Andy Blunden June 2004

Sen on Participation

India: Development and Participation. Oxford University Press, Jean Drze and Amartya Sen, 2002.

This article is supseded by: Amartya Sen on Well-being and Critical Voice.

This book is Sen at his best. The current 2002 edition is an update of a 1995 edition entitled “India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity,” and the modification of the title reflects a move to make the notion at the center of Sen’s thinking more precise. Indeed, for those not involved in public policy in India itself, this is the central notion and the real value of Sen’s work. The notion which we will examine here finds its best exposition in this broad-ranging, political-economic commentary on development in Sen’s native land. By contrast. I regard as a desperately inadequate, the exposition it has Sen’s more “theoretical” works such as the recent “Rationality and Freedom.”

Sen is very much not someone inclined towards a single solution to social problems, or a single rule-of-thumb for such solutions, but there is nevertheless a strong, unitary theme to Sen’s commentary, and at risk of oversimplification, it is worthwhile bringing this out.

The discussion (in Chapter 7) of “Gender Equality and Women’s Agency” is paradigmatic. It is not only paradigmatic though, for Sen believes that the eradication of the anti-female bias which pervades much of Indian society is itself central to the solution of all the social problems in India in its own right.

“The importance of women’s agency, of course, is not confined to the field of demographic change. When the creative abilities and personal contributions of one half of the society are stifled by constant subjugation, in addition to the drudgery of constant domestic work and child-bearing, social opportunities are suppressed in a wide range of domains. Even the level of economic production is likely to be higher; other things being equal, in a society where women are able to engage in a diverse range of activities than in a society where their life is confined to domestic work. The realms of politics and social reform can also be considerably enriched by the active participation of women. [p. 272]

“... the agency of women as a force for change is one of the most neglected aspects of the development literature, and this neglect applies as much to India as elsewhere. There has, happily, been a growing awareness in recent years of the disadvantaged predicament of women in Indian society. That understanding of the victimisation of women has to be supplemented by a recognition of women as agents of social change. It is not merely that more justice must be received by women, but also that social justice can be achieved only through the active agency of women. The suppression of women from participation in social, political, and economic life hurts the people as a whole, not just women. The emancipation of women is an integral part of social progress, not just a ‘women’s issue’. [p. 273-4]

Still, in large measure what Sen has to say about how women’s oppression in India can be overcome, applies also to what he has to say about the plight of low caste people, people living in poor areas of the country and poverty and oppression in general.

I will summarise Sen’s notion by means of a series of five concepts, each of which in turn takes a step closer to the essential notion of what is needed to lead a good life in society: (1) commodities, wealth and value, (2) functioning, (3) capability, (4) voice and finally (5) critical voice.

(2) Sen’s critique of wealth, as the magnitude of command over commodities that one has, is most well-known, and in this book he shows how far the gap can be between all the measures of quality of life, on one hand, and the level of economic growth and productivity, on the other.

In Kerala, life expectancy is 74, infant mortality 1.4%, fertility 1.8, female:male ratio 1.06, literacy at age 7+ 88% for women and 94% for men, per capita household expenditure R810 pm and the economic growth rate 5%, while the percentage of population living below the poverty line 18% and 15% are poor by ownership of durable goods.

In Haryana, life expectancy is 64, infant mortality 7%, fertility 3.4, female:male ratio 0.86, literacy at age 7+ 56% for women and 79% for men, per capita household expenditure R770 pm and the economic growth rate 3%, while the percentage of population living below the poverty line 15% and 11% are poor by ownership of durable goods.

Thus according to standard economic measures, there is less poverty in Haryana, but how can this be squared with the fact that in Kerala, people live 10 years longer, their fertility has fallen to that of a Western European countries and everyone can read, while in Haryana, female children fail to reach adulthood, infant mortality five times as high, and illiteracy is rife, even among men?

In the course of reading this book, we learn a lot about the history and public policies of Kerala, and also Himalcha Pradesh, which have allowed them to provide a decent quality of life for their citizens, by many indices as good as any comparable country in the world, while ill-health, ignorance and injustice prevail in many other states. The State Domestic Product (SDP) has some, but a relatively minor impact on the divergent quality of life enjoyed in the different states of India.

What we learn about Kerala includes the fact that Kerala was not subsumed under the British Raj and tackled the problem of elementary education 100 years ago, that a substantial proportion of the population followed matrilinear inheritance and in general women have always had a greater say in Kerala. A succession of governments, including both Communist and non-communist, have instituted progressive land reforms and built impressive education and public health systems.

In Kerala and Sri Lanka “the common heritage of less unequal gender relations, less male-dominated property rights, and a greater prominence of women in influential economic, social and political activities) appears to be a causal factor of major importance.” [p. 273]

Thus, with even a much smaller level of wealth, a citizen of Kerala has access to public health and education, and is able to achieve a much higher level of functioning than their sisters and brothers in Haryana or neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.

Thus, in very clear and practical terms, the distinction between wealth (understood in the narrow economic sense of the word) and functioning is made clear. The distinction is made good in Kerala, and other states like Himalcha Pradesh, chiefly in the form of well-functioning social services. It cannot be precisely measured, but measures of longevity and literacy, functionings which every human being aspires to, give more or less unambiguous indications which are sufficient justification for appropriate public policies. In could be noted that a decade earlier, the comparison of growth rates in Haryana and Kerala were reversed, with Haryana (4%) showing superior growth to Kerala (2.3%), so it could be said that in addition to the intrinsic value of the functionings achieved in Kerala, they served an instrumental value as well, in achieving higher growth a decade later.

One of the clear implications of this view is that the sacrifice of public services on the altar of privatisation is unjustifiable. Life expectancy depends on public health expenditure and little else. Sen is justifiably impatient with the fact that debates over nuclear and space technology, privatisation and industrial policy dominate national debate, while elementary education and health services — the real drivers of development — are neglected.

(3) The next stage in development of Sen’s conception of the “true” measure of the good life is “capability.” Capability includes an explicit element of freedom in the conception functioning, being the whole set of possible functionings from which a person is in a position to choose. Self-evidently, “capability” is very difficult to measure, but its meaning is intrinsically clear enough.

“One way of seeing development is in terms of the expansion of the real freedoms that the citizens enjoy to pursue the objectives they have reason to value, and in this sense the expansion of human capability can be, broadly, seen as the central feature of the process of development.

“The ‘capability’ of a person is a concept that has distinctly Aristotlean roots. The life of a person can be seen as a sequence of things the person does, or states of being he or she achieves, and these constitute a collection of ‘functionings’ — doings and beings the person achieves. ‘Capability’ refers to the alternative combinations of functionings from which a person can choose. Thus, the notion of capability is essentially one of freedom — the range of options a person has in deciding what kind of life to lead. Poverty of a life, in this view, lies not merely in the impoverished state in which the person actually lives, but also in the lack of real opportunity — given by social constraints as well as personal circumstances — to choose other types of living. Even the relevance of low incomes, meagre possessions, and other aspects of what are standardly seen as economic poverty relates ultimately to their role in curtailing capabilities (that is, their role in severely restricting the choices people have to lead valuable and valued lives). Poverty is, thus, ultimately a matter of ‘capability deprivation’, and note has been taken of that basic connection not just at the conceptual level, but also in economic investigation or in social and political analyses.” [p. 36]

Thus the element of freedom has both an intrinsic value, inasmuch as people enjoy freedom, and also an instrumental value, as it allows people to choose to lead the kind of life that they want to achieve, rather than one determined for them by others.

Being able to choose a life worth living goes much further than an individual being free from constraints in their own choices; it implies the real possibility of changing social arrangements which affect them and determine the choices which are open to them. In this respect, Sen’s critique of China’s one-child policy is interesting; he claims that the current fertility rate in China (1.9) is consistent by international comparisons, with its rate of female literacy and labour-force participation, and no additional limitation in fertility could be attributed to the one-child policy. On the other hand, the female:male ratio is 0.94 and falling, pointing to the oppressive effect of the one-child policy and the continuance of underlying patriarchal prejudices.

Conceptually, the notion of ‘capability’ is also clearer than ‘functioning’. The writer or artist living in a garret is not poorer than the unemployed family living on TV and pizza. It is the availability of a certain functioning which indicates the extent to which a person enjoys a good life, rather than whether they actually choose to follow that road.

(4) This leads Sen to the fourth level of refinement of the notion of the good life, namely agency or voice. In order to be able to lead a good life, people must have a voice in the affairs of society, otherwise, the rich and powerful, the bureaucracy and political leaders, will ignore their interests and their life will be determined for them. In most of India, the underprivileged do not have a voice in public affairs, and decisions are made about military spending, grain prices, location of health services, priorities for investment, and so forth, which serve the interest of small but powerful interest groups.

Like ‘capability’, voice has both instrumental value (to ensure social arrangements which offer real possibilities) and intrinsic value, as to have a voice is to be a citizen, to be the subject of one’s own life, and truly free.

A crucial application of the concept of voice is Sen’s analysis of the problem of the fertility and mortality rates in India. The single most important factor in reducing fertility and mortality is women’s agency.

“Female literacy ... is unambiguously found to have a negative and statistically significant impact on under-five mortality, even after controlling for male literacy. This is consistent with extensive evidence of a close relationship between female literacy and child survival in many countries including India.” [p. 250-1]

“... variables relating to women’s agency (in this case female literacy) often play a much more important role in promoting social well-being (in particular, child survival) than variables relating to the general level of opulence or overall economic growth in the society. These findings have important practical implications, given that both types of variables can be influenced through public action, but require very different priorities of intervention.” [p. 251]

“There is a close connection between women’s well-being and women’s agency in bringing about a change in the fertility pattern. ... It is, thus, understandable that reductions in birth rates have often been associated with enhancement of women’s status and voice. ... the only [variables] that have a statistically significant association with fertility are female literacy and female labour-force participation. Here again, statistical analysis is consistent with a causal understanding of the importance of women’s agency.” [p. 253]

The message for public policy is clear then: if you want to do something about the plight of underprivileged or oppressed groups in society, then it is no good just waiting for “economic development” to do the job:

“gender inequality does not decline automatically with the process of economic growth ... gender inequality is not only a social failure in itself, it also contributes to other social failures. ...

and in fact:

“economic growth leads to some intensification of gender bias ... Achieving greater gender equality involves a process of active social change which is not automatically linked with economic growth.” [p. 245]

and conversely:

“political action has succeeded in empowering disadvantaged social groups even in the absence of any significant economic improvement (sometimes even in the face of growing impoverishment)” [p. 358]

What is required is to facilitate the group in question gaining a voice, or agency. Further, an oppressed group (such as women) gaining a voice has ramifications which go way beyond the specific interests of the group in question, inasmuch as the whole society gains from the independent voice of a new agency.

In relation to women’s voice, Sen looks to a range of factors which will facilitate its development, most particularly female literacy (even if the reading material is saturated with patriarchal norms) and labour-force participation (though the latter has complex ramifications if not coupled with other changes). But he also highlights the centrality of social movements (such as the women’s movement) in achieving any such social change.

“Finally, the contrast between Uttar Pradesh and Kerala also points to the special importance of a particular type of public action: the political organisation of deprived sections of the society. In Kerala, informed political activism, building partly on the achievement of mass literacy, has played a crucial role in the reduction of social inequalities based on caste, gender, and (to some extent) class. Political organisation has also been important in enabling disadvantaged groups to take an active part in the general processes of economic development, public action, and social change. ... the concentration of political power in the hands of privileged sections of the society has contributed, perhaps more than anything else, to a severe neglect of the basic needs of disadvantaged groups” [p. 93-4]

Sen is frequently critical of agencies active in Indian society; not only the military establishment, corporations, the middle class, the bureaucracy, but also the farmers’ lobby (forcing up grain prices during a drought), the public sector unions (demanding high wages and resisting inspection) and left parties (ignoring the casual workers). However, in every case Sen advocates not the curtailment of agency, but the building of countervailing agency on the part of those disadvantaged by the dominant agents.

Interestingly, Sen also goes into the relationships through which agency (or self-determination, or self-consciousness) are formed. To this end, he distinguishes between “solidarity” and “assertion.”

“In principle, the problem of voicelessness can be overcome in two ways. One is assertion (or more precisely self-assertion) of the underprivileged through political organisation. The other is solidarity with the underprivileged on the part of other members of the society, whose interests and commitments are broadly linked, and who are often better placed o advance the cause of the disadvantaged by virtue of their own privileges (e.g., formal education, access to the media, economic resources, political connections). Both self-assertion and solidarity may be regarded as important parts of the creation of social opportunities, with intrinsic as well as instrumental value.” [p. 29]

“On the whole, however, the potential for assertion of the underprivileged remains vastly under-utilised in India. Large sections of the population have very limited opportunities to speak for themselves. The daily struggle for survival leaves them with little leisure to engage in political activity, and efforts to do so sometimes invite physical repression. Lack of formal education and access to information restricts their ability to intervene in public discussions and electoral debates, or to make effective use of the media, the courts, and other democratic institutions. Lack of adequate collective organisations further enhance this political marginalisation.” [p. 29]

Sen makes valid qualification on the role of solidarity, but in my opinion, still leaves out finer distinctions between solidarity (which supports not only welfare but agency itself) as distinct from political philanthropy or simple instrumental alliance (which undermines agency while promoting welfare):

“Ultimately, both assertion an solidarity are needed for effective political action. However, there is a danger of over-reliance on the solidarity element, when the assertion element is relatively weak. One specific issue is that solidarity, on its own, is a somewhat undependable basis of authentic representation of the interests of the underprivileged. Indeed, solidarity can have diverse roots (e.g. empathy, class or caste consciousness, sharing a common ‘enemy’), and typically coexists with significant differences of perspective among the concerned parties. Those who lead solidarity-based social movements often have their own perspectives, motivations and ideologies, which need not be entirely congruent with the interests of those whom they seek to represent. While the victims of hunger, illiteracy, unemployment, ill health, violence and other basic deprivations tend to feel the pinch when their interests are misrepresented, this does not always apply to those who speak or act on their behalf.”

“Overcoming voicelessness is not just a question of more enlightened ‘solidarity’, but also, ultimately, of much further ‘assertion’ on the part of underprivileged sections of the society. There have been important developments in that respect in recent years, including the spread of working-class organisation in the much neglected informal sector. This particular field of political activism is crucial for the future of Indian development and democracy. [p. 32]

(5) Sen then goes one step further in refining the concept of “voice.” This arises in the discussion of ‘son preference’, the practice of using abortion or other means to choose a son rather than a daughter. This practice is more marked in the higher ‘martial castes’ than in the lower castes, and the struggle for survival does not give the poor the option of choosing a son rather than a daughter. Thus, it has been observed that rising incomes can lead to an exacerbation of son preference and its spread to lower castes, even under conditions when the mothers have a say.

“This type of gender inequality [son preference] cannot be removed, at least in the short run, by the enhancement of women’s empowerment and agency, since that agency is itself an integral part of the cause of natality inequality. This recognition demands an important modification — and indeed an extension — of our understanding of the role of women’s agency in eliminating gender inequality in India. The enhancement of women’s agency which does so much to eliminate sex differentials in mortality rates (and also in reducing fertility and mortality rates in general) cannot be expected, on its own, to produce a similar elimination of sex differentials at birth and abortion, and correspondingly in the population of children. What is needed is not merely freedom and power to act, but also freedom and power to question and reassess the prevailing norms and values. The pivotal issue is critical agency.

It is not enough therefore, for an oppressed group to be ‘accepted’ and to have a voice at the table, since, other things being equal, this can only lead to their assent to the dominant norms which relegate them to the subordinate position in the first place. The poor and oppressed need a critical voice, they need the capacity to bring to bear an independent vision of society, different from and critical of the dominant group.

“Strengthening women’ agency will not, by itself, solve the problem of ‘son preference’ when that works through the desires of the mothers themselves.” [p. 258]

This constitutes a new, and deeper, definition of the good life: it is not only the equitable distribution of goods, nor just an equitable distribution of the level of functioning made possible by the use of a set of goods, nor an equitable distribution of functioning from which to choose, nor even an equal say in determining the social arrangements for the production and use of goods, but an equitable distribution of independent conceptions of the good life, of critical voice.

This then justifies the title of the book: “development and participation.”

“Finally, the agency of women is effective in promoting those goals which women tend to value. When those values are distorted by centuries of inequality, for example yielding the perception that boys are to be welcomed more than girls, then the empowerment of women can go hand in hand with persistent inequality and discrimination in some fields, in particular ‘boy preference’ in births (with possibly brutal results in the form of sex-specific abortions). Indeed, the agency of women can never be adequately free if traditionally discriminatory values remain unexamined and unscrutinised. While values may be culturally influenced (we have provided some evidence corroborating this presumption), it is possible to overcome the barriers of inequality imposed by tradition through greater freedom to question, doubt, and — if convinced — reject. An adequate realisation of women’s agency relates not only to the freedom to act but also to the freedom to question and reassess. Critical agency is a great ally of development.” [p. 274]

I will not go into this issue here, but the analysis reported here stands in sharp contrast to Sen’s work on “economic theory” and ethics (Rationality and Freedom, On Ethics and Economics, Commodities and Capabilities) in which he endeavours to incorporate the notion of capability and voice in the framework of utilitarian economics and social-choice theory. These are the wrong frameworks for these intrinsically valid, and indeed important, concepts; wrong to the extent of being a category error, since the notion of “critical voice” inherently relates to a subject, whereas utilitarian economics and social choice theory objectify human beings. The difficulty arises from Sen’s professional position as an adviser on social policy, while his personal sympathies lie with social activism. I will return to this issue elsewhere.

For example, consider the following uncontroversial commentary on democracy:

“How, it is asked, can the power of the majority protect the interests of a minority (perhaps even a relatively small minority)? This is a good line of challenge, but it is ultimately too mechanical a line of reasoning and significantly negligent of the participatory basis of the practice of democracy. For one thing, democracy is not the same thing as majority rule, since democratic rights include the protection of the freedom of speech and other forms of participation as well as the safeguarding of minority rights. But going beyond that, it is worth noting that the process of public discussion and participatory interaction can make citizens take an interest in the lives of each other.” [p 378]

This cannot be squared with his ultra-mechanical consideration, over 700 pages, given to democracy in Rationality and Freedom in which the “process of public discussion” is specifically excluded as relevant to the topic.

“the extensions [of social-choice theory] which are called for in investigating preference formation would often require substantive empirical presumptions, regarding what can or cannot be plausibly achieved through dialogues or swaps, taking us beyond the thoroughly analytical format of traditional social choice theory” [Rationality and Freedom, p. 311]

If critical voice turns out to be the crucial entity for development, but lies outside the domain of the chosen analytical framework, then doesn’t this indicate that the wrong analytical framework has been chosen?

Sen on ‘Social Capital’ and ‘Human Capital’

For the moment I just want to record what Sen has to say about ‘human capital’ and ‘social capital.’ He opposes both notions because they confuse ends and means, regarding human life as instrumental for economic growth, whereas the reverse should be the case, and because these terms are muddled.

First he acknowledges the commonality between his own approach and the concerns of those who talk about ‘human capital’ and ‘social capital’:

“In recent years, the discipline of economics has seen a revival of interest in the role of ‘social norms’ in individual decisions, which has also influenced development economics. The main focus of this strand of research has been on how social norms can emerge, or sustain themselves, in a framework where individual decisions remain driven by well-defined, exogenous ‘preferences’. What has received less attention is the possibility of influencing social norms through public discussion and social intervention. Indeed, social norms are as much a matter of explicit discussion and reflection as one of equilibrium behaviour in a world of decentralised individual decisions.” [p. 42]

His criticism of ‘human capital’ is as follows:

“There is also an issue of ends and means, for freedoms are valuable in both respects. The elimination of illiteracy, ill health and other avoidable deprivations are valuable for their own sake, and this must be recognised even as we acknowledge the far-reaching instrumental role of these achievements. In that sense, it is perhaps a mistake to see the development of education, health care and other basic achievements only or primarily as expansions of ‘human resources’ — the accumulation of ‘human capital’ (the language that is often chosen in the professional economic literature). The bettering of human life does not have to be justified by showing that a person with a better life is also a better producer. As Kant had noted, there is a categorical need to ‘treat humanity, whether in their own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only’. In arguing for a people-centred view of economic development that focuses on human agency and social opportunities, we are not just arguing for giving importance to so-called ‘human capital’.

“However, after noting this basic point, and getting our ends and means sorted out, we have every reason to pay full attention to the importance of human capabilities also as instruments for economic and social performance.” [p. 7]

“While we have occasionally used the language of ‘human capital’ in this book, as a concession to general practice, that term is somewhat misleading in general, and particularly so in the context of one of the issues on which we want to put some emphasis. This concerns the intrinsic importance of the quality of human life — not seeing it just as an instrument for promoting economic growth and success. There is a real asymmetry between what is called ‘human capital’ and physical capital, in that the items covered by the former have importance of their own in a way that does not apply to a piece of machinery. To put it another way, if a machinery did nothing to raise production, it would be quite eccentric to value its existence nevertheless, whereas being educated or being in good health could be valued even if it were to do nothing to increase the production of commodities. The constituents of human capital, which are parts of human lives, are valuable for their own sake — above and beyond their instrumental importance as factors of production. Indeed, being a ‘component of human capital’ cannot be the most fulfilling achievement to which a human being can aspire.

“While the distinction between the intrinsic and instrumental importance of human capabilities is of some significance for clarity about means and ends, we should not make heavy weather of this dichotomy. It is important to bear in mind: (1) that health, education, and other features of a good quality of life are important on their own (and not just as ‘human capital’, geared to commodity production), (2) they can also be, in many circumstances, extremely good for promoting personal and social roles. There is no particular difficulty in using the language of ‘human capital’ if it is also recognised that there are other — more direct — rewards of human health, knowledge, and skill.

“While human capabilities have both intrinsic and instrumental value, growth of GNP per head must be seen, primarily and directly, as just having instrumental importance.” [p. 81-2]

And his comments on ‘social capital’ are as follows:

“These observations [that a sense of community facilitates the emergence of consensual social norms] have something in common with the recent analyses of the role of ‘social capital’ in development. The notion of social capital, however, lends itself to many different interpretations, and has tended to be used as an all-purpose device to explain otherwise puzzling economic phenomena ranging from slow growth in Africa to the recent economic collapse in Russia. The general concern with social capital can be extended, in this case, to more precise links between cooperative action and development and also to the historical and material roots of social cooperation.” [fn 102, p. 108]


Critical voice is a relation of inclusion/exclusion, and is therefore a partial ordering. This means that the notion of critical voice is not a complete quantification, but nevertheless provides an opening for a limited kind of metric if one is prepared to do the mathematics.

The same is true of Sen’s concept of “capability”; as this notion reflects a set of functionings from which one can choose, it constitutes a partial ordering, based on the partial ordering relation of set theory. According to Sen, much of economic theory, such as action and choice theory, can be applied to a notion if it fails to make a complete quantification, so long as it makes a partial ordering. The content of each theory is of course quite different as what is being ordered is not preferences but respectively people and their freedoms.

Subordination and participation in social movements and relations

Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, as displaced relations of class domination, and the struggle over its “conversion rate,” is also a partial ordering, and as such constitutes a partial but incomplete “quantification.”

All mathematics is metaphor, and a metaphor which corresponds to relations in social actuality can provide the basis for using mathematics. Subjectivity is thus not inherently “non-mathematical”; it is simply that if mathematics is going to be used, appropriate mathematics must be used. Thoughtless application of wrong mathematics by means of a poor metaphor lead to the kind of contradictions we have witnessed in the development of “social capital.”