The Capability Approach/Capability Theory (CA/T) first developed by Amartya Sen makes the normative claim that freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance. It has made significant contributions in its original field of Development Studies and has also been used in other fields as a framework to assess the relation between well-being and socio-economic contexts, to inform policies for social change.

CA starts from a position of human diversity rather than assuming the white, male, able-bodied person as the norm. Recognising the normative significance of individual and social diversity, Sen argues that each person has a unique profile of personal, social and environmental conversion factors that work to convert resources into sets of possibilities. These possibilities are capability sets that mean a person can flourish. In this way, CA facilitates an appreciation of the importance of particularity but also pays attention to how capability sets are shaped by the political, social and economic landscape. Martha Nussbaum has worked to develop Capability Theory and proposes ten “central human functional capabilities” that are required for human life to exceed “bare humanness”. This includes relational capabilities such as emotional well-being, affiliation and interaction – that is, being able to do things for oneself and for others.

Both these foundational thinkers recognise participation, both in the sense of deliberation and partnership in social interaction, as important to quality of life. Yet, how does that work with the emphasis on self-determination that is such a strong feature of some political claims to justice?

Our research for the Deliverable D5.3 draws on six country reports that used mini-ethnographies and semi-structured interviews conducted with care recipients, care workers, disabled people and personal assistants and, in some cases, with their family members to explore this. We found that self-determination and independence signify not only that one is self-governed, but also that one is able and is given the authority to govern others. This can demand an invisibilising of the inputs of personal assistants. Kittay has written about the “transparent self” of the dependency worker – but unlike Kittay’s transparent selves, personal assistants do not tolerate invisibility because they have interests vested in the well-being of another, but rather because they have entered a contract. Rather than ‘transparency’, this is more akin to the invisibility of many service workers whose achievements at smooth running remain unnoticed until there is a problem.

This work can be more visible in family relations. We found that while commodified support given by non-family members was considered as assistance to be independent, unpaid support from family and friends was often experienced as dependence. There can be policy sleight of hand here, as in policy terms, relying on family members is often constructed as living independently because ‘independence’ is strongly associated with not being institutionalised. Many people specifically sought to avoid being ‘dependent’ on family often on the grounds that, unlike workers, they have not been able to ‘choose’ their relationship. The benefit of contract to the service user is that they can limit their engagement with the service provider and vice versa, but others adopt the more familial story of care. This is a model that has been challenged, not only by the Independent Living Movement but also by domestic workers and trade unions: justice claims for wages, reasonable working hours and conditions are claims of workers, not mothers. On the other hand, the more like a worker, the more alienated and instrumentalized the labour, and as many of the care workers in the national case studies aver, it is the relationality of care that gives them pleasure in their work and makes them feel their contribution is recognised.

What does this mean for CA/T and in particular for matters of participation? Many of our participants are not starting from a position of separation from which they are seeking connection and relationality, but rather are seeking to manage connections, whether by contract and rules, professional distance, particular use of space, or depicting people as family members. Indeed, the personal assistance model in Austria indicates that the idealised imagined autonomous and independent individual – in other words, disconnection – is in some cases the desired end point. Capabilities are conferred, shaped, and refused through connections with other people, connections which are experienced and institutionalised in ways that mean that, even as our starting point is individual difference, systematic assessment must take others into account. We need to understand how our capabilities are imbricated and this is particularly the case in relations of care, support and assistance.

Capability Theory is a non-ideal theory of justice. It starts from the world as it is rather than first arguing for the principles of justice that would prevail in an ideal world. Starting from the world as it is means starting from injustice that is embedded not only in personal relations, but in histories and institutions. Experiences of injustice in relation to personal assistance/care in private homes is instructive because these are not the ‘great injustices’ of torture or starvation that Sen criticises ideal moral theory for not engaging with, but injustices that are part of daily life for many in Europe. It draws attention to the politics of contract and possessive individualism. It also invites questions about how claims can be enforced including what are the mechanisms that can promote certain types of affective relations.

In Nussbaum’s framing, the state has the responsibility to promote core functional capabilities, but we need a more expansive understanding of the public sphere drawing on thinkers like Fraser, who explore the importance of civil society and the myriad forms of associational and disputational life that make up ‘civil society’ in contemporary democratic states. This is key to understandings of how our interdependence and autonomies are made, managed and imagined.


by Bridget Anderson
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D5.3
Find the full publication on the ETHOS website