Specifying Elements of Wellbeing…Democractically

As I was writing the last post, How to Thrive: Specifying the Universal Elements of Wellbeing, I started thinking about a paper I had presented at the International Conference on “Happiness and Public Policy” in Bangkok several years ago. It elaborated a democratic procedure through which communities could create a list of capabilities they wanted to prioritize in their own development process. This is relevant to our discussion of selecting the necessary elements of wellbeing–namely, how do we do it democratically.

My position has shifted since I wrote this paper: now I affirm that there can and should be some universals as a starting point. But that doesn’t change the rest of the argument. For those interested, here’s the abstract of that paper, followed by a link to a PDF file of the paper itself.

 Much discussion has ensued in recent years as to how to operationalize Amartya Sen’s capability Approach (CA), a purposefully underspecified theoretical framework. Broadly speaking, evaluating and fostering well being via CA would entail a 5-step process: making a list of capabilities to serve as indicators in a particular context, measuring these capabilities against a standard, identifying the factors that hinder or enable the capabilities, targeting these factors in development programs, and finally re-evaluating not merely the progress made toward goals, but the goals themselves—the initial capability list—to respond to change in values over time. This paper focuses on the first challenging step of reaching reasonable agreement on the capabilities to be prioritized in a given application of CA, when the involved parties invariably comprise individuals with divergent values, aspirations, and command of social power.

While precedents exist for creating a universal list of capabilities to indicate well-being (most obviously, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), that is not advocated here. Some scholars (e.g., Nussbaum 2003) understandably criticize Sen for failing to endorse a single list of  capabilities to ensure an equally good life for all; nevertheless, Sen maintains that because the valued life varies from society to society (and among individuals within a given society), context-dependent lists must be generated anew via democratic process each time the approach is employed. A standard procedure for capability selection would help address concerns that could be exploited in ways that violate social justice norms. A promising procedure is detailed by feminist economist Ingrid Robeyns (2003), who used to assess gender inequality in postindustrial Western countries, but techniques must be further specified to engender a genuinely democratic collective decision-making process. Some capability scholars have turned to theories of deliberative democracy for insight, though these are too abstract to implement directly. This paper contributes to the refinement of capability-selection procedures by drawing further insights from feminist and action-oriented perspectives on ethnography, a qualitative research methodology, culminating in a 14-step dialogic procedure for democratic selection of context-specific capabilities that simultaneously respects agency and difference while mediating inequalities in power.

For the full text of this paper, see below:

Democratic Selection of Context-specific Capabilities: A Dialogic Procedure to Address Agency, Difference, and Power A paper presented at the International Conference on “Happiness and Public Policy,” United Nations Conference Center, Bangkok, 18-19 July 2007.

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