Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Capabilities, Culture and Social Structure

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Capabilities, Culture and Social Structure

Article excerpt

Abstract Sen's capability approach has a culturally specific side, with capabilities influenced by social structures and institutions. Although Sen acknowledges this, he expresses his theory in individualistic terms and makes little allowance for culture or social structure. The present paper draws from recent social theory to discuss how the capability approach could be developed to give an explicit treatment of cultural and structural matters. Capabilities depend not only on entitlements but on institutional roles and personal relations: these can be represented openly if capabilities are disaggregated into individual, social and structural capacities. The three layers interact, and a full analysis of capabilities should consider them all. A stratified method implies that raising entitlements will not on its own be enough to enhance capabilities and that cultural and structural changes will be needed.

Keywords: capability approach, culture, human agency, social structure, social policy


The capability approach, formulated by Amartya Sen, aims to improve upon utility maximization as a basis for assessing welfare. In place of the stress on psychic pleasure, Sen focuses on activities and participation in society ("functionings") and the potential to undertake such activities ("capabilities"). These new dimensions of welfare assessment offer a rich framework for discussing poverty relief, economic development and social policy. Capabilities have received much attention in the last twenty years or so, and the significance of Sen's work has been widely appreciated.

Despite the extensive discussion, it has proved difficult to write down a precise list of capabilities and make the capability approach operational. Many capabilities are culturally specific: unlike the culture-flee world of neoclassical economics, Sen's method invokes activities undertaken at a given time within a given society. The researcher must decide whether to consider a detailed set of capabilities tailored to a particular case or a more diffuse set with broader relevance. Capabilities also involve preference formation, as they depend on how society shapes tastes, knowledge and values. Orthodox economics assumes fixed preferences and dismisses preference formation as a non-economic subject, but the capability approach cannot safely ignore it.

Further difficulties arise from the connection between capabilities and social structure. People's activities turn on their place within the social structure (the roles they play) as well as on their abilities and endowments. A full account of behaviour must recognize both human agency and social structure, along with the bonds between them. Social theorists know this well, as do heterodox economists, but economic orthodoxy remains wedded to individual utility functions that summarize all human activities. With capabilities inseparable from social structure, the capability approach cannot rely on individualism and has to address the agency--structure question.

Sen is aware of the cultural and social aspects of capabilities, alluding to them in his writings, but his work was inspired by liberal political philosophy rather than social or cultural theory. He takes an interest in how social circumstances affect the individual, but his starting-point is at the individual level. The capabilities literature refers only briefly to social structure and has an individualistic hue that belies the radical implications of capabilities. The present paper highlights the links between capabilities, culture and social structure by drawing from recent social theory. It argues that a comprehensive treatment of capabilities should go beyond the individual level to examine the social and structural conditions permitting people to act and participate in society.


In orthodox welfare economics (termed "welfarism" by Sen), social welfare is a function of individual utilities and nothing else; all social outcomes can be gauged by their consequences for utilities alone. …

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