Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Get access
    Check if you have access via personal or institutional login
  • Cited by 6
  • Cited by
    This chapter has been cited by the following publications. This list is generated based on data provided by CrossRef.

    Téllez Cabrera, Marco Ricardo 2018. Giving arguments to operationalize health capabilities in economic evaluations of health interventions. Journal of Social and Economic Development, Vol. 20, Issue. 2, p. 240.

    Robeyns, Ingrid 2017. The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory. p. 412.

    Cosic, Ivana 2017. Reimagining Utopias. p. 227.

    Sarr, Felwine and Ba, Muhammad 2017. The Capability Approach and Evaluation of the Well-Being in Senegal: An Operationalization with the Structural Equations Models. Modern Economy, Vol. 08, Issue. 01, p. 90.

    Hirai, Tadashi Comim, Flavio and Ikemoto, Yukio 2016. Happiness and Human Development: A Capability Perspective. Journal of International Development, Vol. 28, Issue. 7, p. 1155.

    Wright, Hazel R. 2012. Childcare, children and capability. Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 42, Issue. 3, p. 409.

  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: September 2009

2 - Amartya Sen's capability view: insightful sketch or distorted picture?



It is now more than twenty-five years since the publication of Amartya Sen's Tanner lecture (Sen 1980) in which he first began to develop what we now know as the ‘capability approach’ (CA). The approach has evolved and matured quite considerably over time, and its influence and stature have also grown. It now stands as a, if not the only, major alternative to standard welfare economics. There have also been numerous attempts at applying the CA in different contexts. In some ways the CA has ‘grown up’ and it is an appropriate time to reassess the CA, and to consider its prospects.

Sen's CA gives us a way of thinking about and, in that sense, a ‘view’ of various interrelated subjects, such as the quality of life, justice, and development. It is a view which is, as Sen repeatedly tells us, incomplete, and which is supposed to be open to different accounts of valuation. Sen stops short of completing the picture, rather like an artist who prefers a sketch with a few sharply executed marks to a more fully worked and developed painting. The view Sen gives us might be seen as a rather masterful sketch. Yet by leaving out a great deal of detail and producing a striking effect by giving some things a particular prominence, a sketch can distort reality. So I shall look at the view Sen ‘draws’ and ask: is this view an insightful sketch or a distorted picture?

Recommend this book

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.

The Capability Approach
  • Online ISBN: 9780511492587
  • Book DOI:
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to *
Cited references
Anand, Sudhir and Sen, Amartya K. 1995. ‘Gender inequality in human development: theories and measurement’, Human Development Report Office Occasional Paper 19 New York: United Nations Development Programme.
Anand, Sudhir and Sen, Amartya K. 2000. ‘The income component of the human development index’, Journal of Human Development 1: 83–106.
Alkire, Sabina. 2002. Valuing freedoms: Sen's capability approach and poverty reduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Atkinson, A. B. 1970. ‘On the measurement of inequality’, Journal of Economic Theory 2: 244–263.
Basu, Kaushik. 1987. ‘Axioms for a fuzzy measure of inequality’, Mathematical Social Science 14: 275–288.
Bentham, Jeremy. 1970. ‘An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation’, in Burns, J. H. and Hart, H. L. A (eds.) The collected works of Jeremy Bentham. London: Athlone Press.
Berlin, Isaiah 1969. ‘John Stuart Mill and the ends of life’, in Isaiah Berlin, Four essays on liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 173–206.
Carter, Ian. 1996. ‘The concept of freedom in the work of Amartya Sen: an alternative analysis consistent with freedom's independent value’, Notizie di Politeia 12 (43/44): 7–22.
Cerioli, Andrea and Zani, Sergio. 1990. ‘A fuzzy approach to the measurement of poverty’, in Dagum, Camilo and Zenga, Michele (eds.) Income and wealth distribution, inequality and poverty. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, pp. 272–284.
Cheli, Bruno and Lemmi, Achille. 1995. ‘A “totally” fuzzy and relative approach to the measurement of poverty’, Economic Notes 94: 115–34.
Chiappero-Martinetti, Enrica. 1994. ‘A new approach to the evaluation of well-being and poverty by fuzzy set theory’, Giornale Degli Economisti e Annali di Economia 53: 367–88.
Chiappero-Martinetti, Enrica. 1996. ‘Standard of living evaluation based on Sen's approach: some methodological suggestions’, Notizie di Politeia 12 (43/44): 37–53.
Chiappero-Martinetti, Enrica. 2000. ‘A multi-dimensional assessment of well-being based on Sen's functioning theory’, Rivista Internationale di Scienzie Sociali CVIII: 207–231.
Clark, David A. and Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 2002. ‘Core poverty and extreme vulnerability in South Africa’, Discussion Paper 2002–3, Economics Research Centre, University of East Anglia.
Clark, David A. and Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 2005. ‘Core poverty, basic capabilities and vagueness: an application to the South Africa context’, Discussion paper No. 26, Global Poverty Research Group, Universities of Manchester and Oxford.
Crisp, Roger. 1997. Mill on utilitarianism. London: Routledge.
Drèze, Jean and Sen, Amartya K. 1995. India: economic development and social opportunity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dutta, Indranil, Pattanaik, Prasanta K. and Xu, Yongsheng. 2003. ‘On measuring deprivation and the standard of living in a multidimensional framework on the basis of aggregate data’, Economica 70: 197–221.
Fine, Kit. 1996. ‘Vagueness, truth and logic’ in Keefe, R. and Smith, P. (eds.) Vagueness: a reader. London: MIT Press.
Finnis, John. 1979. Natural law and natural rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fleurbaey, Marc. 2002. ‘Development, capabilities and freedom’, Studies in International Comparative Development 37: 71–77.
Fleurbaey, Marc. 2006. ‘Capabilities, functionings and refined functionings’, Journal of Human Development 7: 299–310.
Foster, James, Lopez Calva, Luis F. and Szekely, Miguel. 2005. ‘Measuring the distribution of human development: methodology and an application to Mexico’, Journal of Human Development 6: 5–29.
Harsanyi, John. 1982. ‘Morality and the theory of rational behaviour’, in Sen, Amartya K. and Williams, Bernard A. O. (eds.) Utilitarianism and beyond. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 39–62.
Haq, Mahbub ul. 1995. Reflections on human development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hicks, Douglas A. 1997. ‘The inequality adjusted human development index: a constructive proposal’, World Development 25: 1283–1298.
Griffin, James. 1986. Well-being: its meaning, measurement and moral importance. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Kanbur, R. 1987. ‘The standard of living: uncertainty, inequality and opportunity’, in Hawthorn, Geoffrey (ed.) The standard of living. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 59–69.
Klasen, Stephan. 1997. ‘Poverty, inequality and deprivation in South Africa: an analysis of the 1993 SALDRU survey’, Social Indicators Research 41: 51–94.
Klasen, Stephan. 2000. ‘Measuring inequality and deprivation in South Africa’, Review of Income and Wealth 46: 33–58.
Majumdar, Manabi and Subramanian, Subbu. 2001. ‘Capability failure and group disparities: some evidence from India for the 1980s’, Journal of Development Studies 37: 104–140.
May, Julian, Woolard, Ingrid and Klasen, Stephan. 2000. ‘The nature and measurement of poverty and inequality’, in May, Julian (ed.) Poverty and inequality in South Africa: meeting the challenge. London and New York: Zed Books, pp. 19–48.
Miles Coope, Christopher. 1998. ‘Was Mill a utilitarian?’, Utilitas 10: 33–67.
Mill, John Stuart. 1962. Utilitarianism. On liberty. Essay on Bentham. Together with selected writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin. Edited with an Introduction by Warnock, Mary. Glasgow: Fontana Press.
Mill, John Stuart. 1988. The subjection of women. Okin, Susan (ed.) Indiana: Hackett.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 1988. ‘Nature, function and capability: Aristotle on Political Distribution’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 6 (Supplementary Volume): 145–184.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 1990. ‘Aristotelian social democracy’, in Douglass, Bruce, Mara, Gerald and Richardson, Henry (eds.) Liberalism and the good. London: Routledge, pp. 203–243.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 1992. ‘Human functioning and social justice. In defence of Aristotelian essentialism’, Political Theory 20: 202–246.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 1995. ‘Human capabilities, female human beings’, in Nussbaum, Martha C. and Glover, J. (eds.) Women, culture and development. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 61–104.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 1998. ‘The good as discipline, as freedom’, in Crocker, David A. and Linden, Toby (eds.) Ethics of consumption: the good life, justice and global stewardship. London: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 312–411.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 1999. Sex and social justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 2000. Women and human development: the capabilities approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 2003. ‘Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice’, Feminist Economics 9: 33–59.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 2005. ‘Women's bodies: violence, security, capabilities’, Journal of Human Development 6: 167–183.
Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 1997a. ‘A weakness of the capability approach with respect to gender justice’, Journal of International Development 9: 251–263.
Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 1997b. ‘Pluralism and well-being indices’, World Development 25: 2009–2026.
Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 1998. ‘The concept of well-being’, Economics and Philosophy 14: 51–73.
Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 2002a. ‘Development, common foes and shared values’, Review of Political Economy 14: 463–480.
Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 2002b. ‘A note on the measurement of poverty and vulnerability in the South African context’, Journal of International Development 14: 757–772.
Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 2003. ‘Vague language and precise measurement: the case of poverty’, Journal of Economic Methodology 10: 41–58.
Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 2005b. ‘Sen on freedom and gender justice’, Feminist Economics 11: 151–166.
Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 2006a. ‘Capability, happiness and adaptation in Sen and J. S. Mill’, Utilitas 18: 20–32.
Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 2006b. ‘Philosophical accounts of vagueness, fuzzy poverty measures and multidimensionality’, in Lemmi, Achille and Betti, Gianni (eds.) The fuzzy set approach to multidimensional poverty measurement, London: Kluwer.
Qizilbash, Mozaffar. 2007. ‘Social choice and individual capabilities’, Politics, Philosophy and Economics 6: 169–192.
Qizilbash, Mozaffar and Clark, David A. 2005. ‘The capability approach and fuzzy poverty measures: an application to the South African context’, Social Indicators Research 74: 103–139.
Scheffler, Samuel. 1988. Consequentialism and its critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, Amartya K. 1974. ‘Choice, orderings and morality’, in Korner, Stephan (ed.) Practical reason. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 54–67 and reprinted in Sen, Amartya K. 1982. Choice, welfare and measurement. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 74–83.
Sen, Amartya K. 1979. ‘Utilitarianism and welfarism’, The Journal of Philosophy 76 (9):463–489.
Sen, Amartya K. 1980. ‘Equality of what?’, in McMurrin, Sterling M. (ed.) Tanner lectures on human values. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 195–220 and reprinted in Sen, Amartya K. 1982. Choice, welfare and measurement. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 353–369.
Sen, Amartya K. 1980–1981. ‘Plural utility’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 81: 193–215.
Sen, Amartya K. 1981. Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, Amartya K. 1983. ‘Poor relatively speaking’, Oxford Economics Papers 35: 153–69.
Sen, Amartya K. 1984a. ‘Goods and people’, in Sen, Amartya K.Resources, values and development. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 509–532.
Sen, Amartya K. 1984b. ‘Family and food: sex bias in poverty’, in Sen, Amartya K. Resources, values and development. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 346–368.
Sen, Amartya K. 1985a. Commodities and capabilities. Amsterdam: North Holland.
Sen, Amartya K. 1985b. ‘Well-being, agency and freedom: the Dewey lectures 1984’, Journal of Philosophy 82: 169–221.
Sen, Amartya K. 1985c. ‘A sociological approach to the measurement of poverty’, Oxford Economics Papers, 37: 669–676.
Sen, Amartya K. 1987. On ethics and economics. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sen, Amartya K. 1988. ‘The concept of development’, in Chenery, Hollis and Srinivasan, T. N. (eds.) Handbook of development economics, Amsterdam: North Holland, pp. 9–26.
Sen, Amartya K. 1990a. ‘Justice: means versus freedom’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 19: 111–121.
Sen, Amartya K. 1990b. ‘Development as capability expansion’, in Griffin, Keith and Knight, John (eds.) Human development and the international development strategy for the 1990s. London: Macmillan, pp. 41–58.
Sen, Amartya K. 1991a. ‘Welfare, preference and freedom’, Journal of Econometrics 50: 15–29.
Sen, Amartya K. 1991b. ‘Utility. Ideas and terminology’, Economics and Philosophy 7: 277–283.
Sen, Amartya K. 1992. Inequality reexamined. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sen, Amartya K. 1993. ‘Capability and well-being’, in Nussbaum, Martha C. and Sen, Amartya K. (eds.) The quality of life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 51–73.
Sen, Amartya K. 1995. ‘Rationality and social choice’, American Economic Review 85: 1–24.
Sen, Amartya K. 1996. ‘Freedom, capabilities and public action: a response’, Notizie di Politeia 12(43/44): 107–125.
Sen, Amartya K. 1997a. On economic inequality, Expanded edition with a substantial annexe by James A. Foster and Amartya Sen. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sen, Amartya K. 1997b. ‘Maximization and the act of choice’, Econometrica 65: 745–779.
Sen, Amartya K. 1999. Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, Amartya K. 2000a. ‘Consequential evaluation and practical reason’, Journal of Philosophy XCVII: 477–502.
Sen, Amartya K. 2000b. ‘A decade of human development’, Journal of Human Development 1: 17–23.
Sen, Amartya K. 2000c. ‘East and west: the reach of reason’, New York Review of Books XLVII (12): 33–38.
Sen, Amartya K. 2002. Rationality and freedom. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Sen, Amartya K. 2004a. ‘Elements of a theory of human rights’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 32: 315–356.
Sen, Amartya K. 2004b. ‘Dialogue: capabilities, lists and public reason: continuing the conversation,’ Feminist Economics (10): 77–80.
Sen, Amartya K. 2005a. The argumentative Indian. Writings on Indian history, culture and identity. London: Penguin.
Sen, Amartya K. 2005b. ‘Human rights and capabilities’, Journal of Human Development 6: 151–166.
Sen, Amartya K. 2006. ‘Reason, freedom and well-being’, Utilitas 18: 80–96. Statistics South Africa 1998. Census in brief. Pretoria: Statistics South Africa.
Sugden, Robert 1993. ‘Welfare, resources and capabilities: A review of Inequality Reexamined by Amartya Sen’, Journal of Economic Literature 31: 1947–1962.
Sumner, L. W. 2006. ‘Utility and capability’, Utilitas 18: 1–19.
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (1994, 1995, 1997). Human Development Report. New York: Oxford University Press.