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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

3 - Capability and Agency



The capability approach is one of Amartya Sen's most significant contributions to philosophy and the social sciences. His writings on the capability approach are not only of theoretical interest on their own, but also provide concepts used in his work on social choice, freedoms, and development (see the chapters by Alkire, Pettit, and Roberts in this volume). Moreover, the capability approach has practical relevance for policy design and assessment, most famously through the work of the United Nations' Human Development Reports (United Nations Development Programme 1990–2007/8).

This chapter provides an overview of the conceptual and normative foundations of the capability approach and the role of agency within the approach. It puts aside the diverse ways in which the capability approach has been applied and implemented (Robeyns 2006). The chapter is divided into two parts. The first part, of which Ingrid Robeyns is the primary author, describes the main purpose of the capability approach, the concepts of functioning and capability, and the question of selecting and weighing capabilities. The second part, of which David A. Crocker is the primary author, focuses on the nature, value, and role of agency in the capability approach.


The Capability Approach

Scholars and policy makers use the capability approach in a wide range of fields, most prominently in development studies and policymaking, welfare economics, social policy, and social and political philosophy. It can be employed in both narrower and broader ways.

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