Research Article: Thinking about Later Life: Insights from the Capability Approach

Date Published: February 15, 2018

Publisher: Springer US

Author(s): Manik Gopinath.


A major criticism of mainstream gerontological frameworks is the inability of such frameworks to appreciate and incorporate issues of diversity and difference in engaging with experiences of aging. Given the prevailing socially structured nature of inequalities, such differences matter greatly in shaping experiences, as well as social constructions, of aging. I argue that Amartya Sen’s capability approach (2009) potentially offers gerontological scholars a broad conceptual framework that places at its core consideration of human beings (their values) and centrality of human diversity. As well as identifying these key features of the capability approach, I discuss and demonstrate their relevance to thinking about old age and aging. I maintain that in the context of complex and emerging identities in later life that shape and are shaped by shifting people-place and people-people relationships, Sen’s capability approach offers significant possibilities for gerontological research.

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Critical gerontologists have long argued that social constructions of old age that speak to ‘ideals’ of aging are problematic (Estes et al. 2003; Katz and Calasanti 2015; Minkler and Fadem 2002; Rubinstein and de Medeiros 2015; Stephens 2016). For instance, they contend that such bodies of knowledge neither sufficiently acknowledge and account for diversity and difference in terms of people and contexts, nor give due consideration to the plural nature of things (including identities) that might matter more or less in growing old.

Sen’s capability approach “is a broad normative framework for the evaluation and assessment of individual well-being and social arrangements, the design of policies, and proposals about social change in society” (Robeyns 2005a, p.94). ‘Capabilities’ and ‘functionings’ are two key concepts of the capability approach. Capabilities refer to the ‘genuine opportunities’ that people have to achieve various valued functionings (Sen 1993). In making evaluations, the quality, quantity and diversity of available opportunities also matter (Crocker David 1998). Functionings are various things a person may do or be. These could include ways of being, such as sleeping, being literate, being content, and being a researcher; as well as acts of doing, such as going to the theatre, caring, writing a book, cooking, and gazing out of the window. So, for example, living in a warm and damp-proof house (in a cold climate) is a functioning; and the genuine opportunity that a person has to live in a warm and damp-proof house is the capability for that functioning (Robeyns 2016).

Human diversity is central to the capability approach. Sen writes, “human diversity is no secondary complication to be ignored, or to be introduced later on; it is a fundamental aspect of our interest in equality” (Sen 1992, xi). The novelty of the approach lies not in acknowledging the existence of human diversity, but in incorporating this aspect in developing an account of wellbeing and/or design of social policies. Expanding on diversity, Sen (2009) lists at least five sources of diversity ranging from individual to contextual factors. These extend from heterogeneity amongst people, for instance, in terms of attributes and personal circumstances including age, gender, disability or illness, material resources amongst other things, to variations in the context, such as policies, the physical environment that one inhabits, social relationships, socio-cultural norms, discourses and beliefs which may potentially affect, influence and/or shape a person’s capability. Sen (1992) emphasizes that such differences matter given the prevailing socially structured nature of inequalities that influence what people are able to do and to be. Conceptually and analytically, the capability approach permits theorizing old age in ways that give due consideration to group differences of gender, race, class, age, sexuality, of circumstances and contexts.

The capability approach opens up space for valuing and giving voice to people’s own conceptions of what matters rather than making normative or a priori assumptions or as Calasanti (1996) notes labelling some as ‘special or deviant cases’. This derives partly from its ethically individualistic stance (Robeyns 2005b), in that it is concerned with people’s individual capabilities to choose and lead their lives in ways that matter to them, situated within their own social and cultural contexts. The emphasis in this approach on each person having and enjoying equal (moral) worth aligns with concerns of both feminist scholars (Robeyns 2008) and, more recently, scholars of gerontology (Stephens 2016). This because it permits a conceptual shift from normative ideals (e.g. successful aging, productive aging) and normative reference/evaluative standpoints (e.g., lens of male, healthy and able-bodied, specific racial perspectives, third/fourth age binary) to include voices of people who are often excluded.

Though widely used in fields of study such as education, health, development, disability, gender and welfare economics, the capability approach is not without its criticisms (Clark 2008). At one end are critiques particularly within political philosophy. Framed within justice concerns, these criticisms question the viability and superiority of space of ‘capabilities’ over ‘resources’ (Pogge 2002). At the other end, within welfare economics are concerns with operationalization, measurement and aggregation of capabilities (Martinetti 2006). Others have raised concerns that the capability approach does not sufficiently take into consideration unjust global structures (Dean 2009), or that it limits itself to the individuals as moral unit of concern (Deneulin 2008), or that it does not tackle the question of negative capabilities (Qizilbash 1996).

Unlike other fields, there are few applications of the capability approach within aging research. Of these, some focus on developing and validating a conceptual measure of wellbeing (Grewal et al. 2006) and living standards (Breheny et al. 2016). Such research shows that what older people value is the capability to achieve valued functionings: the inability to pursue capabilities negatively influences wellbeing. Other studies, drawing on insights from capability approach empirically highlight the narrow focus of current mainstream gerontological frameworks (Stephens et al. 2015). These suggest the need to pay attention to the material and social contexts of older people in understanding and supporting the health of older adults regardless of health status. Gilroy (2006) and Stephens (2016) separately drawing on the capability approach offer conceptual critiques of assumptions behind and implications of current aging discourses for wellbeing of older people. Zaidi (2008, 2011) investigates links between income and capabilities amongst older people in the European context. His work suggests that adequate assessments of wellbeing need to complement income measures with a range of other measures.

In this commentary, I pick up on a longstanding critique of mainstream gerontological frameworks, focusing on how social constructions of old age that speak to ideals of aging are simultaneously homogenizing, exclusionary and de-contextualised. Setting out key concepts, I demonstrate how a capability lens offers gerontological scholars a general framework within which to critically engage with experiences of aging.




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