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maggio 19, 2011


Sen frequently criticized traditional literature that in welfare economics, searching for inequality, focus their attention on income. He assumed that it is not the pure economic aspect that makes people unequal, but it is the real freedom that they have to lead a valuable life. What people can be or can do makes the real difference between them.

His approach is not a product ready to be used, Sen gave a general framework of thought that needs to be defined and adapted according to its rules. It is not a  Sen’s forgot, it is a completing part of his theory, since he did not want to defend or to establish one particular point of view or a set of capabilities. Sen created it intending to make a broader and less specified instrument of analysis, in order to make it flexible to be used: he believed that a list of capabilities must be context dependent. That is why he emphasized the role of people, that should be taken “seriously as agents” and should be involved in the defining capabilities process, as  expression of a great collective evaluation.

In the evaluation of gender inequality in Western countries, Ingrid Robeyns defines a new method, starting from Sen’s capability approach. She identifies strengths and weakness of the capability approach.

A first strength is in that functionings and capabilities are properties of individuals. It is an ethically individualistic theory and an ontologically non individualistic theory: each person is taken as individual, but is not assumed being atomistic entity. This ethical individualism does not have a great application in practical works. For example individuals and families are usually taken as the same, as assuming that partner pool their incomes or that receive equal share or benefits, that is a higher hypothesis. It has a significant meaning in gender analysis, because we cannot take as the same a woman earning money herself and a woman obtaining it from her partner. Wolley and Marshall said that “standard approaches to inequality measurement presume that there is no inequality within the household”.  Sen notes that well being aspect and the agency aspect of woman are inevitably interconnected and that it is important to understand the agency role of women, as responsible person, focusing not only on wellness or illness, but also on their decisions of acting.

According to Robeyns, the second strength is in that it is not limited to the market, but looks at people’s being and doing in both market and non market settings. A person is not only an “homoeconomicus”, so we cannot   focus only on income or wealth: there are many other dimensions revealing complexities and ambiguities of wellbeing, many of which are related with studying gender inequalities.

The third strength is in that capability approach explicitly acknowledge human diversity. Each person is unique by himself, each one has his characteristics. Looking for inequality we cannot assume something different to human diversity. Okin called “false gender neutrality” the economic approach  that ignores differences between men and women, puts all of them at the male conditions: it does not consider that being man or woman could have an impact on the real experience and life of people.

The author finds a weakness of the capability approach in its being underspecified. As explained, Sen does not define capabilities at all, according to their intrinsically being  linked to the contest in which this approach is applied. In some way, what the author define as a weakness, could be interpreted as the pillar of the capability approach itself: we cannot find inequality in a defined socio-economical context without analysing inequalities in its peculiar capabilities, as if there is an individualism also in the analysis of the environment.  Also Martha Nussbaum stated the need for a defined list in this approach, underlining the importance of an “universally valid” list of capabilities, made up by scholars, that would be translated into many other specific lists, according to the context. Regarding this underspecified nature, Ingrid Robeyns introduces three additional specifications setting her new method:

  • select which capabilities are important for the aim of the analysis, 
  • take a stand on where to look  between functioning and capability,
  • give a weight to the different functioning or capabilities.

She created her method based on five criteria driving the making list process:

        i.            Explicit formulation

      ii.            Methodological justification

    iii.            Sensitivity to the context: it is the direct consequence of what Sen called “context dependent”

     iv.            Different levels of generality: she argued that at first we should create an “ideal” list of capabilities and then we have to rework it with the more pragmatic one. It is useful the compared study of these two list layer because it can show the distance between ideal and second best choice.

       v.            Exhaustion and non reduction.

Studying gender inequality in post-industrialized western countries, at the begin Ingrid Robeyns defined her list of capabilities at the ideal level. She started with a brainstorming, she made a draft and test it with existing literature, then she compared her list with others’ and debated it. For the comparisons, she chose the list used by the Swedish approach to the quality of life measurement and the one proposed by Sabina Alkire and Rufus Black, and by Martha Nussbaum.

While in the first one she criticized the mixed composition of material and non material resources and the coexistence of real opportunities and achievements, in the second list, she found the elements too abstract and vague to make possible the use of it. The last one, made by Nussbaum, shows a high level of abstraction, in line with her universal aim. The special feature of this list is in that beside capabilities as real opportunities, Nussbaum includes also talents, internal powers and abilities. In many items this is like the one made by Robeyns. To be honest, in all these three lists there are many common dimensions as health, life, knowledge or education and work, even if they are analysed in different ways. The author notes that all these capabilities are included also in the UNDHR and it could be considered as core set of capabilities to be used in every context. Anyway we do not have to forget that one of the main critic to this declaration is in its ambition to be universally used.

Robeyns’ list is made up of fourteen capabilities:

  1. Life and physical health: being able to born and to live a healthy life. In Western countries we can see a gender difference in the expectancy at birth, with a higher life expectancy for women than men. It is caused by the biological intrinsic difference between genders, with no relevance .
  2. Mental well-being: related both to mental and psychological activity, it shows that women are suffering more often than men of mental disturbs, as anxiety and depression.
  3. Bodily integrity and safety: every kind of violence that could injure a person in its integrity. In this capabilities there is an evident gender dimension since women are suffering sexual violence (usually victims of their household) more than men, which are most frequently victims of physical violence.
  4. Social relations: creating and maintaining social ties. Men and women have different behaviour: men have extensive social network, that they use to get advantage in economic and public life; while women invest in informal network and social support.
  5. Political empowerment: political activity has historically been seen as a male activity, in the recent decades women appeared in the political arena, but now they are still few. Anyway we can find inequality also in the behaviour required in their activity to female politicians, because they have to conform their behaviour to the masculine one.
  6. Education and knowledge: in Western countries there is no gender inequality in the access to formal basic education. The gender inequality is in the approach of the household to children’s higher education. Actually this difference is made up also by class background and by the gendered character of school, colleges and university.
  7. Domestic work and nonmarket care: this is about housework and cares of children and elderly. It shows high gender inequality, since it seems that this kind of care belongs quite exclusively to women.
  8. Paid work and other projects: this capability refers to all the activity outside to housework. In the working sphere women takes few and worse place, while in the artistic one there are not great differences between gender.
  9. Shelter and environment: it refers to the decision power and the freedom of action that people have in their environment more than to the environment in itself.
  10. Mobility: as instrumental capability that enables people to be independent. Its gender relevance is in the relation to other activities (e.g. caring children) that creates a kind of indirect gender inequity (women that usually travel with pushchairs can have difficulties in using public transports).
  11. Leisure activities: it refers to the free time. The real gender difference is not in the number of hours people spend in leisure activities, but in the way they enjoy it according to their gender.
  12. Time autonomy: is the capability to allocate daily time between work, domestic and care activity and leisure activity.  Many feminist underlined that the unequal division of labour becomes a disadvantage for women, because, even if the time men and women spent in those activity is the same, women have many responsibilities and that generates more stress for them.
  13. Being respected and treated with dignity: feminist affirmed that women are devalued and that they frequently are treated as sexual object otherwise they are belittled because doing homework.
  14. Religion: it goes beside the freedom to practice or not a religion or to became religious leaders. Moreover the author focuses her attention on the influence that religious context could have on the developing of other capabilities.

All these capabilities standing alone give a partial view of the whole gender inequality; analyzing them all together we can see that in Western countries there is no “legal” and ideal gender inequality, since both men and women enjoy the same right and receive the same chances. Inequality appears in the outcomes and some authors justify it as if it is the result of different choices of women. However it seems to be a forced justification say that women systematically prefer different options than men, even if they had the same opportunities. The focus of this analysis should move from “legal” opportunities to the “real” ones to see that women do not enjoy the same capability set than men. We can divide capabilities into three levels capabilities. In the first one gender differences cannot be reduced at the choice level (physical and mental health, bodily integrity and safety, shelter and environment and respect). In the second one gender inequality in achieving functioning reveals  gender inequality in capability (education, knowledge, mobility, leisure activities, time autonomy and religion). In the third level decisions are the result of the intrinsic difference between gender: these different choices are socially set up and imposed above both genders (social relations, domestic work and nonmarket care, political empowerment and paid work).

Ingrid Robeyns develops a precise method through the paper. She affirms that Sen’s capability approach needs a defined list of capabilities, but instead, she does not approve the position of Martha Nussbaum, which created a list that, as Robeyns said, would be appropriate for a theoretical but not practical investigation on inequalities. She tried to combine Sen’s conceptualization of the capability approach to the Nussbaum’s need for a list and then she created her own method.

However, in my opinion, this project shows some limits. At first it is lacking one of Sen’s capability approach pillar: involvement of people. Inside her method she used brainstorming, but she does not involve directly both men and women. I think that it is a serious absence and that she seems giving no importance to the active role that Sen destined to people as “agents” also in the defining capability process.

Another limit is in the definition and in the justification she made for her list of capability. I mean that she put together many items that cannot be compared between different kind of society. Looking at housework, for example, we should explain that all around European countries there are deep differences (e.g. the common behaviour of men in the countries of Northern and Southern Europe: we will see that their approach within housework is very different). Probably the research for capabilities should lead to choose the ones that are relevant for the whole context to which we are referring, and not only to one part.

Therefore,  although from the theoretical side, in terms of defining the research, the work done by Ingrid Robeyns seems to be unexceptionable, as regards the identification of capabilities, both in the method and the substance of capabilities, its activity seems to break away to the basic elements of Sen. The real weakness is in the underlined assumptions of what the list is and the construction of a list, because all the generating process affects the list’s legitimacy .

Lucilla Di Iorio


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