Measuring capabilities: in pursuit of overcoming subjective and objective divides

Hirai, Tadashi (2018). 'Measuring Capabilities: In pursuit of overcoming subjective and objective divides' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The capability approach advocates the significance of reflecting people’s views and evaluations on their own living. In this respect, objective assessments seem limited and subjective assessments inevitable; both perspectives are essential for the measurement of capabilities (cf. Nussbaum (2008), Sen (2008)). And yet, the former has been stressed while the latter undervalued due to its whimsical nature causing adaptive preferences on the one hand and happiness paradox on the other. Indeed, there is a huge divide between objective and subjective assessments in the capability school. From the beginning until now, objective assessments have been predominant in this approach typical of a series of indices created by the UNDP such as the Human Development Index, the Multidimensional Poverty Index and the Gender Inequality Index. More recently, a few studies have been made to shed light on subjective assessments within this approach, among which Anand et al. (2009) and Lorgelly et al. (2015) evaluated people’s well-being subjectively based on Nussbaum’s list.

However, the segregation between the two assessments has not been overcome. Against this trend, Comim & Amaral (2013) examined people’s assessment on their own living in a more nuanced manner, by reflecting their evaluation on respective life experiences of the dimensions by reference to the Human Development Index. Its remarkable finding is that adaptive preferences could be avoided greatly by drawing on the ‘reports of concrete experiences’ or ‘positional interpretations’ that are both subjective (depending on people’s accounts) and objective (anchoring these accounts on concrete life experiences). Along this line, the purpose of this research is two-fold: to verify the assumption of subjective whim causing adaptive preferences and happiness paradox, and to examine the validity of subjective assessments of capabilities by Anand and others. Ultimately, by referring to both objective and subjective assessments, more reliable way of measuring capabilities is to be considered.

The questionnaire used for this research consists of (1) the traditional psychological measures, (2) subjective measures referring to Lorgelly et al. (2015) (with 18 questions, a shorter version of Anand et al. with 48 questions based on Nussbaum’s list) and (3) objective measures referring to the Measure of America and the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills (inspired by the methodology by Comim & Amaral (2013) based on the Human Development Index). The sample will be collected from both wealthy and poor areas in the biggest cities in each of the BRICS countries where people are in economic transition and their well-being fluctuates more revealingly. Applying such comprehensive measures to people in different socio-economic conditions provides some important insight regarding not only the significance of each assessment on its own right but also the search for more credible measurement of capabilities.

It is one thing to view that subjective assessments are essential for the measurement of capabilities; it is quite another to view that the subjective assessments currently employed in the capability school follow the concept of capabilities. By critically examining subjective assessments while insisting on their significance, this research proposes to break an impasse on their divide from objective assessments and delve into the measurement of capabilities in a more comprehensive manner.

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