The capability approach to social system design

This is my third and probably last consecutive blog post on the capability approach in about one-and-a-half week (here are 1 and 2). The capability approach was first articulated by the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen in the 1980s. He has collaborated closely with philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who has provided the most influential version of a capability theory of justice. For more information see Thomas Well’s article on Sen’s Capability Approach. What interests me is the conceptual relationships between individualist foundation of the capability approach, freedom, development and the systems approach, especially C. West Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. I will make use of Nussbaum’s understanding of Aristotle’s ethics.

Social systems        …. can be anything, from a family to an enterprise, a project, a nation, a world region, or even an individual on his own, considering the complexities of the human subconscious. Churchman uses the term social systems a lot, most of the time in the short form ‘systems’ as in ‘the systems approach’ or ‘inquiring systems’. Aristotle was thinking mostly of the Hellenic city-state, the polis, as it had evolved from the 8th century BC onward (pdf with transcript of lecture on Nicomachean ethics here). In most of Sen’s research the social system corresponds to the nation state, especially in Asia and Africa.

Capability deprivation    … is the way in which Sen describes poverty. Nussbaum’s list of 10 central human capabilities is described here. So a landless farmer in India lacks control over his environment, he also suffers of poor health, especially poor reproductive health if most of his children die or suffer of growth retardation. Sen stresses the need to abolish ‘unfreedoms’ such   as   poverty,   famine,   starvation,   undernourishment,   tyranny,   poor   economic opportunities, systematic social deprivation,  neglect  of  public  facilities,  intolerance,  and  over-activity of repressive states. That’s quite something else than just having a low income. In the adjacent concept map I grouped Nussbaum’s list of capabilities in three categories: health (with three capabilities), reason (with two capabilities), and sense-making as in ‘making sense of one’s life or behavior in relation to certain choices’ (five capabilities).

Sensemaking     The five sense-making capabilities in my categorization are imagination/thought, emotions, affiliation, nature/other species, and play. They are social-emotional-creative in nature and seem to be loosely associated with developing an understanding of oneself as a self-actualizing human in relation to the middle layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (the ‘pyramid’). In a previous post I linked the concept “sense of meaning” to 5 of the 10 capabilities. It is clear, though, that it is not self-evident to map Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on Nussbaum’s list of central capabilities, let alone to add a term like sensemaking to indicate the subset of capabilities that are not mostly physical (health) or rational (practical reason, management/control) in nature. That’s a lot of caveats, all for the sake of simplification to enable a better understanding.

Teleology      Self-actualization in the Maslowian sense may correspond roughly with a sense of one’s inner telos in the Aristotelian sense, which may guide one to leading a more full and complete life. Aristotle’s ethics are based on a teleological philosophy, which claims that the things around us have natural ends or purposes (sing.: telos), which are expressed or represented by their proper functioning. Health is a precondition for following one’s telos, while reason, especially practical reason, is one’s main tool, mostly by means of deliberation. Churchman argues that generally it is much easier to understand humans in teleological terms than by using mechanical categories (Systems approach and its enemies, p. 39).

Development   … is the core aim of international co-operation. The concept of development is not always well explained or understood. Development is in the first place associated with the creation of social systems (systems with people in them, see above). In the case of an agricultural development system in the South this may include a broad range of subsystems, including a natural ecosystem, an irrigation and drainage system, an agricultural mechanization system, an agricultural research system, a farmer communication system, an agricultural extension system etc. At a higher level there may be a political system, an administrative system, a health system, an education system, an economic system. All of these systems must work together synergistically for the best result. Development is also the managed increase in freedoms and capabilities to allow people to create more development in sense 1. Some freedoms and capabilities are in themselves gratifying and therefore worthy of development. That’s meaning 3.

Deliberation     …. Is a relatively slow process of weighing and examining pros and cons (and systemic inter-relationships using stakeholder perspectives) in decision-making. It assumes that Nussbaum’s 10 capabilities are sufficiently operational, especially when it comes to fathoming the inner telos of the key stakeholders and the rational understanding of the social systems concerned. Fathoming the inner telos is a whole-person issue with many dimensions, including personal and interpersonal ones related to credibility, validity, probability (or uncertainty), realism (idealism/materialism), trust, honesty, faith, expertise, motivation, attitudes, intentions, world views, personal growth and so on.

Design       People design themselves and the systems they live in. They have done so for the past 3 to 5 million years (see here). It is relatively fast non-evolutionary change that takes place on an evolutionary foundation. Design principles must take into account both the biological and psychological (so social) capabilities. The capability approach exhibits some of these principles, but so does the systems approach. The first is more people-oriented, the second more systems oriented. They are both generally applicable to problem situations such as development problems. There seems to be no particular difficulty that might prevent their combined application. In the case of the systems approach one can use the capability approach to look at the position of the beneficiary or client category. In the case of the capability approach one can use the dialectical systems approach to structure the deliberation. Try it, e.g. using a simple version of the dialectical systems approach as explained in Wicked Solutions.


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