Skip to main content Accessibility help

Too Soft for Economics, Too Rigid for Sociology, or Just Right? The Productive Ambiguities of Sen’s Capability Approach

  • Milena I. Kremakova (a1)


The capability approach has been developed by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and others as a human-centred normative framework for the evaluation of individual and group well-being, quality of life and social justice. Sen and Nussbaum’s ideas have influenced global, national and local policy and have been further developed in a number of academic disciplines, but so far have remained largely unnoticed in sociology. This article examines recent capability-informed theories and empirical applications in the sociology of human rights and other academic fields adjacent to sociology, focussing on examples of social policy studies in the fields of welfare, the labour market, health and disability, and education. The article outlines several potential areas in which capability-informed frameworks are relevant for critical social theory, public sociology and global sociology.

L’approche en termes de « capacités » a été développée par Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum et quelques autres comme cadre normatif d’évaluation du bien-être des individus et des groupes, de la qualité de vie et de la justice sociale. Les idées de Sen et Nussbaum ont eu une influence politique à tous les niveaux – mondial, national et local – et ont connu des approfondissements dans plusieurs disciplines universitaires, mais fort peu en sociologie jusqu’à maintenant. L’article examine les théories récentes qui mettent en œuvre des capacités et passe à des applications empiriques dans différents domaines proches de la sociologie, principalement politique sociale, soutien public et marché du travail, santé et dépendance. On circonscrit ainsi plusieurs champs dans lesquels les cadrages à partir des capacités apparaissent pertinents tant pour la sociologie critique, que pour celle qui s’adresse au grand public ou traite de la globalisation.

Der von Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum und einigen anderen entwickelte Befähigungsansatz versteht sich als normativer Rahmen, um Wohlbefinden von Individuen und Gruppen, sowie Lebensqualität und soziale Justiz zu bewerten. Sens und Nussbaums Ideen haben die globale, nationale und lokale Politik beeinflusst und wurden von einer Reihe akademischer Fächer weiterentwickelt, sind aber bis dato von der Soziologie unbeachtet geblieben. Dieser Aufsatz untersucht neueste Theorien des Befähigungsansatzes und empirische Anwendungen in der Soziologie der Menschenrechte und andere, der Soziologie nahestehende akademische Bereiche, wobei ein besonderes Augenmerk Beispielen aus der Sozialpolitik gewidmet wird, die sich mit Wohlstand, Arbeitsmarkt, Gesundheit und Abhängigkeit, sowie Bildung befassen. Der Aufsatz arbeitet mehrere potentielle Gebiete heraus, in denen sich der Befähigungsansatz sowohl für die kritische, als auch für die öffentliche und globale Soziologie als bedeutend erweisen könnte.



Hide All
Agarwal, Bina, Humphries, Jane and Robeyns, Ingrid, 2003. Special issue on Amartya Sen’s Work and Ideas: a Gender Perspective, Feminist economics, 9 (2/3): 3-12.
Alkire, Sabina, 2002. Valuing Freedoms. Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
Alkire, Sabina, 2005. Briefing note: “Capability and Functionings: Definition and Justification”, Huma Development and Capability Association, 1 September, CA_Briefing_Concepts.
Alkire, Sabina, Comim, Flavio and Qizilbash, Mozaffar, eds., 2008. The Capability Approach: Concepts, Measures and Applications ( Cambridge University Press).
Archer, Margaret S., 2000. Being Human: The Problem of Agency (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
Arrow, Kenneth J., Sen, Amartya K. and Suzumura, Kotaro, 1999. “Functionings and Capabilities”, Handbook of Social Choice and Welfare (Amsterdam, Elsevier Science).
bgss (Bundesministerium für Gesundheit und Soziale Sicherung), 2005. Lebenslagen in Deutschland: Der Zweite Armuts- und Reichtumsbericht (Berlin, Bundesanzeiger).
Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve, 2007. The new spirit of capitalism (London, Verso).
Bonvin, Jean-Michel and Farvaque, Nicholas, 2003a. “Towards a Capability-Friendly Social Policy. The Role of Local Implementing Agencies”, paper at VHI Conference, “Transforming Unjust Structures. Capabilities and Justice” (Von Hügel Institute, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, 26–27 June).
Bonvin, Jean-Michel and Farvaque, Nicholas, 2003b. “Employability and Capability: The Role of Local Agencies in Implementing Social Policies”, paper at 3rd Conference on the Capability Approach “From Sustainable Development to Sustainable Freedom” (University of Pavia, 7-9 September).
Bonvin, Jean-Michel and Thelen, Lionel, 2003. “Deliberative Democracy and Capabilities. The Impact and Significance of Capability for Voice”, paper at 3rd Conference on the Capability Approach “From Sustainable Development to Sustainable Freedom” (Pavia, 7–9 September).
Bonvin, Jean-Michel and Thelen, Lionel, 2005. “What Informational Basis for Assessing Job-Seekers? Capabilities Vs. Preferences”, Review Of Social Economy, 63 (2): 269-289.
Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant, Loïc, 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press).
Burawoy, Michael, 2005. “For Public Sociology”, American Sociological Review 70 (4): 4-28.
Burawoy, Michael, 2007. “Open the social sciences: To whom and for what?”, Portuguese Journal of Social Science, 6 (3): 137-146.
Cameron, John, 2000. “Amartya Sen on economic inequality: the need for an explicit critique of opulence”, Journal of international development, 12 (7): 1031-1045.
Carpenter, Mick, 2009. “The capabilities approach and critical social policy: lessons from the majority world?”, Critical Social Policy, 29 (3): 351-373.
Carpenter, Mick, Speeden, Stuart, Freda, Belinda and Barbara, Merrill, 2007. Beyond the Workfare State: Labour Markets, Equality and Human Rights (Bristol, Policy Press).
Corteel, Delphine and Zimmermann, Bénédicte with Duhin, Anne, 2006. “Employability, Voice and Security. An Inquiry into the Capabilities of Workers in French Firms”, documents de travail, série Règles, Institutions, Conventions, n°06-01.
Dean, Hartley, 2009. “Critiquing capabilities: the distractions of a beguiling concept”, Critical Social Policy, 29 (2): 261-278.
Dean, Hartley, Bonvin, Jean-Michel, Vielle, Pascale and Farvaque, Nicolas, 2005. “Developing capabilities and rights in welfare-to-work policies”, European Societies, 7 (1): 3-26.
Deneulin, Séverine, Nebel, Mathias, Mathias and Sagovsky, Nicholas, eds., 2006. Transforming unjust structures. The Capability Approach (Berlin, Springer).
Deneulin, Séverine and Mcgregor, Allister J., 2009. “The capability approach and the politics of a social conception of wellbeing”, European Journal of Social Theory, 13 (4): 501-519.
Deneulin, Séverine and Shahani, Lila, 2009. An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach: Freedom and Agency (Otawa, Earthscan/IDRC).
Engerman, Stanley L., 2003. “Slavery, Freedom, and Sen”, Feminist Economics, 9: 185-211.
Evans, Peter, 2011. “The Capability Enhancing Developmental State: Concepts and National Trajectories”, discussion paper No. 63 (Center for Studies on Inequality and Development, March 2011).
Farvaque, Nicolas et Oliveau, Jean-Baptiste, 2004. “L’insertion des jeunes peu diplômés dans l’emploi: opportunités de choix et contraintes. L’approche par les capacités d’Amartya Sen comme grille de lecture des trajectoires d’insertion”, document de travail idhe, série Règles (Institutions, Conventions, n° 04/11, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan).
Feldman, Shelley and Gellert, Paul, 2006. “The seductive quality of central human capabilities: sociological insights into Nussbaum and Sen’s disagreement”, Economy and Society, 35 (3): 423-452.
Gascoigne, Steven and Whiteside, Noel, 2009. “The promotion of capabilities in Sweden: a case study of the contraction of shipbuilding in Gothenburg”, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 29 (11-12): 587-598.
Gazier, Bernard and Gautié, Jérôme, 2009. “The ‘Transitional Labour Markets’ Approach: Theory, History and Future Research Agenda”, documents de travail du Centre d’Économie de la Sorbonne, January,
Guillen, Ana M. and Dahl, Svenn-Åge, eds., 2009. Quality of Work in the European Union. Concept, Data and Debates from a Transnational Perspective, séries Travail & Société/Work & Society, vol. 67 (Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang).
Hill, Marianne T., 2003. “Development as empowerment”, Feminist Economics, 9 (2-3): 117-135.
Holland, Breena. 2008. “Justice and the Environment in Nussbaum’s ‘Capabilities Approach’: Why Sustainable Ecological Capacity Is a Meta-Capability”, Political Research Quarterly, 61 (2): 319-332.
Holmwood, John, 2013. “Public Reasoning without Sociology: Amartya Sen’s Theory of Justice”, Sociology 0 (0): 1-16.
Lancaster, Kelvin J., 1966. “A new approach to consumer theory”, Journal of Political Economy, 2 (74).
Lindley, Robert M., 2008. “Theoretical Issues in the Application of the Capability Approach”, paper at capright-translam Workshop “Governing Social Policy in Europe: The Promotion of Capabilities and Transitional Labour Markets”, Venice, 10-11 April.
Mah, Alice. 2010. ‘The Global Reach of Sen: Working Lives, Gender Inequality and Comparative Sociological Analysis”, paper delivered at bsa Theory Sub-Plenary “Amartya Sen: Sociology and Public Reason”, Annual British Sociological Conference, Glasgow, 7-9 April.
Merton, Robert K. 1949. “On sociological theories of the middle range”, in Merton, R. K., Social Theory and Social Structure, 39-53 (New York, Simon & Schuster,The Free Press).
De Munck, Jean and Zimmermann, Bénédicte, eds., 2008. La Liberté au prisme des capacités. Amartya Sen au-delà du libéralisme (Paris, Éditions de l’Ehess).
Mitra, Sophie, 2006. “The Capability Approach and Disability”, Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 16 (4): 236-247.
Navarro, Vincente, 2000. “Development and quality of life: a critique of Amartya Sen's Development as freedom”, International Journal of Health Services, 30 (4): 661-674.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 2000. Women and Human Development. The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).
Nussbaum, Martha C., 2001. “Symposium on Amartya Sen’s philosophy: 5 Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Options”, Economics and Philosophy Economics, 1: 67-88.
Nussbaum, Martha C., 2003. “Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social Justice”, Feminist Economics Special issue on Sen, 9 (2): 33.
Nussbaum, Martha C., 2004. “Beyond the Social Contract: Capabilities and Global Justice. An Olaf Palme Lecture”, Oxford, 19 June 2003, Oxford Development Studies, 32 (1).
Nussbaum, Martha C. and Glover, Jonathan,eds., 1995. Women, Culture, and Development: A Study of Human Capabilities (Oxford, Clarendon Press).
Oostelaken, Ilse, 2013. “Is Pogge a Capability Theorist in Disguise? A Critical Examination of Thomas Pogge’s Defence of Rawlsian Resourcism”, Ethic Theory and Moral Practice. 16 (1): 205-215.
Pogge, Thomas, 2002. “Can the Capability Approach Be Justified?Philosophical Topics, 30 (2): 167-228.
Robeyns, Ingrid, 2003. “The Capability Approach and gender inequality”, Feminist economics, 9 (2-3): 3-12.
Robeyns, Ingrid, 2005. “The Capability Approach: A theoretical survey”, Journal of Human Development, 6 (1): 93-114.
Robeyns, Ingrid, 2006. “The Capability Approach in Practice”, The Journal of Political Philosophy, 14 (3): 351-376 .
Robeyns, Ingrid, 2007. “Bibliography on the Capability Approach, 2006-2007”, Journal of Human Development, 8 (3).
Robeyns, Ingrid, 2008. “Bibliography on the Capability Approach, 2007-2008”, Journal of Human Development, 9 (3).
Rogowski, Ralf, Salais, Robert and Whiteside, Noel, eds., 2011. Transforming European Employment Policy: Labour market transitions and the promotion of capability (Cheltenham, Edward Elgar).
rsf 2013. Statement released on the 10th day of the Refugee Strike for Freedom,, 14 October 2013, accessed 19 October 2013.
Ruger, Jennifer P., 1998. “Aristotelian justice and health policy: capability and incompletely theorized agreements”,PhD thesis (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press).
Ruger, Jennifer P., 2004. “Ethics of the social determinants of health”, Lancet, 364: 1092-1097.
Ruger, Jennifer P., 2010. “Health capability: conceptualisation and operationalisation”, American Journal of Public Health, 100: 41-49.
Saito, Madoka, 2003. “Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach to Education: A Critical Exploration”, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 37 (1): 17-33.
Salais, Robert, 2005. “Incorporating the capability approach into social and employment policies”, in Salais, Robert and Villeneuve, Robert, Europe and the politics of capabilities (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
Salais, Robert, 2009. “Deliberative democracy and its informational basis: what lessons from the Capability Approach”, paper at sase conference Paris.
Salais, Robert et Thevenot, Laurent, 1986. Le Travail: marchés, règles, conventions (Paris, insee-Economica).
Salais, Robert and Villeneuve, Robert, eds., 2009. Europe and the politics of capabilities (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
Sandbrook, Richard, 2000. “Globalization and the Limits of Neoliberal Development Doctrine”, Third World Quarterly, 21 (6): 1071-1080.
Sayer, Andrew, 2012. “Capabilities, Contributive Injustice and Unequal Divisions of Labour”, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities: A Multi-Disciplinary Journal for People-Centered Development. 13 (4): 580-596.
Schmid, Günther, 1995. “Is Full Employment Still Possible? Transitional Labour Markets as a New Strategy of Labour Market Policy”, Economic and Industrial Policy, 16: 429-456.
Schmid, Günther and Auer, Peter, 1997. “Transitional labour markets: concepts and example in Europe”, paper at conference New Institutional Arrangements in the Labour Market, European Academy of Urban Environment / WZB, Berlin, April 31.
Schmidt, Jürgen, 2013. “Public Services in Erfurt and Frankfurt am Main Compared (c. 1890-1914): Capabilities in Prussia?”, Urban History, First view (10): 1-18.
Sen, Amartya K. 1977. “Rational fools: a critique of the behavioral foundations of economic theory”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 6 (summer): 317-344.
Sen, Amartya K., 1979. “Equality of What?”, Stanford University: Tanner Lectures on Human Values: 160-220.
Sen, Amartya K., 1982. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
Sen, Amartya K., 1985a. “A Sociological Approach to the Measurement of Poverty: a Reply to Professor Peter Townsend”, Oxford Economic Papers (New Series), 37 (4): 669-676.
Sen, Amartya K., 1985b. “Well-Being, Agency and Freedom. The Dewey Lectures 1984”, The Journal of Philosophy, LXXXII (4, April): 169-221.
Sen, Amartya K., 1988a. “Freedom of Choice: Concept and Content”, European Economic Review, 32: 269-294.
Sen, Amartya K., 1988b. “Poor, relatively speaking”, Oxford Economic Papers (New Series), 35(2): 153-169.
Sen, Amartya K., 1992. Inequality Reexamined. (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
Sen, Amartya K., 1993. “Capability and Well-being”, in Nussbaum, Martha C. and Sen, Amartya, eds., The Quality of Life (Oxford, Oxford University Press and The United Nations University: 30-53).
Sen, Amartya K., 1998. “The possibility of social choice: Nobel lecture”, American Economic Review, 178-215.
Sen, Amartya K., 1999. Development as Freedom (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
Sen, Amartya K., 2004a. “Capabilities, Lists, and Public Reason: Continuing the conversation”, Feminist Economics, 10 (3): 77-80.
Sen, Amartya K., 2004b [1985]. Commodities and Capabilities (North-Holland, Elsevier).
Sen, Amartya K., 2005. Prefacein Kuklys, Wiebke, ed. Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach: Theoretical Insights and Empirical Applications (Berlin, Springer Verlag).
Sen, Amartya K., 2008. “The Economics of Happiness and Capability”, in Bruni, Luigino, Flavio, Comim and Maurizio, Pugno, eds., Capability and Happiness (New York, Oxford University Press).
Sen, Amartya K., 2009. The idea of justice. Allen Lane, London.
Sen, Amartya K., 2010. “The Uses and Abuses of Adam Smith”, lecture at Duke University, 40th anniversary of the History of Political Economy Journal, 26 March 2010.
Sen, Amartya K. and Nussbaum, Martha, 1993. The Quality of Life (New York, Oxford Clarendon Press).
Tang, Lynn, 2013. “Recovery’ from What to Where? A Case Study of Chinese Mental Health Service Users in the UK”, PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
Thevenot, Laurent, 2004. “The French Convention School and the Coordination of Economic Action. Interview”, Economic Sociology. European Electronic Newsletter, 5: 10-18.
Thevenot, Laurent, 2005. “Convention school”, in Becker, Jens and Milan, Zafirovski, eds., International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology (London, Routledge).
Townsend, Peter, 1985. “A Sociological Approach to the Measurement of Poverty—A Rejoinder to Professor Amartya Sen”, Oxford Economic Papers (New Series), 37 (4): 659-668.
Unterhalter, Elaine, 2003a. “Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries: The Potential of Sen’s Capability Approach for Sociologists of Education (Review of Rationality and Freedom by Amartya Sen; Valuing Freedoms and Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction by Sabina Alkire)”, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 24 (5): 665-669.
Unterhalter, Elaine, 2003b. “The capability approach and gendered education: an examination of South African complexities”, Theory and Research in Education, 1 (1): 7-22.
Volkert, Jürgen, ed., 2005. Armut und Reichtum an Verwirklichungschancen. Amartya Sens Capability-Konzept als Grundlage der Armuts- und Reichtumsberichterstattung (Wiesbaden, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften).
Walby, Sylvia, 2012. “Sen and the measurement of justice and capability. A problem in theory and practice”, Theory, Culture and Society, 30 (6).
Walker, Melanie and Unterhalter, Elaine, eds., 2008. Amartya Sen's Capability Approach and Social Justice in Education (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan).
Wells, Thomas, 2012. “Amartya Sen”, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy., retrieved 29 August 2013.
Whiteside, Noel 2005. “Security and the working life: new perspectives”, in Robert, Salais and Robert, Villeneuve, eds., Europe and the politics of capabilities (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
Whiteside, Noel, 2007. “Unemployment revisited in comparative perspective: labour market policy in Strasbourg and Liverpool, 1890-1914”, International Review of Social History, 52: 38.
Whiteside, Noel, 2011. “Creating collective capability: historical perspectives on co-ordinated public action?”, in Rogowski, Ralf, Robert, Salais and Noel, Whiteside, eds, Transforming European Employment Policy: labour market transitions and the promotion of capability (Cheltenham, Edward Elgar).
Whiteside, Noel and Mah, Alice, 2012. “Human rights and Ethical Reasoning: Capabilities, Conventions and Spheres of Public Action”, Sociology, 46 (5): 921.
Whiteside, Noel and Salais, Robert, 1998. “Comparing Welfare States: Social Protection and Industrial Politics in France and Britain, 1930-1960”, Journal of European Social Policy, 8: 139-154.
Zimmermann, Bénédicte, 2006. “Pragmatism and the Capability Approach: Challenges in Social Theory and Empirical Research”, European Journal of Social Theory, 9 (4): 467-484.



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed