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Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice

Ingrid Robeyns


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1In 1998, when I started to work on my PhD dissertation at Cambridge University on the capability approach and gender inequality, there were very few scholars working on the capability approach. I recall searching on the internet for publications on the topic, not receiving more than a few hundred hits (rather than the, roughly, 440,000 hits one gets today). I had studied economics and additional courses in social and political sciences and gender studies, and I had a strong intuition that, for the study of gender inequalities, the capability approach was a much more suitable framework than the prevailing ways in which economists as well as political theorists analysed unjustified gender inequalities. I was extremely lucky that Amartya Sen had agreed to supervise my doctoral studies. He not only opened a world that was new for me (being the first in my family to study for a PhD and the first to study abroad), but also taught me not to be afraid of developing myself as an interdisciplinary scholar. And, importantly, he very patiently helped me to grasp the capability approach in all its details. The privilege of having Amartya Sen as my PhD supervisor meant that I had the best possible access to the scholar who had developed the capability approach as it emerged at the end of the twentieth century. When I graduated from Cambridge University, I asked Amartya whether he was planning to write another book on the capability approach, such as his classic Commodities and Capabilities. He smiled, shook his head and responded: “No, it has grown over my head”. His judgement was probably very accurate — in essence the problem of a literature becoming unwieldy — and that challenge only became much worse over the next two decades. One way to read this book is to see it as an attempt to tame the proliferation of scholarship about the capability approach since the turn of the last century.

2Over the last fifteen years, I have published quite a number of articles, book chapters and online pieces on the capability approach, including many that had as their main aim to clarify or explain certain aspects of it. But I kept receiving many emails from students who had questions about the capability approach. Their emails, as well as conversations with scholars sceptical of the importance of this approach, made it clear that a general introduction was necessary to answer as many of these questions as possible. I decided to write an introductory overview of the capability approach, in which the aim was not to develop my own, novel version of a capability theory, but rather to try to present a general helicopter view of the approach. In addition, I felt that too many claims about or critiques of the capability approach that were circulating were based either on some scholar’s own interest in seeing the approach develop exclusively in a certain direction, or else were based on misunderstandings, often due to miscommunication between different disciplines.

3The result lies in front of you. Unfortunately, it took me much longer to write this than I had originally planned; almost twelve years lie between the initial idea and its completion. Yet in hindsight, despite that at many points the ambition of writing this book felt like a heavy psychological burden, I have no regrets that I’m only now completing it. Only in the last year, after the publication of an article in the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities in which I offered a general definition of the capability approach (Robeyns 2016b), did it became clear to me exactly what the general anatomy of the approach looked like. Thanks to discussions with students and other scholars, the generalisation of the capability approach that emerged from that journal article was further crystallised and polished. That generalisation is the heart of this book, and it is presented in chapter 2. In addition, I also provide what one could see as an F.A.Q. guide to the capability literature — the most frequently voiced questions and criticisms will be clarified and discussed in chapters 3 and 4.

4Over the many years of developing my own understanding of the capability approach, I have learnt a lot from other scholars as well as from those whom I taught. Intellectually, my biggest debt is no doubt to Amartya Sen, who had the single most important influence on my intellectual development. I also learnt a lot from conversations on the capability approach with people working in different disciplines and in different corners of the world. I cannot possibly list everyone who contributed to my understanding and thinking, yet I would like to express my gratitude to Bina Agarwal, Sabina Alkire, Constanze Binder, Harry Brighouse, Morten Fibieger Byskov, Enrica Chiappero-Martinetti, Rutger Claassen, Ina Conradie, Andrew Crabtree, David Crocker, Séverine Deneulin, Avner De-Shalit, Jay Drydryk, Des Gasper, Pablo Gilabert, Reiko Gotoh, Govert den Hartogh, Martin van Hees, Jane Humphries, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Matthias Kramm, Sem de Maagt, Martha Nussbaum, Ilse Oosterlaken, Antonella Picchio, Roland Pierik, Mozaffar Qizilbash, Erik Schokkaert, Elaine Unterhalter, Robert van der Veen, Sridhar Venkatapuram, Polly Vizzard, Melanie Walker, Krushil Watene, Tom Wells, Jonathan Wolff, as well as my late friend and co-author Wiebke Kuklys. I also benefited a lot from teaching the capability approach to hundreds of students, but in particular during a week-long course at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, in 2011; during a workshop at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo in March 2016; during a Masterclass at the London School of Economics in which I worked on a draft of this book manuscript in February 2017; and during a Research Master’s tutorial in practical philosophy at Utrecht University during the academic year 2016–2017.

5I benefited from the comments I received at two book manuscript workshops that were held over the last year, one at the Erasmus University Rotterdam organised by Constanze Binder and Sem de Maagt, and the other as a session at the 2017 Human Devolpment & Capability Association (HDCA) conference in Cape Town, organised by Morten Fibieger Byskov and Rebecca Gutwald. I benefited from the comments I received at those occasions from Morten Fibieger Byskov, Willem van der Deijl, Monique Deveaux, Akshath Jitendranath, Caroline Suransky and Miriam Teschl in Rotterdam, and from Solava Ibrahim, Serene Khader and Henry Richardson in Cape Town. In addition, I also received comments on parts of the draft manuscript from Conrad Heilmann, Chris Lyon, Bart Mijland, Raphael Ng, Petra van der Kooij, Roland Pierik and Polly Vizard. I owe special thanks to Constanze Binder, Séverine Deneulin, Morten Fibieger Byskov, Matthias Kramm, Sem de Maagt and Henry Richardson, whose comments led to multiple substantive changes. Thanks also to the two anonymous reviewers who reviewed the book proposal in 2011 and especially to Tania Burchardt, who reviewed the final manuscript and provided very valuable suggestions for final revisions.

6My thanks are also due to Robert van der Veen, for his permission to draw on our joint work in section 3.8. I would furthermore like to acknowledge generous research funding from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), who awarded me three grants over the last 15 years that allowed me to further develop my research on the capability approach: a four-year postdoctoral scholarship (2002–2006) to work on the capability approach and theories of justice; a VIDI grant (2006–2011) to work on demographic changes and social justice using the capability approach as one of the normative tools; and finally the Horizon grant (2011–2016) awarded to a consortium of scholars from three universities and led by Marcus Düwell, for an interdisciplinary analysis of practical self-understanding. Thanks also to the team at Open Book Publishers — in particular Lucy Barnes, Bianca Gualandi, Alice Meyer, and Alessandra Tosi — who have been a real pleasure to work with.

7This book is dedicated to my family — to my husband Roland Pierik and our children Aaron and Ischa. This book contains not only almost half a million characters typed and retyped by me, but also visible and less visible contributions from my three (little) men. Obviously, as a fellow political philosopher with interdisciplinary leanings, there are insights from Roland in various places in this book, including some direct citations. Moreover, Roland helped me not to let the best be the enemy of the good, and kept encouraging me to finish this book. If I waited until I was happy with each sentence and paragraph, this book probably would never see the light of day. Ischa’s contribution may be the least visible, yet it is there. It is his unconventional view of human affairs that keeps prompting me not to accept norms or practices that are unjust or make no sense. Aaron provided the artwork for the cover. The woven piece very well represents the multi-dimensional nature of the capability approach, as well as the fact that life is made up by one’s own choice of functionings, which follows a dynamic and always unfinished pattern. If one has enough bright and colourful functionings, they can be woven together to become something bigger than the mere functionings taken separately — a flourishing life worth living.


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