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Sen's Capability Approach


Explanations > Needs > Sen's Capability Approach

Capability | Choice |  So what?


A way of understanding needs is through consideration of people in developing nations where the things taken for granted in more affluent countries are still not available for everyone.


The success of a country can be measured by such as Gross National Product (GNP) per capita, health of its people, education levels and so on. Another approach is to consider its capability, in terms of the freedom and ability of people to achieve. Sen describes it as representing the 'various combinations of functionings (beings and doings) that the person can achieve.'

In other words, success is based on what people are able to do. And people will prioritize what they do, depending on their needs.

Capability can be related to basic survival, such as being able to access safe water, or less critical desires, such as buying a car (although even such actions can be related to more basic needs).


As well as capability and when you have that capability, you are faced with choice. The process of choosing reflects values and the selection of capabilities is a value judgement, which may have to be be made through public discussion.

So what?

To the frustration of some, Sen does not offer any list of capabilities, nor how capabilities should be prioritized, noting instead that this is significant for and varies by different people. In fact he seems to revel in the incomplete situation that this produces, arguing that an incomplete theory which is 'consistent and combinable with several different substantive theories’’ and which may be filled in by reasoned agreement, itself a valuable process'.

This principle, of avoiding specification, is both useful in keeping things open for new considerations and frustrating in the difficulty in applying it to everyday situations. Perhaps a useful lesson is to take care that what is defined should not be overly specified or particularly prescriptive in how it should be used. Any list of needs is a model, a lens by which you can view the world and derive some understanding, perhaps in order to make better decisions. The wise approach in such situations is to know that the lens is not reality, that the map is not the territory. Use it to understand, but do not blindly trust what it says.

See also

Values, Nussbaum's Ten Central Human Functional Capabilities, Narayan's Six Dimensions of Well-Being


Sen, A. K. (1992). Inequality Reexamined. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sen, A. K. (1993). Positional objectivity. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 22, 126–145.

Sen, A. K. (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf Press.


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