Capabilities, Zero-Sum Choices, Equality and Scope

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


In recent years, the capabilities approach, developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum,1 has superseded basic needs approaches in the development and quality of life literatures (Reader 2006, 337), being employed by agencies such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) as a means of evaluating social conditions and the outcomes of development program. The basic premise of Nussbaum’s approach, in particular, is that people have a set of immanent capabilities which, if nourished socially, can be converted into functions essential to the realization of human flourishing. By assessing the extent to which capabilities can be realized in a given social space,2 the approach acts as ‘a broad normative framework for the evaluation and assessment of individual well-being and social arrangements, the design of policies, and proposals about social change in society’ (Robeyns 2005b, 94). The approach is explicitly universalist (Nussbaum 2001, 5), with Nussbaum committed to an ‘essentialist’ account of ‘the most central features of our common humanity’ (Nussbaum 1992, 215). Physiologically, humans are seen to share intrinsic facets such that ‘The body that labours is in a sense the same body all over the world, and its needs for food and nutrition and health care are the same’ (Nussbaum 2001, 22–23). Psychologically, Nussbaum follows Maslow in claiming that ‘human personality has a structure that is at least to some extent independent of culture’ (Nussbaum 2001, 155).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEvaluating Culture
Subtitle of host publicationWell-Being, Institutions and Circumstance
EditorsMatthew Johnson
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages25
ISBN (Electronic)9781137313799
ISBN (Print)9781349333769, 9780230296565
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2013
Externally publishedYes


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