Overcoming structural inequalities: The interplay of agency, fertile functionings and conversion factors

Wilson-Strydom, Merridy (2014). 'Overcoming structural inequalities: The interplay of agency, fertile functionings and conversion factors' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

There is much debate in the literature on the extent to which the capability approach, with its strong focus on individual agency, takes sufficient account of structural injustices and/or unjust institutions. In this paper I enter this debate by seeking to understand the conditions under which individuals' agency freedoms and achievements enable them to overcome structural constraints. The paper argues that understanding these conditions provides an entry point for interventions that work towards more just environments. In particular, I focus on mapping out the interplay of individual agency, fertile functionings (Wolff & de-Shalit, 2007) and conversion factors (personal, social and environmental) as a means of understanding the relational nature of agency and structural injustice, thus contributing to the broader theoretical debates taking place within the field of human development and the capability approach.

Access to higher education in South Africa provides a rich case study context within which to explore these conceptual issues. The country remains plagued by numerous structural inequalities despite the fact that apartheid was formally dismantled two decades ago and one of the spaces in which structural inequality is particularly marked is that of higher education access and success. Participation rates are a commonly used measure of equity in the access domain and the persistent disparities by race and socio-economic status highlight the major structural inequalities evident in the country. While 57% of white youth in the university age range are enrolled in higher education, the participation rate drops to only 14% for black youth (CHE, 2012). These race-based access inequalities are further exacerbated by socio-economic status. South Africa has a small number of well resourced, good quality and high performing schools available to the minority who can afford them, and a large number of very poorly resourced schools of questionable quality attended by the majority of young South Africans.  Particularly concerning is recent research that has shown that educational inequalities widen as children progress through this divided schooling system and on average, children in disadvantaged schools demonstrate much lower proficiency in reading, writing and numeracy (Jet Educational Services, 2013). When placed within the dramatically unequal social and economic contexts of the country in which these schools are located, the structural barriers faced by poor youth in South Africa are enormous. None the less, approximately 14% of these young people manage to overcome these structural barriers and access university so demonstrating tremendous resilience. Understanding the lives of these young people, and the interaction of their agency freedoms and achievements with the unjust social contexts in which they are located, provides a lens for exploring fertile functionings and enabling conversion factors as points of entry for interventions seeking to work towards greater justice in the space of educational opportunity and university access.

As such, this paper draws on life history data collected from 40 first-year university students who are participating in a three-year longitudinal study exploring student success in undergraduate education, from a capabilities perspective. Narrative and life history methods have been usefully applied by researchers working within the broad frameworks of human development and the capability approach (for example, Nussbuam, 2000; Watts & Bridges, 2006) and the methodology of this study builds on this foundation. As Bathmaker (2010, p. 5) reminds us, 'possibilities for social change need, at least in part, to be understood and conceived through the small everyday acts of individuals, and the histories that have brought them to their current place.' Life histories provide a means of understanding everyday lives (as is also emphasised in the capability approach) grounded in their wider social and historical context. The data used in this paper was collected during the first stage of the larger three-year research project and is focused on understanding students' life histories prior to enrolling at university. All of the students in the study have overcome major structural barriers in order to reach university and represent a very small proportion of black youth from poor backgrounds that have been able to access higher education.  As such, understanding the life histories of these students, in particular the interplay of their agency, fertile functionings and enabling conversion factors in the domains of family, community, and schooling, provides a rich basis for identifying points of intervention for creating capability-enhancing higher education opportunities for the large numbers of currently excluded young people. 

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