context. Our broad objective is to foster a dialogue in which scholars can share recent advances in theory and method with a diverse audience to generate feedback and discussion, and practitioners and policymakers can contribute from their perspectives to challenge and help scholars refine the theory and enhance the support it can give to practical applications.

This roundtable forms part of ongoing collaborative work by Owens, Craven, Conradie and Entwistle, and will benefit from the long and extensive experience of Vivian Zilo, founder of the NGO Iliso, which is based In Khayelitsha, Cape Town. The roundtable links to a thematic session also submitted for HDCA 2017. We have chosen the roundtable format to allow open and robust discussions between the lead participants and the broader audience about the emerging and needed dimensions of this new horizon of capability theory.

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