Ferrannini, Andrea (2017). 'Participatory Methods and Capability approach: Potential applications and innovative evidence on inequalities and social change' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Participatory methods represent one increasingly diffused way of identifying, exploring and evaluating equality and justice in terms of human well-being, freedom, and development.

Since the 1970s many different participatory approaches to research, policy-making and planning have been put forward. However, it has been only since the 1990s that participatory methods have entered the development mainstream. Since the best-known participatory approach – i.e. Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) by Robert Chambers – emerged in the development scene, an increasing variety of participatory tools have been developed, where the outsider (researcher or practitioner) is perceived as a facilitator who encourages and enables local people to express their own reality. Different participatory tools and techniques have been applied in many different studies, practices and in a variety of contexts (Cornwall and Pratt, 2003). However, some applications of participatory approaches in the development mainstream fall short of their original intentions (Frediani, 2007). Participation is sometimes used merely as a tool for achieving pre-set objectives and not as a process to empower groups and individuals to take leadership, envision their futures, and improve their lives (Cornwall, 2000; Cleaver, 2001).

A recognised by several authors (Alkire, 2002; Croker, 2005; Frediani, 2007; Clark et al., forthcoming), the application of participatory methods within the capability approach increases the capacity to capture the diverse, plural, and multidimensional nature of human lives and development experiences, as well as to provide the informational basis of justice in policy-making and implementation. Indeed, participatory methods can be regarded as the principal process by which many evaluative issues may be resolved in relation with the valuable functionings that people have reason to choose for flourishing lives.

According to Frediani (2007), comparisons made between participatory and capability approaches unfold series of similarities: they criticize the income-led definition of poverty; they view people as active agents in the process of change; while emphasizing the need to contextualize the conceptualization of poverty, thus unfolding the local dynamics embedded in the social reality of each particular case of study

On the one side, by moving away from the utilitarian approach of development, the capability approach wrests back participation from its instrumental application. The elaborated evaluative framework of the capability approach provides the participatory literature with a comprehensive and flexible theory of wellbeing that can capture the multiple, complex and dynamic aspects of poverty. In addition, the capability approach enhances the researchers’ critical self-awareness, by raising issues such as adaptive preferences, process freedom and agency.

On the other side, participatory methods contribute to the capability approach by offering a variety of thoroughly developed and researched tools and techniques. Participatory methods can adapt to different purposes of studies, unfolding dimensions not only of well-being, but also of the specific factors that constitute well-being; they can capture many aspects and dynamics that influence the transformation of opportunities into achievements; and finally participatory research methods have the potential to expand capabilities by encouraging public debate and stimulating local-level action.

The application of the capability approach through participatory methods thus explicitly aims to tackle the limitations of participatory methods, such as the lack of consensus on targeted participants, partial globalization of development policy analysis, and the lack of analysis of the impacts of power relations on participatory activities.

This panel therefore discusses new potential applications and innovative evidence on the links between participatory methods and the capability approach, especially related to the need of understanding and explaining inequalities and injustices in the social, political, economic and historical arrangements that shape human experiences.

In particular, the general objective of this panel is to illustrate the capacity of participatory methods to capture the issues concerning the practical manifestation of poverty as well as unfold the dynamics influencing the causes of inequalities, by simultaneously encouraging critical engagement along with assessing and challenging structures of subordination.

In order to achieve this objective, the panel includes presentations focused on 4 different policy areas – i.e. environmental management, women’s wellbeing, peace-building processes, emancipation and inclusion of people with disabilities – characterised by structural inequalities, where the application of participatory methods affirms itself as a valuable research approach able to directly contribute to empowerment, capability expansion and human development.

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