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Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice

Ingrid Robeyns

5. Which Future for the Capability Approach?

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1In the last two decades, much time and intellectual energy has been spent on trying to answer some basic questions about the capability approach. What difference does it make to existing normative frameworks? Can it really make a difference to welfare economics as we know it? How should we select capabilities, and how should these dimensions be aggregated? Is the capability approach not too individualistic? Can it properly account for power? And can it properly account for the importance of groups and the collective nature of many processes that are crucial for people’s capabilities?

2I believe that many of the debates that kept capability scholars busy in the last two decades have been settled, and we can move to another phase in developing the capability approach and using it to study the problems that need addressing. As many capability scholars have acknowledged (sometimes implicitly) for a very long time, and as this book has illustrated in detail, there are a variety of capability theories possible. As a consequence, one capability theory does not need to be a direct rival of another capability theory: we do not necessarily need to choose between them, and it will often be a mistake to see them as rivals. Many different capability theories can coexist. This theory-pluralism should be embraced, rather than attacked by trying to put the capability approach into a straightjacket. There is, of course, the real risk that any theory that is somehow ‘broadening’ the informational basis of evaluations and comparisons is seen as a capability theory — hence a real risk of inflation. However, the modular understanding of the capability approach clearly lays out the properties that every capability theory, application or analysis should meet, and thereby provides a powerful response to the risk of the inflation of the term ‘capability theory’.

3Having sorted all of this out, we are free to put the capability approach to good use. It is impossible for one person to know all the interesting paths that the capability approach should take (even if that one person benefited from comments and many helpful discussions with others). But as a start, let me just mention some lines of further thinking, research and interventions that would be interesting to explore.

4First, within the disciplines in which the capability has been discussed and developed, there are plenty of opportunities to see what difference it can make if pushed all the way to its limits. In some fields, such as educational studies, the capability approach is well-developed and widely applied. But there are others in which the capability approach has so far merely been introduced, rather than being used to develop mature and complete theories. One question, which remains unanswered after our discussion in section 4.10, is whether the capability approach can provide an equally powerful alternative to utility-based welfare economics. In the literature on theories of justice, which we discussed in section 3.13, the capability approach is widely debated, but there are hardly any fully developed capabilitarian theories of justice, apart from Nussbaum’s (2006b) and the theory of disadvantage by Wolff and De-Shalit (2007). We need book-length accounts of capabilitarian theories of justice, capabilitarian theories of institutional evaluation, capabilitarian theories of welfare economics, and so forth.

  • 1 This is a methodological point that Amartya Sen has been pressing for a very long time.

5Second, the capability approach is, so far, almost exclusively used for evaluative and normative purposes — such as studies evaluating whether certain people are better off than others, studies trying to propose a certain policy or institution (for the effect it has on people’s functionings and capabilities) rather than others, or studies arguing for justice in terms of people’s capabilities. But one could also use the capability approach for explanatory studies, e.g. to examine which institutions or policies foster certain capabilities, or using the notions of functionings and capabilities in the analysis of people’s behaviour and decision making. For example, labour economists model the decision about a person’s labour supply — how many hours she would be willing to work — by looking at the costs and benefits of working more or fewer hours, but wouldn’t it make much more sense to also ask how the capabilities of different options compare? For example, many adults are happy to work an equal number of hours for less pay if the work is more intrinsically rewarding or if it contributes to the creation of a public good. Another example is how we explain a parent’s decision not to use formal child care, or to use it only for a very limited number of hours. If we explain this exclusively in terms of financial costs and benefits (as some policy analysts do) we don’t capture the fact that the capabilities of affiliation and social relations are very different in the two scenarios. A general model of people’s behaviour and decision-making should therefore not only look at the pecuniary costs and benefits of different options, but also at the different levels of valuable functionings, and the absence of functionings with a negative value, that the different options offer. The challenge of this approach is, of course, that capabilities are often merely qualitative variables, and this hampers the explanatory models that many social scientists use. But if our decision-making and behaviour is largely influenced by the capabilities that characterize different options, then surely, we should prefer (i) a more muddy and vaguer explanatory model that takes all important aspects into account above (ii) a more elegant and neat model that gives us a distorted picture of how persons act and live.1 Some of this is already done, of course, since there is a large literature about certain functionings taken individually, e.g. in explanatory research on people’s health. The suggestion I’m making here is to look at those functionings in a more systematic way, and to integrate functionings and capabilities as general categories in theories of behaviour and decision making, next to other categories such as resources and preference-satisfaction.

6Third, the capability approach may well have a very important role to play in the current quest for a truly interdisciplinary conceptual framework for the social sciences and humanities. Despite the fact that universities are still to a large extent organized along disciplinary lines, there is an increasing recognition that many important questions cannot be studied properly without a unified framework or conceptual language in which all the social sciences and humanities can find their place. The capability approach may well form the nexus connecting existing disciplinary frameworks, precisely because its concepts bring together people’s wellbeing and the material resources they have, the legal rules and social norms that constrain their capability sets, and so forth. The approach thereby offers important conceptual and theoretical bridges between disciplines. And it could also link evaluative and normative frameworks to descriptive and explanatory frameworks, rather than leaving the normative frameworks implicit, as is now too often done in the social sciences.

7Fourth, the capability approach should be more extensively used in designing new policy tools. Citizens who endorse a broad understanding of the quality of life that gives non-material aspects a central place have been annoyed for many years by the constant assessment of economic growth as an end in itself, rather than as a means to human flourishing and the meeting of human needs. They have been saying, rightly in my view, that whether economic growth is a good thing depends, among other things, on how it affects the overall quality of life of people, as well as how other public values fare, such as ecological sustainability, and that we have very good reasons to take seriously the limits to economic growth (Jackson 2016). But those who want to put the ends of policies at the centre of the debate, and focus policy discussions more on these ultimate ends rather than on means, need to move from mere critique to developing tools that can fashion constructive proposals. The alternatives to GDP, which I briefly discussed in chapter 1, are one element that can help, but other tools are also needed.

8Fifth, we have to investigate which capability theories are logically possible, but empirically implausible. The argument in this book has been that the capability approach can be developed in a wide range of capability theories and applications, and is not committed to a particular set of political or ideological commitments. But that is as far as its logical structures go, and it doesn’t take a stance on empirical soundness. We need to investigate which capability theories may be logically possible, but nevertheless should be ruled out, given what we know about the plausibility of our empirical assumptions regarding conversion factors, human diversity, and structural constraints. It is highly likely that there are capability theories that are logically conceivable, yet inconsistent with some ‘basic facts’ about human nature and societies.

9This is especially important since we want to avoid the hijacking of the capability approach by powerful societal actors or organisations who will start to propagate a very uncritical and reductionist version of the approach, and push that as the only right interpretation of it. The general account of the capability approach that I have defended in this book tries to be as politically and ideologically neutral as possible; but that doesn’t mean that I personally, as a scholar who has written a lot on questions of injustice, believe that all possible capability theories are equally plausible. In fact, my own substantive work in which I have used the capability approach confirms that I do not, and that I think that a critical account of social structures and power is needed (e.g. Robeyns 2003, 2010, 2017b, 2017a). But I think we should then argue directly about the unjust nature of social structures, economic institutions, or social norms. I hope that the modular view presented in this book makes clear that many of the intellectual and ideological battles actually take place in arguing about the B-modules and the C-modules.

10Sixth and finally, the capability approach should be used in guiding existing practices on the ground, in many different segments of society, and in many different societies of the world. This is not easy, since there are quite significant challenges for theorists to bridge the gap between their work and practices on the ground, as several theorists who engaged in such theory-practice collaborations have pointed out (e.g. Koggel 2008; Wolff 2011). Yet if the capability approach aspires to make a difference in practice — which many capability scholars do — then thinking carefully about how to move to practice without diluting the essence of the framework is crucial. Luckily, there are signs that more of these ‘on-the-ground applications’ are being developed, and that the capability approach is not only of interest to scholars and policy makers, but also for practitioners and citizens. One example is Solava Ibrahim’s (2017) recent model for grassroots-led development, which is primarily a conceptual and theoretical framework, yet is also based on ten years of fieldwork. Another example is the practical field of social work in the Netherlands, where social work professionals have recently argued that the field is in need of a new moral compass, in order to counter the technocratic developments that, it is argued, have dominated changes in social work in recent decades. Some social workers argue that the human rights framework could provide a useful theory (Hartman, Knevel and Reynaert 2016), while others believe that capabilities could be helpful in restoring ethical and political dimensions to the practice of social work (Braber 2013). As the discussion in section 3.14 has shown, there need not be a conflict between those two frameworks. Yet it remains to be seen in the years to come if and how the capability approach is able to guide the effective change of the entire sector of social work in countries where the traditional welfare state is under pressure.

11However, with all these future extensions of the capability approach, it remains important to explicitly acknowledge its limitations. This book has shown what the capability approach has to offer, but also what needs to be added before the vague and underspecified capability framework can be developed into a more powerful capability theory or capability application. Especially the choices made in the B-modules, but also the additions made in the C-modules C1 (additional explanatory and ontological theories) and C4 (additional normative claims and principles) will be crucial for many capabilitarian theories and applications to become powerful.

12There is no point in pretending that the capability approach can do more than it is able to do, since this would blind us to the necessary collaborations with other theories and insights that are needed. It is in those collaborations with complementary powerful theories and frameworks that the success of the future of the capability approach lies.


1 This is a methodological point that Amartya Sen has been pressing for a very long time.


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