Re-examining the capability approach: the significance of personal action competences

Nygren, Per Thomas (2016). 'Re-examining the capability approach: the significance of personal action competences' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

abstract The aim of the paper is to contribute to the development of the theoretical framework of the capability approach (CA) from a perspective emphasizing agency and the dynamics of human development.  Re-examining the basic concepts in the framework of the CA, I address questions such as:  What does “conversion”, i.e. the change from the moment a person is said “to have certain capabilities” to the moment when she is said “to have achieved the desirable functionings in practice”, really mean in the empirical world? How can the influences of the conversion factors and the social context, which exert their effects before, during, and after this change, be taken into account in the theoretical framework? In many interpretations of CA (e.g. Robeyns 2005) “capability” and “opportunity” are treated as a synonym phenomenon. I argue that it is necessary to acknowledge that capability and opportunity are concepts denoting different, but interrelated, parts of reality. A person can not be said to have a certain capability if she or he doesn't have access to certain opportunities. Personal action competences are necessary in order to 1) identify opportunities as opportunities relevant for the person´s desirable functionings; 2) create the relevant opportunities, eventually together with other people; 3) make use of the relevant opportunities in practice and 4) manage the potential restrictive influences from extrinsic and intrinsic factors in a way that ensure access to the relevant opportunities in practice. In the empirical world, certain capabilities are thus generated in and across social practices by a dynamic interplay between certain opportunities and certain personal action competences. To begin with, I argue that the conversion of desirable functionings into real functionings should be understood as a dynamic transformation process structured in four phases: 1) formulation of desirable functioning; 2) creation/expansion of capability; 3) choice of capability; and 4) achieving desirable functionings as real functionings. When a person, at a given moment in his or her life, is said to have certain capabilities, this person has to engage in two main types of processes in order to achieve the desirable functionings:1) he or she has to participate in and across different social practices in order to make use of the relevant means, in order to succeed in neutralizing the influences which can hinder the conversion of the desirable functions into practice as achieved functionings;2) he or she must engage in the processes of developing certain personal action competences as requirements for: a) the successful participation and actions in the aforementioned practices, in which he or she makes use of relevant means and neutralizes the hindering influences from the extrinsic and intrinsic conversion factors; b) the establishment of, and successful participation in, the new social practices in which the person tries to realize his or her new desirable functionings in practice, that is, as “real functionings.”    However, there is also a need for the type of personal action competences that are relevant for the successful navigation in the socio-cultural context, and for a successful handling of the promoting and restrictive forces embedded in this context, that is, the influence of social institutions, power relations, social and legal norms, other people´s behavior and characteristics, environmental factors, and social influences on preferences and decision-making during the process. These contextual factors intervene in the process at various points in time and exert different types of influence on: 1) the way the person formulates desirable future functionings; 2) the way the person makes use of achieved functionings and chooses to make use of particular means (goods and services) in order to create or expand relevant capabilities for new desirable functionings; 3) the way the person creates or expands his or her relevant capabilities; 4) the way the person chooses between different accessible opportunities in order to achieve the desirable functionings; and 5) the way the person actually achieves and practices his or her new functionings. On his or her way toward the actual establishment of the desirable beings and doings (functionings) in practice, the person needs to make use of certain personal action competences, and/or develop such competences in new areas, in order to be equipped to handle all the challenges and possibilities exposed to him or her as a result of the the socio-cultural contextual factors as he or she moves along in the dynamic process outlined above.  I argue that the way the concept of human capability relates to the concepts of extrinsic factors (e.g., means, social context, extrinsic conversion factors) and individual intrinsic factors (e.g., gender, intelligence, knowledge, personal historical influences on preferences) as factors influencing the person’s ability to achieve desirable functionings in practice reveals that the concept of capability should be defined in relation to two underlying concepts denoting two aspects of reality as well as the bi-directional relations between those realities: “opportunities” and “personal action competences.”  Finally, I transcended the dichotomy of “the potential functionings” (capabilities) and “the achieved functioning” by presenting a model describing the dynamics of “The generative mechanism for realization of desired beings and doings” over time. I argue that a potential functioning, i.e. a human capability, is created as one of the results of this generative mechanism. This generative mechanism is fueled by the dynamic interactions between particular extrinsic and intrinsic conditions (including the mentioned “conversion factors”), where these interactions are mediated by the person’s personal action competences as a part of the generative mechanism.  Taking points of departure in a socio-cultural interdisciplinary framework, including situated learning (Vygotsky, Lave) and the capability approach (Sen, Nussbaum), I present a theory of the development of human action competences (Nygren 2015), covering the aspects of beings and doings in a way that is compatible with the framework of CA. I also present a theoretical model for how the concept of development of human action competences can be incorporated in and enrich the framework for CA by applying a perspective where agency and the dynamics of human development are emphasized.

scroll to top