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Capability approaches were defined by Robeyns as "a broad normative framework for the evaluation and assessment of individual well-being and social arrangements, the design of policies, and proposals about social changes" (Lozano, Boni, Peris, & Huesop, 2012, p. 133). Capacity was proposed by Collin, Notley and Third as a synonym that better describes emphasizes that "human flourishing is not simply embodied in the individual but is produced relationally through interaction with social arrangements and material objects" (2018, p. 26). This article will refer to capacity despite author word choices.

Sen (1979, via Lozano et al.) first introduced the framework from the angle of economics, critisising utilitarian welfare economies. He advocated a shift from focussing on aggregate welfare measures to individual wellbeing.

Capacities are chosen by individuals (with agency) from a range of possibilities, by grace of being most beneficial to their wellbeing and being available to them resource-wise. Agency here is equally important for collective action and participation in democracies. This makes the goal of education - from a capacity approach - to empower people. The focus is therefore on allowing people to be autonomously "self-aware, self-governing, and capable of recognizing and respecting the humanity of all our fellow human beings" (Nussbaum, 2002, p. 290).

Ten Central Human Functional Capacities[edit]

Martha Nussbaum (2000, p. 78) offers a list of essential capacities:

  1. Life
  2. Bodily health
  3. Bodily integrity
  4. Sense, imagination, and thought
  5. Emotions
  6. Practical reason
  7. Affiliation
  8. Other species (viz. living with a concern for)
  9. Play
  10. Control over one’s political and material Environment

Lozano et al. name these as requirements for "a minimal agreement on social justice" (2012, p. 134); a society failing to assure these cannot be said to be just.

Nussbaum offered further insight by proposing three capacities that are crucial in contemporary society (quoted from Lozano et al., 2012):

  1. "Capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions"
  2. "People’s ability to see themselves not simply as citizens of some local region or group but also, and above all, as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern"
  3. "Narrative imagination[;] ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself"

In connection to education[edit]

Sen (2003) argued that the ability to exercise freedom is dependent on education received. Nussbaum did as well by stating that "education is the key to all human capabilities" (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 322, via Lozano et al.). Capacities can thus be understood as allowing access to new possibility spaces (my term -Ivar).

Terzi (2007) lists 7 basic capacities for educational functioning:

  1. Literacy
  2. Numeracy
  3. Sociality and participation
  4. Learning dispositions
  5. Physical activities
  6. Science and technology
  7. Practical reason

Walker (2006) lists eight basic capacities for higher education specifically:

  1. Practical reason
  2. Educational resilience
  3. Knowledge and imagination
  4. Learning disposition
  5. Social relations and social networks
  6. Respect, dignity and recognition
  7. Emotional integrity
  8. Bodily integrity

Since Capacities are context-specific and dependent on social structures, educational facilitation should go beyond content by considering how systems can be made equitable.

Capacity vs. Competence[edit]

The Competence approach is a rivalling conception, which guided higher education for the past decade (Lozano et al., 2012):

For the OECD [Competence], the objective of higher education is: 'a successful life and well-functioning society' (Rychen and Salganik, 2003, p. 3). For Nussbaum [Capability], the purpose of higher education from the capabilities approach is: 'a cultivation of the whole human being for the functions of citizenship and life generally' (Nussbaum, 1997, p. 9).
— Lozano et al., 2012

Lozano, Boni, Peris and Hueso compare the Capacities approach to the Competence approach, concluding that "Competencies are externally demand-orientated as they are intended to provide the individual with the appropriate skills to solve problems that arise from outside, that is from other individuals or institutions in society. In contrast, capabilities are not primarily externally demand-orientated. They are guided by the exercise of individual freedom to choose and develop the desired lifestyle, and therefore the values individuals consider to be desirable and appropriate" (p. 139-140). Therefore, capacity is grounded in autonomy, whereas competency is grounded in contractualism.

The Competence view also regards education as a service to customers, which would increase human capital for its society. The Capacity view is more prone to see education as a service to citizens (Lozano et al., 2012). There is therefore a political dimension to the Capacity view in education: contemporary society should not necessarily be catered to, but - if needed - challenged and reimagined.

Another difference is that Competence views participation and dialogue as means to an end ("a successful life"), making education functional. In the Capacity view participation and dialogue are central tenets of its underlying ethics system, which are not so much functional as ethical and normative; it is not about the achievement, but about the choice to achieve. Through this agency learners are empowered to change their environment, which competence-buiding does not inspire per se.

The two categories also map differently to Habermas' categories of Interest; competence focuses on technical interest; capacity on emancipatory interest.


  • Collin, P. J., Notley, T., & Third, A. (2018). Chapter 2 - Cultivating (Digital) Capacities: A Role for Social Living Labs? In Digital Participation through Social Living Labs (pp. 19–35). Chandos Publishing.
  • Lozano J. Felix, Boni Alejandra, Peris Jordi, & Hueso Andrés. (2012). Competencies in Higher Education: A Critical Analysis from the Capabilities Approach. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 46(1), 132–147.


  • Nussbaum, M. C. (1997). Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Reprint edition). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Nussbaum, M. (2002). Education for Citizenship in an Era of Global Connection. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 21(4–5), 289–303.
  • Nussbaum, M. C. (2001). Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (1St Edition edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nussbaum, M. C. (2006). Education and Democratic Citizenship: Capabilities and Quality Education. Journal of Human Development, 7(3), 385–395.
  • Robeyns, I. (2005). The Capability Approach: a theoretical survey. Journal of Human Development, 6(1), 93–117.
  • Sen, A. (1979). Equality of what? tanner lecture on human values. tanner lectures. Stanford university.
  • Sen, A. (1999). On Ethics and Economics. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from
  • Sen, A. (2003). Development as capability expansion. Readings in Human Development.
  • Terzi, L. (2007). The Capability to Be Educated. In Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach and Social Justice in Education (pp. 25–43). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
  • Walker, M. (2005). Higher education pedagogies. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).