Authors: Paul Andoh and Grazia Catalano
This working paper was presented at The University of Queensland, School of Social Science Post-Graduate Conference 2017. Using a selective range of language concepts drawn from the capabilities approach (after Sen), the paper describes the ways in which the authors applied the concepts in two specific social science research studies. In the first study, the capabilities approach as a methodological framework enables a deep understanding of wellbeing in a retirement population in Ghana. In the second study, the capabilities approach as a conceptual framework facilitated an understanding of the role of frontline community practitioners working with young men with mild to borderline intellectual functioning in re-entry and reintegration. The working paper outlines the processes applied in social scientific research to define and measure the agency of individuals in determining their own and others’ wellbeing and social inclusion. It discusses how key elements of the capabilities approach can be applied to address priority issues for marginalised population groups and concludes with some suggestions for what might be included in a framework for bringing the capabilities approach into social scientific research.
Key words capabilities approach, social science research, social policy, community re-entry
This working paper contributes to the development of a framework for the application of the capabilities approach (Sen, 1985, 1992, 2001) in social science research using various methodological approaches. It describes how the Senian concepts of capabilities, functionings, conversion factors and collective capabilities can be used to examine inequality and disadvantage as constraints to social inclusion. Although there is growing application of the capability approach in social science, like many other social theories, there are concerns about its practical application in the real world due to the complexities surrounding some of its core concepts and the challenges it poses to researchers to identify and collect data of this level of complexity (Braber, 2013; Evans, 2017). Evans reflects upon concerns that the capabilities approach is too individualistic and that such a liberalist paradigm is not sufficiently cognisant of and responsive to the structural constraints presented in capitalist and neo-liberal economies. She considers Dean’s critique that the capabilities approach is an overly individualistic approach that allows government and society to relinquish responsibility for wellbeing to the individual, and that the capabilities approach is overly optimistic that governments will respond to identified sets of capability entitlements and opportunities for capabilities development (Dean, 2009; Hugman, 2008). Evans responds to these concerns about an overly-individualistic paradigm by emphasising that the individualistic focus of the capabilities approach is consistent with the aims of social welfare and wellbeing, and that, for disadvantaged populations, wellbeing can be achieved through acknowledgement of individual agency; this does not diminish the goal of human inter-dependence which in itself acknowledges the intersection of social and economic factors (Evans, 2017). Mindful of these concerns, this paper discusses the value of the capabilities approach in providing a broad space for social scientific research.
With this aim in mind, two research studies undertaken by the respective authors in Ghana and in South East Queensland are briefly described below. These aim to illustrate how the application of the capabilities approach has provided a shift from the conventional measures of disadvantage and marginalisation, and inclusion and wellbeing. As part of Study 1, the capabilities approach was applied as a methodological framework to measure the capabilities and functionings of a population of retirees in Ghana. In Study 2, the capabilities approach offered a conceptual framework and the language concepts of capabilities, functionings, conversion factors and collective capabilities in examining the role of frontline community practitioners working with young men with mild to borderline intellectual functioning (MBIF) in re-entry and reintegration. In both studies, individual agency is central to understanding inclusion and wellbeing of the key subjects of the studies.
This paper discusses the value and contributions of the capabilities approach to social scientific research. The following sections provide a brief discourse on the capability approach and its core values and concepts; the application of the capability approach in social science disciplines in selected developed and developing countries to draw attention to its utilization; two selected case studies by the authors to further emphasise the versatility of the capability approach; a brief discussion around the approach and its dynamics; and, finally, a conclusion.
The capabilities approach in research
Since the 1980s, the capabilities approach has been evolving in its conceptual development and in its applications. It has informed the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Program (Gough et al., 2007) and been used to measure social outcomes by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission and the London School of Economics (Burchardt and Vizard, 2011).
As a strongly individualistic approach, the capabilities approach calls for a rounded consideration of the individual and individual agency (values, beliefs, and attitudes), recognising that wellbeing and welfare are self-perceived and subjective. It also recognises that the exercise of individual agency is impacted by social arrangements and social and economic structures which provide access to commodities with which the individual will choose what to do. Individual capabilities are what an individual considers to be what he or she can do and wants to do based on what he or she has reason to value, referred to also as practical opportunities. When a person is free to do what they have reason to value, they exercise freedoms or functionings. Functionings are “what the person succeeds in doing with the commodities and characteristics at hand” (Sen, 1999, p 6).
For individuals in vulnerable circumstances to be able to do what they have reason to value, they may depend on the assistance and action of others, relying and building on collective capabilities of community. As part of the social arrangements within which the individual operates, provision of practical opportunities–or lack of practical opportunities–comprise conversion factors for capabilities and functionings. In summary, according to the capabilities approach, commodities provide the capability to maximise one’s welfare, and access to capabilities depends on a combination and interaction of the material and non-material circumstances of the social arrangements within which an individual operates, the practical opportunities available to the individual, the individual’s own cognitive and attitudinal disposition towards their environment (individual choices), and the individual’s adaptation to that environment through behavioural norms and actions.
Figure 1: From capabilities to functionings
Figure 1 illustrates an interactive paradigm which recognises the interaction of individual entitlements and endowments (personal characteristics) with the economic factors (level and distribution of resources, commodities and services), social factors (social attitudes, institutions, and community), and structural factors (labour market, legal system, government policy and built environment). Through this interaction, an individual’s deprivation or wellbeing is formed. Importantly, an individual’s standard of living or welfare cannot be measured simply by the ability to buy commodities; it requires a more sophisticated set of assumptions about human beings that goes beyond income levels and household expenditure and which includes the basis for the economic and social choices which the individual makes. “The conversion of commodity-characteristics into personal achievements of functionings depends on a variety of factors-personal and social” (Sen, 1999, p 17). In Sen’s conception, market-based measures only capture a limited view of the individual and material goods are conceived as mere means to the ends which are desired by the individual. Thus, fundamental to measuring and understanding wellbeing is the requirement to focus on ends (Sen, 1999). For example, when designing and using household surveys data, consideration would be given to asking about the effects on the individuals in that household such as children, persons with a disability, the frail aged and household data would be disaggregated by personal characteristics of household members including what they want to be able to do. This places greater emphasis on individual agency than on group aggregates, but makes it informationally more demanding for the researcher. As advocated by capabilitarians, the development of indices for measuring wellbeing needs to adopt a greater level of multidimensionality based on what the individual considers to be important elements of their life situation (Povey et al., 2016).
To date, much of the research applying a capabilities approach to address economic inequality and social exclusion has been through largescale and significant studies using quantitative methodologies in areas including disability and poverty (Trani et al., 2015) in Morocco and Tunisia, and education and employment (Sarkodie et al., 2014) in Ghana. Most recently, the work of Mitra (2018) applying a newly developed human development model based on the capabilities approach applied a multidimensional approach to measure (through multi-method quantitative means) aspects of wellbeing, disability, and health in Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda.
Increasingly, mixed-method and qualitative methodologies have been used to apply the capabilities approach across a number of domains, disciplines and fields in both developing and developed countries. To mention a few, mixed methods have been used to examine the experience of disability at individual, household, and community levels in South Africa (Graham et al., 2013), and to explore the work experiences of women survivors of violence in the USA (Pyles, 2010). Qualitative methods have been used in research into the expansion of collective agency in rural indigenous communities in Guatemala (Peris et al., 2012), and as part of development research in Uganda (Biggeri and Ferrannini, 2014). Qualitative studies have also applied the capabilities approach in the examination of worker capabilities in industry (Subramanian and Zimmermann, 2013), and in the examination of workers’ rights in industry restructuring processes (Bonvin et al., 2013, De Munck and Ferreras, 2013). In Table 1, we present a snapshot of selected studies across social science disciplines that have applied the capability approach in whole or in part and their epistemological dimensions. What stands out in the examination of these studies is the fact that the capability approach amends itself to varied research methodologies.
Table 1: Examples of studies that have used the capability approach
|KNOWLEDGE AREA||STUDY TOPIC||METHODOLOGY||STUDY LOCATION|
|Development||Applying a capability approach in development initiatives (Biggeri and Ferrannini, 2014)||Qualitative|
|Development||Expanding collective agency in rural indigenous communities (Peris et al, 2012)||Qualitative||Guatemala|
|Wellbeing||Capability deprivation and life satisfaction (Suppa, 2015)||Quantitative||Germany|
|Wellbeing||Capabilities for exercising reproductive rights (Sauvain-Dugerdil et al, 2014)||Qualitative||Ghana & Mali|
|Disability||The disability-poverty nexus and the case for a capabilities approach (Graham et al, 2013)||Mixed methods||South Africa|
|Disability||Disability and poverty through a multidimensional approach (Trani et al, 2015)||Quantitative||Morocco & Tunisia|
|Employment||Work experiences of women survivors from a capabilities approach (Pyles and Banerjee, 2010)||Mixed methods||US|
|Education and Employment||Education and employment outcomes through a capability approach lens (Sarkodie et al, 2014)||Quantitative||Ghana|
|Education and Training||Evaluating education and training through using the capability approach (Powell and McGrath, 2014)||Evaluation||South Africa|
|Industrial relations||Restructuring and workers capability for voice (De Munck and Ferreras, 2013)||Qualitative||Germany|
|Industrial relations||A capability approach to restructuring processes (Bonvin et al, 2013)||Qualitative||France & Switzerland|
The following two research studies applying the capabilities approach were undertaken by the authors, and provide examples of mixed method and in-depth qualitative studies.
Study 1-Measuring wellbeing of retirees in Ghana
The first of these studies provides an example of how the concepts of capabilities and functionings can be applied to examine wellbeing in retirement from a multi-dimensionality perspective using a mixed methods approach. This study, which is in progress at the time of publication, is set in the context of a developing country (Ghana) and focuses on the idea that capabilities provide opportunity and freedom for individuals to realise or achieve their desired functionings/goals in relation to wellbeing (Chiappero-Martinetti et al., 2012; Sen, 1999;).The study population consists of individuals who retired under the formal social security pension scheme in Ghana since 2009 and were receiving monthly pensions from the scheme. It is important to note that under the 2007 Pensions Law (ACT 766) in Ghana, all formal sector employees are mandated to contribute a proportion of their income to the social security pension scheme that is managed by the Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT).
The study is premised on the fact that individuals possess a set of capabilities at the time of retirement with which they are enabled and/or disabled to realise their wellbeing goals. To this extent, a list of capabilities at the time of retirement was determined based on previous studies in various developing country contexts (Doh, 2012; GSS, 2008, 2013; Tiliouine et al., 2006) and categorised into financial and non-financial capabilities. In recognition of the fact that Sen himself did not provide a standardised list of capabilities, leaving us with a working definition of what constitutes capabilities was sufficient in the context of retirees in Ghana. This was done to determine what financial and non-financial capabilities unleash opportunities and freedoms for retirees to achieve/realise their wellbeing goals with respect to health, housing, food intake, finance, and social relationships (Gasper, 2010). Thus, five dimensions of wellbeing were investigated in the study to understand how they are influenced by the capabilities set of retirees.
To do this, a mixed methods research design was employed with the view to ensuring a deeper appreciation of not only the relationship between capabilities and functionings, but also the interplay of capabilities factors in the process of translating pension income (financial capability) into useful functionings in the five dimensions of wellbeing. As noted by Oosterlaken (2009), the capability approach provides us with an evaluative space in discussing issues related to wellbeing with less emphasis on income or resources as proxies of wellbeing and more on how these are translated into wellbeing in the evaluative space. In the view of Gough et al. (2007), wellbeing is the totality of what a person is able to achieve in various aspects of life with the set of resources available to that individual at any given time. These resources constitute capabilities, which generate the ability to do and to be. This led to the development of a conceptual framework (see Figure 2) based on two of the central concepts in Sen’s capability approach (Capabilities and Functionings). The argument here is that retirees develop their capabilities set during their working lives, through their actions and inactions, with the support of the social context in which they lived. A greater capabilities set effectively means greater ability, opportunity, or freedom to do and to be (functionings).
Figure 2: Conceptual framework for Study 1
Source: First Author’s own construct
The application of the notion of capabilities and functionings and adoption of mixed methods design in this study enabled a statistical analysis of survey data collected from 330 retirees to identify which capability factors are significantly associated with functionings in the five domains of wellbeing, and ultimately overall wellbeing of retirees. It also allowed the first author to qualitatively track the mechanisms by which capabilities are translated into functionings, drawing attention to the dynamic inter-relationships between capabilities and functionings. Again, the unit of analysis in this study is individual retirees and the specific circumstances in which they live, which highlights Sen’s emphasis on individual agency in his capability approach. One key policy issue that this study brings to the fore is the need for pension policy makers to explore the possibility of incorporating mechanisms for improving non-financial capabilities of employees, which will ultimately enable them to achieve their desired wellbeing goals (functionings) in retirement, particularly in developing countries.
Study 2-Understanding the role of frontline practitioners working in community re-entry in South East Queensland
Using the capabilities approach as the conceptual framework, the second author gathered information through interviews with 13 community practitioners working with a combined total of some 450 clients. Practitioner capabilities and functionings were identified, as were those conversion factors that act to either enhance or inhibit their work with disadvantaged young men with MBIF as part of community re-entry and reintegration. Key categories for conversion factors were identified as organisational culture of their employing agency, level and type of resources available to practitioners, managerialist operating contexts, stigma experienced by clients affecting agency and choice as well as practitioners’ locus and relationships within community. The capabilities and functionings identified to be of value to the role of the community practitioner in re-entry included the capabilities of exercising worker voice in the organisation, exercising links to the community, exercising links to other services and groups, working with the individual client toward independence, having agentic influence in the broader sector, being embedded in community and co-creating collective capabilities, working with other services and groups, contributing to a therapeutic community to support young men with MBIF, and mentoring the individual in community toward interdependence.
More specifically, achievement of functionings hinged upon the practitioners’ relationships within the community and mandate to self-manage caseloads and timeframes based on the individual needs of clients, and client attitudes and agency. Valued capabilities and functionings varied between practitioners working in government-funded services and practitioners working on a voluntary basis in the community although goals for clients were generally similar. The Positive Criminology paradigm (after Ronel) was applied to identify and reflect on positive practice in the community for practitioners who were supporting young men with MBIF toward social inclusion (see Figure 3; Ronel and Segev, 2014, 2015).
The framework represented in Figure 3 offers a multilevel view of the capabilities and functionings of both community practitioners and their clients with MBIF. The context for the diagrammatic representation is capabilities and functionings for social inclusion. A significant aspect of this diagram is that the practitioner-level capabilities and functionings relate directly to the clients’ resources for enabling capabilities. In this way, practitioners can be seen as part of the resources available to the client in their journey toward social inclusion.
It is intended by this framework that resources available to the community practitioner can be converted into practitioner capabilities and community capabilities, inferring that, collective capabilities can support and enhance the young men’s capabilities and functionings. The significant intermediary step in this process towards achieving valued functionings for practitioners is the exercise of agency and voice, and for the young men with MBIF, it is the exercise of agency and choice.
The relationship amongst practitioners, clients and community is intended to reflect the value of interdependent and collective approaches that can be developed when a community practitioner is embedded in community. Thus the reintegration and social inclusion of young men with MBIF is contingent upon practitioner capabilities exercised within the community where clients live.
Figure 3: A framework for the social inclusion of young men with MBIF
Source: Second Author’s own construct
This study also found that it would be useful to planning and practice in re-entry and reintegration to re-conceptualise the social exclusion of MBIF as capabilities deprivation rather than to consider it within existing disability models and frameworks. Capabilities deprivation is a term developed and used by a number of scholars of the capabilities approach (see, for example, Mitra, 2006; Suppa, 2015; Trani et al., 2011). Practitioners identified the needs of disadvantaged young men MBIF as deprived of basic human needs for food, shelter, companionship, self-esteem, emotional connection and stability, and agency and control. Having regard for these needs, practitioners reflected the young men’s desired functionings as a connection to family and friends, having a sense of place, feeling of self-worth and hope, and regaining control. Specifically, the negative conversion factors for developing these capabilities of these young men were a lack of basic skills, isolation and loneliness, MBIF, and un-wellness or ill-being. Positive conversion factors were identified as individual support and community support. Addressing the conversion factors identified through the study will create opportunities for practitioners to address the development of young men’s capabilities for community re-entry and reintegration.
These results, both in relation to the young men with MBIF and in relation to the community practitioners working with them, point to the value of re-visioning the re-entry and reintegration model of service to address client’s capabilities deprivation and to expand the practitioners’ remit within the community itself.
In social scientific research which seeks to understand how to shift lives of disadvantage and deprivation and exclusion towards wellbeing and inclusion, the focus is understandably on the least advantaged in society. The capabilities approach offers a way of disentangling the compounding effects of different sources of disadvantage. Through its application to social scientific study, it offers a way of conceptualising new policy directions and practice in the field to address deprivation and disadvantage of individuals and envisioning new ways of advancing social inclusion of marginalised population groups.
In the first case study, the application of the capabilities approach brought to the fore the dynamic interactions between capabilities set in retirement and functionings in five dimensions of wellbeing, confirming existing knowledge in some instances and challenging others. For instance, while financial capabilities are generally found to be significantly associated with most dimensions of wellbeing (functionings), the study also found that these are often moderated by some non-financial capabilities and the social context in which retirees find themselves, which in a way highlights what Sen describes as conversion factors. Thus, like noted in the Easterlin paradox, money (pension) is important to wellbeing (in retirement) only to a limited extent (Easterlin et al., 2010). It is not an end in itself, but a means to an end and we need to examine the end (wellbeing) and the dynamics involved in translating the means to the desired end.
In the second case study, the capabilities approach was applied as part of empirical studies of workers. This study draws on Senian concepts to examine what capabilities and functionings were likely to be valued by frontline practitioners; the extent to which frontline practitioners could influence community re-integration of vulnerable individuals through the capabilities set available to them; and how they would seek to improve the functionings for their work in community re-entry and reintegration. The study provided some insight to the extent to which their employing organisations were “capabilities friendly”, a term used by capabilities researchers examining workers’ capabilities across industries (Subramanian et al., 2013, Subramanian and Zimmermann, 2013) to describe organisations which remove the constraints that impede development of desired worker capabilities and functionings.
A new way forward?
So far, we have attempted to highlight the inherent potential in the capability approach, using two case studies in Ghana and Australia that have used the approach in whole and in part using different methodologies. Robeyns (2016) advocates a “radical multidisciplinality” in the way that research into equality and wellbeing is to be approached to push innovative methodologies for capturing the plurality of life experiences, including indicators of wellbeing that are both monetary and non-monetary and comprise capabilities and functionings identified by the target population group (Robeyns, 2016). In her recent paper, Robeyns (2016, pp 403-405) offers a “cartwheel view of the capability approach” as a guide for research to account for functionings and/or capabilities. She posits that depending on the type of capabilities a researcher wishes to account for, choices will be made for an analysis based on quantitative or qualitative methods, and that, as long as what the researcher has identified as core elements are shared, many possibilities of the capability approach can be deployed in theoretical and empirical studies with many more avenues of exploration ahead in the social sciences and interdisciplinary fields. One such core element of the capability approach described by Robeyns is that “people have different abilities to convert resources into functionings” and that “these are called conversion functions” (Robeyns, 2016, p 406). Robeyns highlights that research needs to take account of conversion factors within the context of human diversity characterised by different levels of ability and socio-cultural norms. Robeyns’ cartwheel view of the capability approach provides a good basis upon which to further engage the approach, something we seek to do in our next project on the capabilities approach. We note, however, that this paper contributes to the on-going debate on the applicability and relevance of the capability approach in social scientific research.
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