Sen’s Capability Approach and Social Embeddedness: Critique from social theory

Ishihara, Hiroe (1); Pascual, Unai (2) (2016). 'Sen’s Capability Approach and Social Embeddedness: Critique from social theory' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

abstract In recent years, there have been attempts to incorporate the capability approach (hereafter: CA)in various policies which aim at sustainability and sustainable human development. However, these attempts have been hampered by inappropriate incorporation of social embeddedness of individual within CA literature. Here, the social embeddedness refers to the fact that individual does not act as independent atoms separated from a social context but rather as socialised individuals embedded inside the social context. On one hand, there are authors who incorporate the social embeddedness through the notion of ‘collective capability’. These authors criticised Sen and CA for being too methodologically individualistic as it only acknowledges the importance of social structure only so far as they influence individual well-being and freedom. These authors propose to expand the scope of analysis to collective level by introducing this notion. On the other hand, Sen, in responding to these criticisms, argues that the unit of analysis for CA should remain at individual level, since “the intrinsic satisfaction that occurs in a life must occur in an individual’s life” not in collective level. Moreover, they criticise the notion of ‘collective capability’ since it hides the fact that some collective units function to oppress and to reproduce inequality among the members. Sen suggests the notion of ‘socially dependent individual capability’ as an alternative. This paper proposes an alternative way to conceptualise the social embeddedness by introducing the notion of habitus and reflexive deliberation relying on the social theory developed by Bourdieu and Archer. We argue, firstly, that the social embeddedness is a two way street: individuals are structured by social structure, through the formation of habitus, but at the same time, individuals structure the social structure, through the exercise of reflexive deliberation. Individuals are born into a specific social structure. They learn the rules/ norms prescribed by the social structure through their interactions with others. As these individuals repeat stable interactions, they form habitus. Here, the social structure becomes embodied in individuals. At the same time, the social structures are (re-)produced through individual action. The individuals face unexpected outcomes even when they follow habitus. In such a circumstance, individuals start doubt the habitus and ‘distance’ themselves creating a room for reflexive deliberation. We term this relationship between social structure and individual as recursive relationship. Secondly, we reveal that it is the habitus which enables us to reflexively deliberate, but at the same time, it distorts the exercise of reflexive deliberation. Habitus is necessary to obviate ‘hyper-deliberation’, a kind of social and mental paralysis where no one would be able to deliberate or act. Otherwise, our minds are overwhelmed with information that comes within our orbit. However, the formation of habitus is not a straightforward process. What becomes habitus, or commonly shared habitus among the individuals in the society, is what is deemed as ‘salient’ or ‘legitimate’ in the eyes of the power holders, i.e. the dominant group(s). When the habitus is formed the reflexive deliberation starts to be suppressed to secondary role. Individuals take the social order and the institutional arrangement for granted by jettisoning other social arrangements as ‘unthinkable’. Thus, actions based on habitus, leads to reproduction of existing power relation. This paper argues that the incorporating this complex relationship between individual and social structure through habitus and reflexive deliberation contributes to CA through: i) reconciling the notion of ‘collective capability’ and ‘socially dependent individual capability’ and ii) strengthening the analysis of agency. This understanding of social embeddedness through habitus and reflexive deliberation provides the context for both ‘collective capability’ and ‘socially dependent individual capability’. It enables us to reveals the power relations inherent in the society as well as the ‘irreducibility of social goods’. Further, we argue that our understanding of social embeddedness strengthens the analysis of agency by revealing the relationship between the two aspects of freedom, i.e. human well-being (functioning and capability) and the agency.

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