In Defence of Amartya
Ingrid Robeyns (University of Amsterdam,
© Copyright 2002 Ingrid Robeyns
In Issue 15 of the Post-Autistic
Economics Review, Emmanuelle Benicourt (2002)
argues that Amartya Sen’s
capability approach remains “undeniably neoclassical”, and is “just a
variation of standard microeconomics”.
She also categorizes Sen as a traditional
mainstream economist. I wish to explain why I believe that these views are
The capability approach reconsidered
Sen’s capability approach has its roots both in
welfare economics (Sen 1985, 1987), where it was
the logical extension of his earlier work on the informational poverty of
utilitarian calculus (e.g. Sen 1979), as well as in
the philosophical literature on inequality (1980), where it was proposed as
an alternative to both the utilitarian and the resourcist
paradigms. The capability approach advocates that in making evaluations of
well-being or policies, we focus on what people can do and be, instead of
exclusively on their mental states (utilitarianism) or on the goods that they
have at their disposal (resourcism). Over time, Sen and others have extended the scope of the capability
approach to study such divers issues as development and development ethics
(Gasper 1997, Sen 1999), the evaluation of
small-scale NGO-projects (Alkire 2002), eating
disorders and famines (Lavaque-Manty 2001),
unemployment and inactivity (Burchardt 2002),
gender inequality in western societies (Robeyns
2002), to mention just a few. At this moment PhD students are using the
capability framework to study topics such as well-being of disabled people,
environmental law and climate change, and the impact of a financial crisis on
people’s well-being. The Human Development Report, which is currently
(one of) the strongest alternative frameworks to the neoliberalist
“Washington consensus”, is largely based on the normative foundations of Sen’s capability approach. In other words, the capability
approach has gradually developed into a paradigm, which moves between
and beyond existing disciplines, and which is applied in many more domains
than only welfare economics or liberal philosophy.
Is the capability approach just mainstream economics?
Does the capability approach make a difference with a standard mainstream
economic analysis of these issues? I think that the existing work in the
capability paradigm strongly suggest that it does. Some examples can
Sabina Alkire (2002) showed, based on fieldwork in
Pakistan, that a cost-benefit evaluation that only focuses on material
(financial) change, will not capture the changes in a number of important
capabilities, such as self-respect. NGO projects that are not viable from a
narrow economistic point of view may lead to many
non-material beneficial changes in poor people’s lives.
Tania Burchardt (2002) developed a method to
measure a person’s capability for employment, instead of their achieved
functioning (thus their real opportunity to hold a job, instead of the
job-holding itself). By applying that method to British panel data, she can
empirically distinguish between those who do not hold a job because they do
not have a real opportunity to hold one, and those who do not hold a job
although they could have one if they wished so. As Burchardt
concludes, measuring employment capability would be more adequate than
relying upon standard unemployment statistics.
In my own PhD-dissertation (Robeyns 2002), I first
theoretically analysed (and empirically illustrated) why mainstream economics
is fundamentally unsuited to study over-all gender inequality in well-being.
A capability perspective, in contrast, allows us to see ambiguities and
complexities that a pure utility- or income based analysis cannot reveal. For
example, while women in western societies are worse off than men in many
dimensions, there are also strong suggestions that men fare worse with
respect to interpersonal relations and social support. ‘Emancipation’ then
becomes much less an issue of getting women into jobs, but more radically
about abolishing gender as we know it.
Reinventing the wheel?
Of course, it is often argued that ultimately the capability approach is
doing the work that sociologists and other social scientists have been doing
for ages. I agree that much of the work that is done in other social sciences
is very similar to analyses that are done in the capability framework.
However, a crucial distinction is that the capability approach gives a
consistent normative framework to place these scattered studies, thus
providing a sort of theoretical umbrella for existing empirical work.
Moreover, the capability approach makes it theoretically very clear how
different dimensions, such as commodities, observable outcomes and
unobservable opportunities are related. Empirical and theoretical work, or
micro and macro work, thus become much more connected. In addition, because
of its inter- or post-disciplinary character, the capability approach offers
a framework in which scholars and policy makers from different disciplines
can easily meet.
This inter- or post-disciplinary character of the capability approach is one
of its most interesting aspects. In my opinion, most fields in economics are
more connected to related fields in other social sciences or the humanities,
than to other fields in economics. The capability approach offers a paradigm
for those utopian idealists who are dreaming of breaking down the walls
between the disciplines and to do research and teaching based on topics and
links between fields, instead of disciplinary assumptions and methodologies.
Of course, all this does not imply that the capability approach cannot
substantially be improved or refined, or that it is completely ready to
deliver; therefore much more work needs to be done – work that is currently
undertaken by scholars across the disciplines, including many economists.
Sen’s support for economists outside the
Amartya Sen’s work is
extremely wide-ranging. Some of his work might be labelled mainstream-like
because of its highly mathematical character. But few of these articles model
behaviour; instead, most are about measurement or social choice. I doubt that
this work should even be labelled neoclassical, because Sen
has criticised many core neoclassical assumptions, like exclusively self-interested
behaviour or the dogma of optimisation. In addition, Sen
has written scores of articles that are definitely non-mainstream. And although he has spoken of himself as a
“mainstream” economist, he has added that for him that mainstream is
economics in the tradition of Joan Robinson, Marx, Kaldor
and so forth. Thus, when Sen calls himself a mainstream economist, he is trying to
rescue economics from the narrow-minded, imperialist discipline that it has
I think we must make a firm distinction between an economist who is a
traditional mainstream economist, and those who, from time to time, use
neoclassical mainstream tools. Moreover, we should not fear or condemn
economists who use mainstream tools (1) if they have a positive encouraging
attitude towards non-neoclasscial economists, and
(2) if they do not try to dominate them, for example, by only giving jobs to
mainstream economists or by refusing on methodological grounds to publish
articles of other persuasions. Sen cannot be
accused of any of this. Sen has done much to make
economics more inclusive for economists with non-traditional views, and has
given much personal support to such economists and their organisations (see
also Fine 2001). He is, for example, a patron of the Cambridge Journal of
Economics, and has given much support to the International Association
for Feminist Economics and its journal. On a personal note I want
to add that when I was his PhD-student he actively encouraged me to do what I
believed in, without being straightjacket by disciplinary or methodological
requirements – a situation that many contemporary economics PhD students can
only dream of.
Using Sen’s work to develop an alternative
In recent months, several authors in the Post-Autistic Economics Review have argued that we need to focus our
attention on trying to develop an alternative economics. I believe that much
of the constructive work that has to be done can potentially benefit from Sen’s work. Or, to use Ben Fine’s (2001: 12) words:
“[Sen] has not been captured by economics imperialism and,
unlike its practitioners, he opens and is open to debate across key issues.
The contrast with mainstream economics is sharp, where the language let alone
the ideas necessary for a genuine political economy of capitalism are
precluded by its reductionism. Ultimately, the nature and extent of Sen’s lasting contribution will depend upon taking his
work forward critically rather than allowing it to be captured and
transformed by the dismal science. Political economy may not always be able
to stand on Sen’s shoulders in the coming period,
but he certainly provides many weapons in addressing the social, the macro,
the material, and the cultural in the intellectual battles that lie ahead in
defining the “economic” for social science.”
Indeed, it would be a capital mistake not to regard Sen
and his work as an ally in our struggle to open up economics, even if Sen himself prefers not to jump on the barricades, but to
provide us with some fundamental concepts and tools that can be used to
provide the hard-needed alternative.
Alkire, Sabina (2002). Valuing Freedoms. Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction,
Emmanuelle Benicourt, “Is Amartya Sen a
Post-Autistic Economist?”, post-autistic economics review,
15, September 4, 2002, article
Burchardt, Tania (2002). “Constraint and Opportunity: Women’s Employment in
Britain”, paper presented at the
conference on promoting women’s capabilities,
Cambridge, 9-10 September 2002.
Fine, Ben (2001). “Amartya Sen:
A Partial and Personal Appreciation”, London, SOAS:
CDPR Discussion Paper
Gasper, Des (1997), “Sen’s Capability Approach and
Nussbaum’s Capability Ethics”, Journal of International
Lavaque-Manty Myka (2001)
“Food, Functioning and Justice: From Famines to Eating Disorders”, Journal
Political Philosophy, 9/2
Robeyns, Ingrid (2002), Gender Inequality. A
Capability Perspective. PhD-thesis, Cambridge University.
Sen, Amartya (1979)
“Personal Utilities and Public Judgements: What’s wrong with Welfare Economics?”,
Economic Journal, 89,
____ (1980) “Equality of What?” in: S. McMurrin
(ed.) Tanner lectures on Human Values, Vol
____ (1985). Commodities and Capabilities, Amsterdam, North Holland.
____ (1987). The Standard of Living, Cambridge University Press.
____ (1999) Development as Freedom. Knopf publishers.
Ingrid Robeyns (email@example.com) was one of the
authors of the Cambridge 27 proposal, “Opening Up Economics”. She is now a
post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Amsterdam, working on the
capability approach and the welfare state.
Ingrid Robeyns, “In Defence of Amartya
economics review, issue no. 17, December 4, 2002, article 5.. http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue17/Robeyns17.htm