Understanding and investigating relationality in the capability approach

John Owens* (Corresponding Author), Vikki Entwistle, Luke K Craven, Ina Conradie

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
4 Downloads (Pure)


The capability approach (CA) is a framework for understanding, assessing, and promoting the quality of human lives and social justice. It focuses on capabilities – people’s freedoms and opportunities to live in valuable ways. Although its proponents readily acknowledge that capabilities can depend on personal, social and environmental factors, little attention has been paid to the ontology of capabilities (what they are and how they are caused and constituted) and the inherent relationality of the approach is often not well followed through in research and practice. This, we suggest, leaves the CA vulnerable to misinterpretation and misappropriation. In this paper we draw on the complementary lenses of critical realism, hermeneutics and complexity theory to develop an explicitly relational ontology of capabilities that explains how capabilities, as potential for ways of being or forms of doing, are generated by both personal agency and material and social structures. We demonstrate how these lenses can illuminate the relational constitution of particular capabilities through reference to a composite case involving a man called Bert and his healthcare team. We outline how our relational ontology of capabilities can demand and support more theoretically coherent and socially just approaches to CA informed practice, research and policy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)86-104
Number of pages19
JournalJournal for the Theory of Social Behaviour
Issue number1
Early online date17 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 16 Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

The idea for this paper arose when the authors met during the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA) conference in Washington (2015). Aspects of the work were presented at subsequent HDCA conferences in Cape Town (2017) and London (2019) and at the International Association for Critical Realism conference in Southampton (2019). The authors appreciate helpful comments from participants, especially Erik Jansen, Gareth Wall, Jonathan Gross, Nick Wilson, Su-Ming Khoo, Margaret Archer and Tony Lawson. Insights for the case study were generated in large part during projects funded by the Chief Scientist Office for Scotland (CZG 2 425 led by Phyllis Easton), The Australian Research Council (DP140103863), The Health Foundation (7209), and in conversation with Vivian Zilo, founder of the Iliso Care Society, Khayelitsha, Cape Town. We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments
Funding information:

Chief Scientist Office, Grant/Award Number: CZG 2 425; Australian Research
Council, Grant/Award Number: DP140103863; The Health Foundation, Grant/Award Number: 7209


  • capability approach
  • capabilities
  • complexity
  • critical realism
  • hermeneutics
  • ontology
  • social theory


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