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The Capability Approach to Human Development

The Open University

Wednesday, 22 November 2017 from 14:30 to 16:30 (GMT)

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The Capability Approach to Human development

Cristina Santos and Alison Buckler



The capability approach was developed by the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen as a critique to standard social choice theory. Its appeal has caught the attention of scholars from several disciplines, policy makers and wider audiences with an interest in well-being, or a dissatisfaction with prevalent neoliberalist or utilitarian approaches to development. The capability approach focuses on the freedom – or capability – people have to achieve specific functionings, which are defined as ‘the various things a person may value doing or being’ (Sen, 1999:75). Resources are important, but they are not the ‘end’ of human development, rather they are a means to this end and can be used in different ways to achieve various functionings.

The plurality of interested audiences and contributors, together with its own organic evolution as a criticism to standard theory, gives the capability approach a unique role in the world of normative views of well-being and human development. This session will help you identify how the capability approach has been used, and by whom, why it is called an approach, and not a theory, but most importantly, to recognise and critique its relative merits in addressing issues related to human development.


At the end of this session you should:

  • Understand the foundations of the capability approach, capability theory, and human development, and be able to critically evaluate each one’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Develop analytical skills to evaluate the use of the capability approach in an educational case study
  • Critically consider the effective application of the capability approach to your own research

 Core readings

Download readings: 


  • 10 minutes: Welcome and introductions

We would like you to introduce yourself to the group, say one or two sentences about your field and the proposed focus of your research, and (drawing on your understandings of the core readings) one or two sentences about how you think the capability approach could be relevant to your work.

  • 50 minutes: The Capabilities Approach: what it is, and what it is not

Prior to the seminar, you should have read the two core readings.

We would like you to highlight extracts from these which allow you to answer the following questions (you can do this manually on hard copies, or you can use Corel PDF Fusion software provided by the OU to highlight PDFs). Bring your highlighted papers to the session:

  1. What are the defining features of the capability approach? In what significant ways does it depart from other normative frameworks?
  2. What is the capability approach used for? Evaluate the extent to which different groups and disciplines may challenge its usefulness.
  3.  Why might Nussbaum have focussed on a list of capabilities while Sen did not? 
  • 30 minutes: Case study – evaluating quality teaching using the capability approach

Alison Buckler will present some research which drew on the capability approach to develop a methodology for determining and evaluating quality teaching in rural schools in Sub-Saharan Africa. We will use this as a basis for discussion as to how the capabilities approach can be used in different ways.

  • 25 minutes: group work and feedback – we may want you to use the cartwheel view of the CA in this activity (the second core reading - Robeyns, 2016), so make sure you read it carefully.
  • 5 minutes: Wrap up and space for further questions


  • Anand, P.; Hunter, G.; Carter, I.; Dowding, K.; Guala, F. and van Hees, M. (2009). The development of capability indicators, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 10(1), pp. 125-152.
  • Buckler, A. (2014) ‘Teachers’ professional capabilities in Sub-Saharan Africa: demonstrating and debating a method of capability selection and analysis, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 17(2), 161-177.
  • Nussbaum, Martha (2000). Women and human development: the capabilities approach. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University PressISBN9780521003858.
  • Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom, New York: Anchor Books (Random House)


Do you have questions about The Capability Approach to Human Development? Contact The Open University

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When & Where

Library Seminar Room 2
The Open University
Walton Hall
MK7 6AA Milton Keynes
United Kingdom

Wednesday, 22 November 2017 from 14:30 to 16:30 (GMT)

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