Re-Sketching Sen’s Contributions to the Capability Approach

Clark, Christopher Logan (2014). 'Re-Sketching Sen's Contributions to the Capability Approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The influence of Amartya Sen's Capability Approach (CA) on the social sciences has been profound. Since the theory's beginnings with Sen's Tanner Lectures (1979), the CA has become one of the leading theoretical frameworks for assessing states of being and actions. Despite this success, Sen's contributions to the CA are not without criticisms. Such criticisms can be classified into two groups: those which, for one reason or another, dismiss the theory altogether and those which try to 'complete' the theory so that it may better align with the critic's view of reality. Attempts to 'complete' the CA typically fall into one of two categories. First, many critics propose a description of 'the good life', the existence of which—it is claimed—could guide evaluations undertaken within a CA framework. Other attempts to complete the CA challenge certain fundamental aspects of the approach.  Those criticisms that fall into the latter category are typically grounded in the principle that Sen's contributions to the CA are incomplete insofar as they remain rather imprecise and perhaps do not reflect reality as accurately as possible. In other words, it may be problematic that Sen has described those aspects of the CA that are often called  'spaces' (i.e. capabilities, freedom, functionings, agency, etc.) in manners that are quite vague. Issues of completeness have not gone unnoticed by Sen, who typically references one of three methodological approaches one may use to capture a theoretical ambiguity in evaluative exercises. These are dominance rankings, fuzzy measures, and the intersection approach. Each of these, to varying degrees, depends on democratic processes as a manner of determining which capabilities and functionings are valuable and just how valuable these capabilities and functionings really are. While reliance on democratic processes may yield some sort of consensus regarding valuable functionings, some scholars have noted that Sen remains 'remarkably optimistic about achieving agreement' (Clark 2006, 36).

This paper aims to 'complete' the CA by challenging some of the theory's foundational concepts. In doing so, this paper will reference and expand upon the central arguments presented in Frank Hahn (1991), G.A. Cohn (1993), Robert Sugden (1986, 1993), and Ian Carter (1996) as well as the group/collective capabilities literature [i.e. Peter Evans (2002), Solava S. Ibrahim (2006), Frances Stewart (2005), and James Foster and Christopher Handy (2008)] The challenges presented in this paper can be classified into the following two categories:


  • The rational fools criticism—this particular criticism follows a similar vein of thought as Hahn's (1991) criticism about the manner in which Sen defines what it means to act in one's own self-interest, particularly as this action relates to Sen's distinction between commitment and sympathy. This paper argues that Sen's distinction between sympathy and commitment does not accurately reflect reality. This is because acting in a manner consistent with Sen's definition of commitment and acting in a manner consistent with Sen's definition of sympathy can yield the same outcome, both within the agent in question as well as externally (i.e. circumstantially). In other words, acting in accordance with one's own morals (i.e. Senian commitment) can yield the same outcome as acting out of one's sympathetic feelings for someone else.


  • The triadic freedom criticism—According to Carter (1996), Sen typically refers to freedom as a diadic instead of a triadic relation. In other words, freedom involves an agent and possible functionings, rather than an agent, constraints, and possible functionings. This paper argues that conceiving of freedom as a diadic relation instead of a triadic relation is problematic, as freedom is most accurately thought of as triadic. If one accepts this, it becomes necessary to consider more directly the role of constraints in one's ability to achieve a certain functioning and level of well-being. This paper suggests accomplishing this by distinguishing between valuable functionings and doings within one's consideration of 'functioning'. Distinguishing between valuable doings and beings may address some of the concerns about the nature of a 'capability' raised by Sugden (1993) and G.A. Cohen (1993).   



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