Mobility and the capabilities approach- fragments, foresights, and fantasies

Mishra, Kundan (2018). 'Mobility and the Capabilities Approach- Fragments, Foresights, and Fantasies' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


With the endless pursuit of key determinants of migration, the research on migration and mobility has undermined the agency of migrants. In spite of the emphasis on capturing the interaction between structural changes, agency, and well-being, the operationalization of the capabilities approach (CA) towards issues of migration is still nascent. This paper highlights the theoretical and empirical challenges that the operationalization of the CA to understand the agency of migrants entails. The identification and valuation of different capabilities is a key theoretical challenge that emerges in the operationalization of CA in any new thematic area. How does the conceptualization of capabilities address mobility? Is it a capability on its own like being healthy? Or is it an achievement of other capabilities like being educated, and being employable? How can capabilities approach respond to this dual nature of mobility? This paper draws on the different theoretical approaches to understand capabilities, functionings, and freedom to address the above-mentioned questions. Further, the paper extends the relevance of mobility to the “list” or “no-list” debate about basic capabilities. As such, the paper elaborates the conditions under which mobility can be considered as a basic capability. Rural-urban migration presents a unique challenge for the agency of migrants and the emphasis on determinants of migration. As a second objective, the paper reviews the empirical literature on rural-urban migration to capture the measurement of the agency of migrants. With a review of key works on human capital and human security approaches to rural-urban migration, this paper problematizes the decision to migrate in the absence of any notable improvement in well-being, exemplified by the case of seasonal migration. Through this review, the paper identifies how capabilities approach is suited to understand the agency of migrants at individual, household and community level. The paper then proposes a framework to capture agency of migrants in a systematic and accurate way through a negotiation between the agency of a migrant household and its well-being. The paper then presents key questions towards a research agenda around the agency of migrants. While the second section lays emphasis on rural-urban migration, it also elaborates on how the framework can be adapted for other contexts of forced and voluntary migration.

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