The intrinsic value of the capability for collective resistance

Lemay, Marie-Pier (2019). 'The intrinsic value of the capability for collective resistance' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


One of the most persistent criticisms of the capabilities approach (CA) has been directed to the very little attention that the approach has paid towards the value of group formation for fostering capabilities (e.g. Frediani 2010; Ibrahim 2006; Koggel 2013; Mitlin 2013; Stewart 2005). Although the foundational thinkers of the CA, Sen and Nussbaum, do acknowledge the social situatedness of individuals (e.g. Nussbaum 2000, 92; Sen 2009, 245), they have been repeatedly criticized for discounting the extent to which collectives may contribute to the development of capabilities. In their accounts, groups appear to be relevant insofar as they contribute to individual capabilities. In line with Sen and Nussbaum, Robeyns recently argues that capabilities for group formation should be understood as a “subset of personal capabilities” and that we must distinguish between what is contributing to a capability and what constitutes the capability itself (Robeyns 2017, 117).

The concept of ‘collective capabilities’ has been put forward in order to counter the excessively individualistic focus of the CA, which renders it more difficult to address power dynamics, and thereby hinders the operationalization of the approach (Frediani 2010). Collective capabilities are generally conceived of as a force for social change or resistance, which enables individuals to forge and sustain forms of well-being (Ibrahim 2006). While the literature on collective capabilities has been concentrated on social science case studies, there has been surprisingly little engagement with the philosophical literature on the CA (besides Ballet, Dubois, and Mahieu 2007; Ballet et al. 2013; Robeyns 2005, 107–10, 2017, 115–17). Through this paper, I aim to deepen the normative scaffoldings of the CA literature on collective capabilities and resistance, using insights from intersectional feminist literature. Specifically, I will argue in favour of the intrinsic value of a capability for collective resistance which shall be based on a relational framework.

I will proceed by refuting the claim that collective capabilities are precluded from having an intrinsic value, as they are merely instrumental to personal capabilities. I will relate my argument to a tension present within the contemporary literature on solidarity: asserting that collectives are more than the aggregation of individuals while avoiding a uniformization of the group members. In line with the logic of this literature, I will argue that this tension may be mitigated by reverting to a structure based on social connection. In the last part of this paper, I will directly address the question of collective resistance by bringing to this approach insights by Black feminist theorists and contemporary social epistemologists.

I initiate my paper by engaging with a well-known argument of Robeyns, which suggests that the CA is characterized by a form of ethical individualism according to which “individuals, and only individuals, are the units of moral concern” (Robeyns 2005, 107). In order to take into account the potential ‘coercive side’ of collective capabilities (Godfrey-Wood and Mamani-Vargas 2017), where collective capabilities may act as a restrictive or constraining force, adopting a minimal ethical individualism might be necessary. However, adopting a framework allowing collective capabilities does not imply that groups become the only and primary unit of analysis, thereby risking harming personal capabilities. Indeed, I will adopt the framework provided by the work of Ibrahim on collective capabilities (Ibrahim 2006, 2013, 2017), which distinguishes between an individual’s capability to choose what one’s has a reason to value and group capabilities which arise from collective action. Consequently, it does not follow that adopting a collective capabilities framework suggests not paying attention to intragroup inequalities. This literature on collective capabilities would benefit from entering into closer dialogue with theories of solidarity and intersectionality and this is what I will undertake in the second section of this paper.

In order to avoid the shortcomings of grounding solidarity either on a shared identity or common interests frameworks, the literature on solidarity has been moving towards an ontology of collectives based on social construction (Kolers 2016; Tormos 2017). For instance, basing feminist solidarity on the identity of being a woman, the so-called ‘sisterhood’, obfuscates the intersections which occur when the category ‘woman’ intersects with other axes of oppression (e.g. based on race, class, disability, etc.) (Jong 2017). Moreover, recurring to a conception of groups based on common interest may imply a similar essentialism which does not build a conception of solidarity which will cut across diverse social groups.

I will rather relate the collective capabilities literature to a conception of groups created in relation to a social structure of power (Young 1994). Individuals are constituted through a group in accordance with their social positioning which would “[cut] across group differences yet positions group members differently in relation to the intersections of their identities and lived experiences” (Tormos 2017, 711). Such an account, moreover, will be able to capture the fact that participation from group members is rarely equal (Kolers 2016). I will claim that this relational approach is not only necessary for granting an intrinsic value to collective capabilities, but also for examining the relationship between a given social group and others that may partake in a solidary action, contributing to collective resistance.

In this last section of this paper, I will forge an account of collective resistance understood as a collective capability. Opting for a relational account of groups will allow us to make sense of the myriad of pathways to collective resistance or empowerment (Cornwall 2016). Indeed, as several feminist theorists have noted (e.g. Collins 2009; Khader 2018; Koggel 2013), resistance to patriarchal power is not necessarily overt. For instance, work in social epistemology has emphasized that the capacity for resistance should be grounded on creating alternatives discourses and epistemic communities (Collins 2009; Medina 2013). Inspired by these literatures, I will conclude by examining how the capability for collective resistance feeds into two sub-capabilities: capability for self-definition and capability for collective action.

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