post-autistic economics review
Issue no. 17,  4 December 2002
article 5



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In Defence of Amartya Sen

Ingrid Robeyns    (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)

© Copyright 2002 Ingrid Robeyns



In Issue 15 of the Post-Autistic Economics Review, Emmanuelle Benicourt (2002) argues that Amartya Sen’s capability approach remains “undeniably neoclassical”, and is “just a variation of standard microeconomics”.  She also categorizes Sen as a traditional mainstream economist. I wish to explain why I believe that these views are fundamentally mistaken. 

The capability approach reconsidered

Sen’s capability approach has its roots both in welfare economics (Sen 1985, 1987), where it was the logical extension of his earlier work on the informational poverty of utilitarian calculus (e.g. Sen 1979), as well as in the philosophical literature on inequality (1980), where it was proposed as an alternative to both the utilitarian and the resourcist paradigms. The capability approach advocates that in making evaluations of well-being or policies, we focus on what people can do and be, instead of exclusively on their mental states (utilitarianism) or on the goods that they have at their disposal (resourcism). Over time, Sen and others have extended the scope of the capability approach to study such divers issues as development and development ethics (Gasper 1997, Sen 1999), the evaluation of small-scale NGO-projects (Alkire 2002), eating disorders and famines (Lavaque-Manty 2001), unemployment and inactivity (Burchardt 2002), gender inequality in western societies (Robeyns 2002), to mention just a few. At this moment PhD students are using the capability framework to study topics such as well-being of disabled people, environmental law and climate change, and the impact of a financial crisis on people’s well-being. The Human Development Report, which is currently (one of) the strongest alternative frameworks to the neoliberalist “Washington consensus”, is largely based on the normative foundations of Sen’s capability approach. In other words, the capability approach has gradually developed into a paradigm, which moves between and beyond existing disciplines, and which is applied in many more domains than only welfare economics or liberal philosophy.

Is the capability approach just mainstream economics?

Does the capability approach make a difference with a standard mainstream economic analysis of these issues? I think that the existing work in the capability paradigm strongly suggest that it does. Some examples can illustrate this.

Sabina Alkire (2002) showed, based on fieldwork in Pakistan, that a cost-benefit evaluation that only focuses on material (financial) change, will not capture the changes in a number of important capabilities, such as self-respect. NGO projects that are not viable from a narrow economistic point of view may lead to many non-material beneficial changes in poor people’s lives.

Tania Burchardt (2002) developed a method to measure a person’s capability for employment, instead of their achieved functioning (thus their real opportunity to hold a job, instead of the job-holding itself). By applying that method to British panel data, she can empirically distinguish between those who do not hold a job because they do not have a real opportunity to hold one, and those who do not hold a job although they could have one if they wished so. As Burchardt concludes, measuring employment capability would be more adequate than relying upon standard unemployment statistics.

In my own PhD-dissertation (Robeyns 2002), I first theoretically analysed (and empirically illustrated) why mainstream economics is fundamentally unsuited to study over-all gender inequality in well-being. A capability perspective, in contrast, allows us to see ambiguities and complexities that a pure utility- or income based analysis cannot reveal. For example, while women in western societies are worse off than men in many dimensions, there are also strong suggestions that men fare worse with respect to interpersonal relations and social support. ‘Emancipation’ then becomes much less an issue of getting women into jobs, but more radically about abolishing gender as we know it.

Reinventing the wheel?

Of course, it is often argued that ultimately the capability approach is doing the work that sociologists and other social scientists have been doing for ages. I agree that much of the work that is done in other social sciences is very similar to analyses that are done in the capability framework. However, a crucial distinction is that the capability approach gives a consistent normative framework to place these scattered studies, thus providing a sort of theoretical umbrella for existing empirical work. Moreover, the capability approach makes it theoretically very clear how different dimensions, such as commodities, observable outcomes and unobservable opportunities are related. Empirical and theoretical work, or micro and macro work, thus become much more connected. In addition, because of its inter- or post-disciplinary character, the capability approach offers a framework in which scholars and policy makers from different disciplines can easily meet.

This inter- or post-disciplinary character of the capability approach is one of its most interesting aspects. In my opinion, most fields in economics are more connected to related fields in other social sciences or the humanities, than to other fields in economics. The capability approach offers a paradigm for those utopian idealists who are dreaming of breaking down the walls between the disciplines and to do research and teaching based on topics and links between fields, instead of disciplinary assumptions and methodologies.

Of course, all this does not imply that the capability approach cannot substantially be improved or refined, or that it is completely ready to deliver; therefore much more work needs to be done – work that is currently undertaken by scholars across the disciplines, including many economists.

Sen’s support for economists outside the neoclassical mainstream

Amartya Sen’s work is extremely wide-ranging. Some of his work might be labelled mainstream-like because of its highly mathematical character. But few of these articles model behaviour; instead, most are about measurement or social choice. I doubt that this work should even be labelled neoclassical, because Sen has criticised many core neoclassical assumptions, like exclusively self-interested behaviour or the dogma of optimisation. In addition, Sen has written scores of articles that are definitely non-mainstream.  And although he has spoken of himself as a “mainstream” economist, he has added that for him that mainstream is economics in the tradition of Joan Robinson, Marx, Kaldor and so forth.  Thus, when Sen calls himself a mainstream economist, he is trying to rescue economics from the narrow-minded, imperialist discipline that it has become.

I think we must make a firm distinction between an economist who is a traditional mainstream economist, and those who, from time to time, use neoclassical mainstream tools. Moreover, we should not fear or condemn economists who use mainstream tools (1) if they have a positive encouraging attitude towards non-neoclasscial economists, and (2) if they do not try to dominate them, for example, by only giving jobs to mainstream economists or by refusing on methodological grounds to publish articles of other persuasions. Sen cannot be accused of any of this. Sen has done much to make economics more inclusive for economists with non-traditional views, and has given much personal support to such economists and their organisations (see also Fine 2001). He is, for example, a patron of the Cambridge Journal of Economics, and has given much support to the International Association for Feminist Economics and its journal. On a personal note I want to add that when I was his PhD-student he actively encouraged me to do what I believed in, without being straightjacket by disciplinary or methodological requirements – a situation that many contemporary economics PhD students can only dream of.

Using Sen’s work to develop an alternative economics

In recent months, several authors in the Post-Autistic Economics Review  have argued that we need to focus our attention on trying to develop an alternative economics. I believe that much of the constructive work that has to be done can potentially benefit from Sen’s work. Or, to use Ben
Fine’s (2001: 12) words:

[Sen] has not been captured by economics imperialism and, unlike its practitioners, he opens and is open to debate across key issues. The contrast with mainstream economics is sharp, where the language let alone the ideas necessary for a genuine political economy of capitalism are precluded by its reductionism. Ultimately, the nature and extent of Sen’s lasting contribution will depend upon taking his work forward critically rather than allowing it to be captured and transformed by the dismal science. Political economy may not always be able to stand on Sen’s shoulders in the coming period, but he certainly provides many weapons in addressing the social, the macro, the material, and the cultural in the intellectual battles that lie ahead in defining the “economic” for social science.”

Indeed, it would be a capital mistake not to regard Sen and his work as an ally in our struggle to open up economics, even if Sen himself prefers not to jump on the barricades, but to provide us with some fundamental concepts and tools that can be used to provide the hard-needed alternative.


Alkire, Sabina (2002). Valuing Freedoms. Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction, Oxford University
Emmanuelle Benicourt, “Is Amartya Sen a Post-Autistic Economist?”,
post-autistic economics review, issue no.
       15, September 4, 2002, article 4.
Burchardt, Tania (2002). “Constraint and Opportunity: Women’s Employment in Britain”, paper presented at the
        conference  on promoting women’s capabilities, Cambridge, 9-10 September 2002.
Fine, Ben (2001). “Amartya Sen: A Partial and Personal Appreciation”, London, SOAS: CDPR Discussion Paper
Gasper, Des (1997), “Sen’s Capability Approach and Nussbaum’s Capability Ethics”, Journal of International
       9/2, 281-302.
Lavaque-Manty Myka (2001) “Food, Functioning and Justice: From Famines to Eating Disorders”, Journal of
       Political Philosophy,
9/2 150-167.
Robeyns, Ingrid (2002), Gender Inequality. A Capability Perspective. PhD-thesis, Cambridge University.
Sen, Amartya (1979) “Personal Utilities and Public Judgements: What’s wrong with Welfare Economics?”,
         Economic Journal, 89, pp. 537-558.
____ (1980) “Equality of What?” in: S. McMurrin (ed.) Tanner lectures on Human Values, Vol 1, Cambridge  
         University Press.
____ (1985). Commodities and Capabilities, Amsterdam, North Holland.
____ (1987). The Standard of Living, Cambridge University Press.
____ (1999) Development as Freedom. Knopf publishers.

Ingrid Robeyns
( was one of the authors of the Cambridge 27 proposal, “Opening Up Economics”. She is now a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Amsterdam, working on the capability approach and the welfare state.


Ingrid Robeyns,  “In Defence of Amartya Senpost-autistic economics review, issue no. 17, December 4, 2002, article 5..