Craven, Luke (2017). 'Tackling the Theoretical and Methodological Challenges of Developing a Relational Capabilities Approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The capabilities a person has depend in large part on the material and social structures in which they are situated. This statement casts capability theory in explicitly relational terms. This is not a particularly novel or controversial insight: it is consistent with much existing capability theory – particularly where it references the role that personal, social and environmental conversion factors play in shaping capabilities – and is recognised more broadly across a wide spectrum of political philosophy (Robeyns 2008). However, both in political discourse and in public policy, the influence of relational insights has been limited. The same is true of much of the capabilities literature, in which relational elements and theorising have often been treated as a marginal concern, and their significance underplayed.

This panel aims to contribute to the conceptual development and practical usefulness of the capabilities approach by presenting a case for an explicitly and deeply relational account. We use the term ‘relational’ here to signal our central claim that capabilities are mediated by relative social positioning and the interactions between different agents and their material and social structures. Consequently, we view the analytical category of the capability space itself as relational: the freedoms that an agent has to exercise valued capabilities should be understood as a dialectic product of their interactions with myriad interdependent, non-linear, and emergent causal structures. A person’s capabilities to achieve valuable functionings and be who they want to become should therefore be recognised as constrained or enabled by their position within, and ongoing engagement with, a particular set of relational circumstances.

The panel contains three papers. The first begins by locating the relational perspective we describe within the broader capabilities literature: it sets out why we believe it is important to frame capability theory in explicitly relational terms, before considering what we think this means, and why and how it is significant. The second paper addresses the theoretical challenges of recasting the capabilities approach in relational terms. It illustrates how much of the literature on capabilities implicitly assumes a relational view of social ontology. It draws on critical realism to outline an explicitly relational conception of social ontology within which the capabilities approach can be situated. It then presents complexity theory as a potential lens for better understanding relational capabilities. The third paper considers the methodological implications of a operating within a relational capabilities framework. It presents qualitative hermeneutics as a methodological tool for understanding and assessing relational capabilities. A case study is introduced to demonstrate the challenges of capturing the relational dimensions of the capabilities space and the potential value of adopting a qualitative approach to capabilities assessments.

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