One of the areas in which not much work is done within the CA is in a further unpacking and development of the key notions of functionings and capabilities. Let us take a first look at ways to make the notions ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ more sophisticated (We will have more posts on the question of the precise nature of ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ over the next months).
A first distinction, introduced by Martha Nussbaum, is between ‘[combined] capabilities’, ‘basic capabilities’, ‘internal capabilities’ and ‘external circumstances’. For Nussbaum, combined capabilities, or in shorthand ‘capabilities’, are the answer to the question “what is a person able to do and to be?”. “They are not just the abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the personal, social and economic environment” (2011: 20). Internal capabilities are “the characteristics of a person (personality traits, intellectual and emotional capacities, states of bodily fitness and health, internalized learning, skills of perception and movement)” (2011: 21). Combined capabilities are the internal capabilities in combination with the social, political, economic and cultural conditions of someone’s life. So a government (or other actor) wanting to enhance human capabilities, should try to enhance people’s internal capabilities but also to shape the external conditions in such a way that they are capabilities-enhancing.
One could summarize this as follows:
[combined] capabilities = internal capabilities + external circumstances.
Note that in much earlier work in the 1980s and 1990s, Nussbaum used another terminology, namely
external capabilities = internal capabilities + external circumstances
but Nussbaum (2000: 84, fn 94) mentions that David Crocker convinced her to change this terminology, rightly so I think.
I think that the substantive distinction that Nussbaum makes here is helpful. It helps those who want to apply the CA, or develop it further theoretically, to have a more refined set of notions to work with.
A final category that Nussbaum introduces is basic capabilities. These are “innate powers that are either nurtured or not nurtured… Basic capabilities are the innate faculties of the person that make later development and training possible” (2011: 23-24). The basis capabilities are thus part of what the ‘natural lottery’ gives us – though how the basic capabilities are developed is at least to some extent in human hands.
Here, I think the terminology is confusing. ‘Basic’ was used by Sen in a different sense, and is also used in contemporary political theory/philosophy in yet another different sense, as I explained in post [CA01]. Under those circumstances, in which a term is already used in two widespread ways, I think it is not helpful to introduce it in yet another way, especially not if there would have been equally good alternative terms. Perhaps ‘inborn capabilities’ would have been a better term?
Nussbaum, M. (2000) Women and Human Development: The capabilities approach, Cambridge UP.
Nussbaum, M. (2011) Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, Belknap/Harvard UP.