The Capability Approach

The Capability Approach (CA), developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, is one of the leading paradigms for the analysis of a person’s well-being.  It defines a person’s well-being in terms of the beings and doings (the functionings) a person achieves and her capability to choose among different combinations of such functionings. 

               CA views well-being as dependent on the “doings and beings” – functionings for short – that a person achieves and can achieve.  In order to achieve a functioning such as being mobile, the individual has to have command over certain commodities (e.g. a bicycle) and must be capable of using such commodities (e.g. riding a bicycle).  Formally, a person’s capability is determined by her resources (represented by the budget set) on the one hand and her talents, skills and handicaps (represented by the set of utilisation functions) on the other.  Those ways of life that are feasible for the person, in terms of both material conditions and her personal features, constitute the elements of her capability set.  The functionings the person actually chooses from this set are called her achieved functionings.  The person’s well-being is now taken to be a function of these achieved functionings as well as of the capability set, i.e. all functionings that are feasible for her.  Put differently, in CA the well-being of a person depends on the one hand on the functionings she achieves and on the freedom of choice she enjoys on the other hand.

               The nature and conception of well-being is a core concern of many disciplines.  For a long time research on well-being focused either on welfare in monetary terms or on mental states like satisfaction and happiness.  John Rawls, in his “Theory of Justice” (1971), famously argued for the importance of rights and other procedural considerations.  It was the Capability Approach (CA), though, which not only broadened the conceptual foundation of well-being to a multidimensional theory but also provided a basis for studies in many disciplines as well as for interdisciplinary research on a variety of issues, including the analysis and measurement of poverty, health care policy, educational justice, participation, evaluation of development projects and assessment of living standards.  CA is nowadays used in disciplines such as welfare economics, ethics,

development economics, developments ethics, sociology, health economics, political philosophy, philosophy of education, and psychology.  Furthermore, policy makers make use of the paradigm, for instance in the Human Development Reports of the UNDP, the reports on poverty and richness issued by the German government and the concept of social monitoring in the European Union.

(Visit the website of the Human Development and Capability Association for more information: