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A critique of the Capability Approach’s potential for application to career guidance



In this article, we provide a balanced critique of Sen’s Capability Approach (CA) with reference to its potential to inform career guidance theory and practice. There are varying understandings and interpretations of the CA. Some see capabilities as universal, whilst others favour a more relativist view. The CA is also vulnerable to misunderstanding. Critiques based on misunderstanding are easily dismissed, so our focus is on substantive conceptual and practical critiques. Three main challenges are explored: conceptual debates about the nature of freedom and justice; limitations arising from the disciplinary origins of the CA; and challenges in operationalising the CA.
International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance (2021) 21:447–463
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A critique oftheCapability Approach’s potential
forapplication tocareer guidance
ValerieEgdell1 · PeterJ.Robertson2
Received: 6 December 2019 / Accepted: 27 September 2020 / Published online: 16 October 2020
© The Author(s) 2020
In this article, we provide a balanced critique of Sen’s Capability Approach (CA)
with reference to its potential to inform career guidance theory and practice. There
are varying understandings and interpretations of the CA. Some see capabilities as
universal, whilst others favour a more relativist view. The CA is also vulnerable to
misunderstanding. Critiques based on misunderstanding are easily dismissed, so our
focus is on substantive conceptual and practical critiques. Three main challenges are
explored: conceptual debates about the nature of freedom and justice; limitations
arising from the disciplinary origins of the CA; and challenges in operationalising
the CA.
Keywords Capability Approach· Career guidance· Career theory
Une Critique du Potentiel de l’Approche des Capacités pour les applications
au conseil de carrière Dans cet article, nous produisons une critique de l’Approche
des Capacités (AC) de Sen en référence à son potentiel pour informer la théorie et la
pratique du conseil de carrière. Il y a plusieurs compréhensions et interprétations de
l’AC. Certains voient les capacités comme étant universelles, pendant que d’autres
favorisent une vue plus relativiste. LAC est aussi vulnérable aux incompréhensions.
Les critiques basées sur des incompréhensions sont facilement rejetées, donc nous
nous concentrons sur les critiques substantielles conceptuelles et pratiques. Trois
challenges principaux ont été explorés: des débats conceptuels sur la nature de la
liberté et de la justice; des limitations découlant des origines disciplinaires de l’AC;
et des challenges dans l’opérationalisation de l’AC.
* Valerie Egdell
1 Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, City Campus East,
NewcastleuponTyneNE18ST, UK
2 School ofApplied Sciences, Edinburgh Napier University, Edinburgh, UK
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Eine kritische Betrachtung der Anwendung des Befähigungsansatzes in der
Berufs-, Studien- und Laufbahnberatung Dieser Artikel beinhaltet eine kritische
Betrachtung des Befähigungsansatzes (Capability Approach, CA) von Sen in Bezug
auf sein Potential, Theorie und Praxis der Berufs-, Studien- und Laufbahnberatung
zu beeinflussen. Es gibt unterschiedliche Auffassungen und Interpretationen
des Befähigungsansatzes. Einige betrachten den Ansatz als universell, während
andere eine eher relativistische Sichtweise bevorzugen. Der Befähigungsansatz
ist auch anfällig für Missverständnisse. Kritik, die auf Missverständnissen
beruht, kann aber leicht zurückgewiesen werden, weshalb wir uns auf die
konzeptionelle und anwendungsbezogene Kritik konzentrieren. Dabei werden drei
Hauptherausforderungen beleuchtet: Konzeptionelle Debatten über das Wesen von
Freiheit und Gerechtigkeit; Einschränkungen, die sich aus dem disziplinären Ursprung
des Befähigungsansatzes ergeben; Herausforderungen bei der Operationalisierung
des Befähigungsansatzes.
Una crítica del potencial del Enfoque Basado en las Capacidades aplicado a
la orientación profesional En este artículo proporcionamos una crítica equilibrada
del Enfoque Basado en las Capacidades de Sen (CA) en referencia a su potencial
para informar la teoria y la práctica de la orientación profesional. Existen diferentes
interpretaciones y maneras de comprender este enfoque (CA). Algunas consideran
las capacidades como universales al tiempo que otras se acercan más a una visión
relativista. El CA es también vulnerable a equívocos y errores de comprensión. Las
críticas basadas en los errores de comprensión son facilmente desestimadas por lo
que nuestro foco se sitúa en las críticas conceptuales y prácticas. Se exploran tres
desafíos principales: debates conceptuales sobre la naturaleza de la libertad y la
justicia, limitaciones que emergen de los orígenes disciplinares del CA y retos en la
operacionalización del CA.
The Capability Approach (CA) is a way of thinking about the promotion of well-
being and freedom and originates in the thinking of economist and philosopher
Amartya Sen (1985, 1990, 1999, 2003, 2009). While it has its origins in welfare
economics, it has been applied to many domains, notably educational and economic
advancement in developing nations (Kelly, 2012; Norwich, 2014; Orton, 2011; Otto
etal., 2015, 2017; Picard etal., 2015; Skovhus, 2016). Authors have sought to apply
the CA as a theoretical perspective to describe career development experiences or
to understand processes of career guidance (e.g. Picard, 2019; Robertson, 2015;
Robertson & Egdell, 2018). Indeed, there now exist a wide range of theories of
career choice and development with numerous recent contributions to this literature.
However, in our view, contemporary career theory has tended to lack criticality
(with some notable exceptions that are discussed in the next section). This literature
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International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance (2021) 21:447–463
has tended to present multiple theories without critique (e.g. Arthur et al., 2019),
or has attempted theoretical integration (e.g. McMahon & Patton, 2018) with the
effect that the limitations of one perspective are compensated for by the strengths
of another. Criticality in this literature is primarily directed against historic targets,
demonstrating the ‘superiority’ of dynamic contemporary theory over static
twentieth century models in addressing issues of the volatility of work (e.g. Pryor,
2016; Savickas etal., 2009). It is relatively rare that contemporary career theorists
systematically explore the limitations of their own theories or those of their peers.
Thus, in this article we offer a critical perspective on the CA and its potential
for application to career guidance. We are concerned not just with theory but also
with practice, by which we mean attempts by practitioners to improve people’s lives
by intervening in their career development, irrespective of the professional identity
or institutional setting. There are a range of authors who have developed the CA,
including Nussbaum (1997, 2000, 2003), so there is some variety of thinking within
the literature. Whilst acknowledging this diversity, we focus our critical perspective
primarily on the CA as conceived by Sen.
A number of critiques and debates are explored. The CA has been vulnerable
to misunderstanding, which can result in a superficial reading and dilution in its
application (Kremakova, 2013; Sayer, 2012). Critiques based on misunderstanding
are easily dismissed, so our focus is on substantive conceptual and practical
critiques. This material is organised into three sections. Firstly, the CA can be
understood as one of a number of philosophical positions on issues of freedom and
justice. Although these debates are relatively abstract, issues of social justice and
the freedom to make life choices are of direct relevance to career guidance practice.
Secondly, unlike most career theory, which originates in psychology or sociology,
the CA has its roots in economics. The limitations of its disciplinary origins can be
critiqued from the perspective of other social science disciplines. Thirdly, there are
considerable difficulties in operationalising the CA. The distance from the concept
to practice is considerable, generating a range of questions to be addressed. In each
section we seek to make the debates relevant to the concerns of career guidance, and
identify where a reasonable defence of the CA can be made, and where there are
limitations in what it has to offer to career theory and guidance. We are also mindful
that the CA was not initially intended to be applied, or offer applications, to career
theory and guidance. It is easy to identify the limits of a theoretical perspective
constructed in another discipline. Consequently, we emphasise that our purpose is
not to critique the CA for critiques sake. Rather we seek to explore how the CA
may be applied in practice, and areas where it may need to be theoretically and
empirically developed to make it relevant for career guidance.
Conceptual debates aboutthenature offreedom andjustice
There is a prominent and long-established social justice and egalitarianism agenda
within the career guidance field. The promotion of social equity is seen as one of the
prime aims of public policy in relation to career guidance (Watts & Sultana, 2004).
Indeed, in recent years there has even been explicit debate regarding issues of social
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justice in the academic and professional literature (Hooley & Sultana, 2016). This
has included a focus on the contested (political and philosophical) nature of social
justice. Some contributors have sought inspiration to address modern injustices in
the work of early pioneers of vocational guidance, who were social activists with
collectivist values (Plant & Kjærgård, 2016). Many have explored ways to respond
to the career issues facing specific populations who might be characterised as
socio-economically disadvantaged (e.g. Bimrose etal., 2019; Ginevra etal., 2019;
Hancock & Taylor, 2019; Newman etal., 2018), or haveaddressed issues of poverty,
class, and precarity (e.g. Ali, 2014; Blustein, 2019; Roberts, 2005). Others have
sought to suggest strategies or tools for career development professionals to adopt
(e.g. Arthur, 2005; Kenny etal., 2019; Thomsen, 2016) or have offered a call to
emancipatory action (Blustein, 2019; Hooley etal., 2019). This diverse literature has
explicitly sought to bring a critical perspective to current theories, institutions and
practices, and the extent to which they are infused by culturally dominant neoliberal
economic assumptions that limit freedom as it is expressed in careers (Hooley etal.,
In exploring the contested relations between social justice and career guidance,
scholars have pointed to a range of philosophical approaches. These include the
ancient philosophy of Socrates and Plato emphasising social harmony; the Kantian
tradition emphasising rights; the ethical/relational perspective of Levinas and
Derrida; and ‘recognitive justice’ inspired by Young that acknowledges oppression
of groups in society (Irving, 2004, 2020; Sultana, 2014). Irving (2004, 2020) and
Sultana (2014) acknowledge the relevance of John Rawls’ theory of justice which
offers a ‘distributive justice’ or ‘resourcist’ approach; but do not foreground the
work of Amartya Sen. This is curious because Sen’s CA is located in an arena of
conceptual debate regarding egalitarian theories of social justice and the nature of
freedom and justice. Sen (1985, 1990, 2003) evens acknowledges the influence of
Rawls on his work. Comparing a full range of social justice concepts is beyond the
scope of this article. Instead we highlight a key debate in the literature regarding the
nature of freedom and justice.
Egalitarian theory contends that institutions and individual actions should
improve the quality of life of those who are worse off in society (Yılmaz, 2016).
There are two prominent examples of egalitarian theories of social justice,
addressing the key question of what is a proper measure of social justice—and
an extensive literature questioning which of these is able to provide the most
convincing yardstick of social justice (Pogge, 2002). These two approaches are the
resourcist approach (developed by authors including Rawls (1999) and Dworkin
(1981a, 1981b) and the CA (developed by authors including Sen (1985, 1990, 2003)
and Nussbaum (1997, 2000, 2003)(Yılmaz, 2016). The criterion presented by Rawls
(1999) and Sen (1985, 1990, 2003) are focused upon here.
Rawls’ (1999) theory of justice emphasises equal basic liberties and just
equality of opportunity. The Rawlsian principles of justice are that “each person
is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system” and that social and
economic inequality are arranged so that they are “(a) to the greatest benefit of
the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to
offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity”
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(Rawls, 1999, p. 266). The focus is on the holding of ‘primary goods’ (including
income, rights, a sense of self-worth and opportunities), defined as things that
it is presumed that every “rational man” wants whatever their plans are (Rawls,
1999, p. 54). However, these primary goods answer the needs of individuals
rather than their desires and preferences (Rawls, 1999) and attention is not paid to
how individuals use these resources (Yılmaz, 2016).
Conversely capabilities scholars focus on fundamental diversity; understanding
that while two individuals may hold the same primary goods, they have different
freedoms to live a life that they have reason to value (Sen 1985, 1990, 2003).
Sen (1990, 2003) argues that to judge equality in terms of primary goods (i.e.
a Rawlsian principle of justice) gives priority to the ‘means’ of freedom rather
than the ‘extents’ of freedom. As such capabilities are the combinations of
functionings and the real (not just formal and/or ‘in principle’ freedoms)
opportunity to achieve them (Sen, 2003). This distinction is crucial to understand
the contribution of conversion factors including social conditioning which may
make an individual unable to choose (Robertson & Egdell, 2018; Sen, 2003).
In acknowledging the influence of social relations as well as the societal and
institutional structures, the CA rejects methodological/ontological individualism
(Robeyns, 2005). The CA does however embrace ethical individualism i.e. claims
“about who or what should count in our evaluative exercises and decisions. It
postulates that individuals, and only individuals, are the units of moral concern.
In other words, when evaluating different states of social affairs, we are only
interested in the (direct and indirect) effects of those states on individuals”
(Robeyns, 2005, p. 107).
For career guidance, this may be an important distinction when considering
gender inequalities for example. The existence of rights to equal pay supported by
legislation has not removed gender inequality in pay (Fortin etal., 2017; O’Reilly
etal., 2015). Similarly, the right to pursue any occupation without discrimination
does not remove the possibility that in practice women may be subject to sexual
harassment from both colleagues and customers (Equality and Human Rights
Commission, 2018). Thus, a CA to career guidance theory and practice goes
beyond a resourcist position that justice in women’s careers requires only equal
rights and adopts a stance more consistent with a stronger feminist position. It also
acknowledges that real life practical barriers must be overcome for capabilities to be
Taking this example of workplace gender equality further, the CA might stop
short of requiring that justice necessarily means symmetrical functioning in all
situations, if it was the case that individual men and women had reason to value
different lives and careers, and in consequence, made different choices. The
emphasis of the CA is upon the freedom that individuals have to make choices
that they value, and the importance of individuals not having values imposed on
them regarding what is a ‘good’ life (Sen, 1985, 1990, 2003). Equality of freedom
cannot be achieved through the equal distribution of primary goods, nor can it
measure well-being when it does not acknowledge interpersonal variations in the
transformation of primary into capabilities (Sen, 1985, 1990, 2003). As such the
CA frames justice in terms of capabilities to function i.e. ends rather than means
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and reflects substantive freedom to achieve well-being (Sen, 2003; Yılmaz, 2016).
A distinction is drawn between the functionings space (beings and doings) and the
capabilities space (all that the individual can be and do) (Sen, 2003).
Thus, while resourcists argue that the resources that people need should be
distributed, proponents of the CA emphasise the equalisation of people’s capabilities
(Yılmaz, 2016). A distinction is also made in terms of whether “alternative feasible
institutional schemes [should] be assessed in terms of their participants’ access
to available resources or in terms of their participants’ capabilities, that is, access
to valuable functionings” (Pogge, 2002, p. 178). As such the metric of justice
proposed by Rawls (1999) are primary goods. The emphasis is on an understanding
of ‘standard’ needs rather than the value attached to these goods by reference to
the specific needs and attributes of the individual (Pogge, 2002). The Rawlsian
approach is focused on just institutions and underpinned with ideas of public
consensus (although privately citizens may hold opposing views). Conversely the
CA emphasises just societies and shared conceptions of good in society (Yılmaz,
2016). Yet, the distinction betweenthe CA and resourcists may not be so stark as
first appears, with some arguing that resourcists focus not on the goods persons
actually have or consume, but on the goods persons can have or consume (Pogge,
2002). Certainly, as mentioned previously, Sen (1985, 1990, 2003) acknowledges
the influence of Rawls on his work. Equally, resourcist and capability theorists agree
regarding the purpose of the distribution of means in terms of satisfying human
needs and the of positive freedom (Yılmaz, 2016).
In summary, Sen’s (1985, 1990, 2003) CA entered an arena of conceptual debate
about the nature of freedom and justice. Competing philosophies offer alternatives
to the CA. Career guidance theory and practice needs to navigate these relatively
abstract debates; including the adequacy of resources in achieving freedom and
the tensions between individual and collective or community values, and the
implications of this problem for freedom. Contemporary debates of the nature of
social justice in the career guidance literature has acknowledged the work of Rawls
but not that of Sen (e.g. Irving, 2004, 2020; Sultana, 2014). While the differences
between Sen’s approach and a Rawlsian perspective should not be overstated, the
CA does ensure that the pragmatic challenges of converting resources into lifestyle
outcomes are not neglected.
Limitations arising fromtheorigins oftheCapability Approach
The disciplinary origins of the CA potentially limit its contribution to understanding
careers and career guidance. Sen’s CA emerged from critiques of mainstream
economics focusing solely on growth measures, resources, and the actions of rational
individuals (e.g. Sen, 1999). Its roots are thus primarily in economics. In contrast,
the study of careers is best understood as a transdisciplinary field in which a wide
range of perspectives intersect. Whilst (labour market) economics is one discipline;
it is not the prime source for theory and practice. Psychology is the dominant
discipline in career theory, while sociology makes an important contribution to
career theory and to career-related policy analysis. There are few explicit links to
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psychology and sociology in Sen’s work, with the CAs reputation for abeing a
normativetool for policy research and practice, rather than anexplanatorytool for
critical social theory, partly explaining this (Kremakova, 2013). The CA’s neglect
of sociology is rooted in the troubled relationship between the discipline and
economics (Holmwood, 2013). However, some sociologists such as Hart (2012)
demonstrate congurence between the work of Sen and Bourdieu. In terms of the
practice of delivering career services, education, counselling, social work and youth
work are strong influences.
There can be no doubt that Sen’s work demonstrates a central concern for those
living in poverty and seeks to extend the opportunities disadvantaged groups have
to implement choices about their lives according to their own values. While Sen
(2003, 2009) distances the CA from utilitarianism and mainstream economics,
critics suggest that Sen’s work is infused with liberal-individualism (e.g. Carpenter,
2009). It has been argued that the ‘elephant in the room’ is that the CA does not
address the exploitative nature of capitalism. The individual is abstracted and
removed from relations of power and capitalist structures of domination that give
meaning to individual freedom (Dean, 2009; Gasper, 2002; Sayer, 2012). Welfare
economics is rooted in ideas that are market-oriented and evangelises market-based
solutions. It is therefore at odds with sociology which defends against the tyranny of
the market (Burawoy, 2005; Holmwood, 2013).
These concerns are mirrored in the career guidance literature, with authors such
as Hooley etal. (2017) raising objections to the way in which neoliberal thinking has
infused career guidance policy. Neoliberal welfare states focuses upon raising self-
initiative and do not account for either contextual constraints, nor individual choice
(Egdell & McQuaid, 2016; Wright, 2016)—which is at odds with the CA. Irving
(2017, 2020) characterises the neoliberal perspective (in the tradition of Friedman)
as ‘retributive justice’ in which economic freedom and property rights underpin a
free market. This author advocates a critical perspective of the status quo, combined
with a radical educational approach to raising consciousness in response to injustice
and inequality in careers. Whether a CA could serve to meet these calls can be
questioned. There is a tendency for the CA to focus on ‘minimum thresholds’ and
limited state intervention, rather than more radical equality of outcomes (Carpenter,
2009). However, it is argued that the CA could be combined with understandings
of power and class in ways that would provide support for conclusions so radical
that “policy makers and advisors who favour the Capability Approach would
find alarming” (Sayer, 2012, p. 583). Albeit the structural external constraints on
the achievement of inequalities need to be addressed in order that these radical
implications are realised (Sayer, 2012). The individualist tendencies perhaps reflect
a mismatch between the bold aims of the CA and means to realise them, with
Carpenter (2009) suggesting developing a radical CA through a connection with
fuller political economic and social analysis.
Critique of the CA’s liberal-individualist focus also draws attention to the limited
acknowledgement of social solidarity and belonging. Several authors argue that
the CA is flawed as it does not account for the interdependency of humans, and
overemphasises rational cognitive action (e.g. Dean, 2009; Deneulin & McGregor,
2010; Iversen, 2003; Zimmermann, 2006). Individuals only exist because they are
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members of networks of care and responsibility, dependent on others (Kittay, 2001;
Sevenhuijsen, 1998). While Nussbaum (1997, 2000, 2003) develops a list of central
interrelated capabilities which includes ‘affiliation’; this has been argued to be
abstract, with the ‘person’ and ‘the other’ framed as abstract bearers of capabilities
(Dean, 2009, p. 268). This critique has direct relevance, as some authors highlight
the relational nature of career development and place this aspect as central to their
conception of career guidance (Blustein, 2011, 2019; Richardson, 2009). These
perspectives do not privilege formal paid employment over other kinds of work and
relationships. Others have pointed to the potential for a community level conception
of career guidance (notably Thomsen, 2012). The CA is not inconsistent with this
project. Whilst ultimately concerned with the well-being and freedom of individuals,
it does allow for community level applications (Alkire, 2005; Alkire & Deneulin,
Taking this issue of interdependency further, the ways in which we care for
each other are socially negotiated and consolidated over time (Connidis, 2001;
Finch & Mason, 1993) but the time dimension is lacking in the CA (Gasper, 1997).
This is problematic as biographies develop over a working life, and careers can
only be understood looking backwards and projecting forwards (Robertson, 2015;
Zimmerman, 2006). Here we move to a psychological critique. Perspectives on
maturation derived from developmental psychology (notably Gottfredson (1981)
and Super (1957)) conclusively demonstrate the inadequacy of considering career
choice as anything other than a process which unfolds over time. Yet this dynamic
conception is entirely absent the CA. Joncas and Pilote (2018) suggest a solution
to this problem—viewing the conversion of career resources into capabilities and
functionings as an iterative process, rather than as a single point in time.
There is also critique of the CA in terms of it not providing any substantive
discussion of choice processes, what brings individuals satisfaction or any theory
of ‘good’ (Gasper, 1997, 2002). The skills, personality formation and social
supports required in making decisions about what is valuable is not elaborated
upon (Gasper 2002) which present challenges for those wishing to apply the CA to
career guidance practice. Sen (2009) does question the concept of rationality within
economics. Unlike its parent discipline, the CA does not routinely adopt money
as a proxy for ‘good’, or view maximising income as the only rational strategy. In
rejecting methodological/ontological individualism the links between individuals
and society are highlighted (Robeyns, 2005). Neither does the CA see values purely
as an individual difference variable as might be the case in some psychological
conceptions (e.g. Schein, 1990). It places human values as central to choice and
allows for thoughtful trade-offs between them. ‘Reason to value’ implies a process
of reasoning prior to choice but no insight as to how that process might work is
A key challenge here for career guidance is that, the freedom of individuals
and groups to reason about the life chances open to them, is powerfully shaped
by a range of social, cultural and economic factors as demonstrated by structural
theorists (notably Roberts (2009)). Furthermore, these are not simply experienced as
external barriers, but become internalised as constraints on choices in the thinking
of individuals (Betz & Hackett, 2006; Gottfredson, 1981; Hodkinson & Sparkes,
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1997; Willis, 1977). To an extent, Sen recognises this problem in that he is critical
of the use of subjective measures of well-being (at least if used in isolation) because
people living in relative deprivation habituate to their circumstances (Binder, 2013;
Sen, 1987). It is less clear if he recognises the impact of deprivation on choice
reasoning processes, and the implications that this has for just outcomes. This raises
questions as to whether at the empirical level Sen is in fact fixated with ‘generic’ and
‘rational’ individuals (Zimmermann, 2006, p. 474). Adding more choices may be
undesirable as excessive choice may distract, distort and divert (Gasper, 2002). Sen’s
(2009) argument for the role of public deliberation in developing capabilities lists,
may only to serve to exacerbate the problem, and be framed by normative liberal
assumptions about who the ‘public’ are (Dean, 2009). Even Nussbaum’s (1997,
2000, 2003) richer elaboration of the CA is incomplete compared to understandings
from psychology as to what brings people satisfaction and well-being, nor does it
differentiate between types of pleasure and happiness (Gasper, 2002).
In summary, while it could be argued that the CA offers a fresh perspective
on careers by virtue of deriving from economics, economics is suffused with
liberal-individualism. To a certain extent, the same critique can be levelled at the
contemporary policy and practice of career guidance (Hooley etal., 2017; Irving,
2017, 2020). While Sen (2009) does problematise the concept of rationality,
the CA nevertheless does not account for human interdependency (Dean, 2009;
Deneulin & McGregor, 2010; Iversen, 2003; Zimmermann, 2006) and does not
offer the temporal dimension required to understand how biographies unfold
(Robertson, 2015; Gasper, 1997; Zimmerman, 2006). As such the CA may not be
sufficiently equipped to provide a sociological analysis of inequality in careers, or a
psychological description of career choice processes.
Challenges inoperationalising theCapability Approach forcareer
guidance practice
The abstract nature of the CA (some of which is highlighted in the previous sections)
presents challenges to career guidance practitioners seeking to operationalise it for
the development and evaluation of their interventions. For the purposes of career
guidance, it is necessary to specify what kinds of resources people may have. There
are existing resource models for career development (notably Hirschi, 2012) but
these tend to focus primarily on individual psychological factors, whilst the CA
would also require consideration of wider economic, social and environmental
resources. It would also require identifying how resources may be converted into
realistically attainable opportunities, how choices are made, and the kinds of
outcomes that may be obtained. To achieve this, the processes of assessment and
measurement need to be made explicit. However, the operationalisation of the CA
in this way is challenging because of the complexity, context dependency and its
under-specificity (Chiappero-Martinetti et al., 2015; Robertson & Egdell, 2018;
Robeyns, 2008; Roemer, 1996; Srinivasan, 1994).
A key critique of levelled at Sen is that in his presentation of the CA no defined
central human capabilities and functionings, or explanation of how these should be
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weighted against each other, are offered. Sen’s rationale for this is that any definition
of what people value should be open to diverse conceptions of good, justice and
advantage, and reflect that capabilities lists are used for different purposes (Robeyns,
2005; Sen, 2009). Equally, there is no such agreed framework to identify ‘results
and evaluate career guidance practice; outcomes are conceptualised in a variety of
ways (Killeen, 1996). Guidance is provided for the development of context specific
lists in the application of the CA (Burchardt & Vizard, 2007). Sen has, since the
first inceptions, developed his argument as to how the CA might be applied, moving
from a ‘thin view’ which solely argues the case for capability and functioning as
evaluative spaces, to a ‘thick view’ which accounts for the evaluative implications
of applying the CA (Qizilbash, 2011; Sen, 1999, 2009). However, the lack of
specified capabilities, functionings and weightings mean that Sen’s CA remains
underspecified and incomplete (Qizilbash, 2011; Robeyns, 2008). This makes it
flexible in its application across contexts, but is arguably a relativist position, and
one that can be adapted to justify a range of actions.
Serious consideration would need to be made if a capabilities list were developed
for career guidance. Nussbaum (1997, 2000, 2003) develops a list of ten central
interrelated capabilities (bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination and
thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; and control over
one’s environment) which are in turn categorised into three capability types: (1)
basic capabilities (essential requirements to develop more advanced capabilities);
(2) internal capabilities (conditions of the individual); and (3) combined capabilities
(internal capabilities and the external conditions in the exercise of functionings)
(Nussbaum, 2000, pp. 78–80, 84–85). However, Pogge (2002, p. 210) questions the
value of capability lists, and the equitability of their application, as it would involve
“grading all citizens for their natural aptitudes toward each of the capabilities on
the list, determining their specific deficits, and ensuring that these deficits are duly
neutralized through suitable compensatory benefits”. Specificity is also required by
career development practitioners rather than broad-brush higher-level descriptive
frameworks like Nussbaum’s (Robertson & Egdell, 2018). Context sensitivity would
also be important. In the generation and/or selection of such a distinct career focused
list, public discussion and debate would be required to understand what people
do have reason to value (Sen, 2009). This public deliberation is achieved through
the ‘informational basis of the judgement of justice’ (IBJJ), that is the information
framed as relevant by actors when considering a situation (Sen, 1985, 1990, 2003).
This deliberation is open ended and multiple IBBJs may co-exist (Kremakova
2013). Public discussion and debate could serve as a way in which to address the
problem of adaptive preference formation (Qizilbash, 2011); that is situations where
inequality in circumstances results in individuals internalising conceptions of their
own self-worth (Nussbaum, 1997, 2000).
However, there are concerns that public discussion and debate could result in
paternalism, with democratic reasoning overriding individual preferences and
placing restrictions on individual liberty (Sugden, 2006). Such a view would
present career guidance practitioners with complex questions surrounding the
appropriateness of enhancing any capability. A society must acknowledge various
distinct liberties and freedoms, but must prioritise them, in a democratic way,
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International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance (2021) 21:447–463
when they conflict (Qizilbash, 2011). As such individual client judgement needs
to be developed so that they can value in which way it is appropriate and avoid
any abuse of capabilities (Saito, 2003). Added to this, even if a distinct career
focused list were agreed, the list and the weightings given to the value of each
functioning, would not be static to reflect changing societal priorities over time
(Qizilbash, 2011). However, the public deliberation aspect makes the CA distinct
and offers a way in which to operationalise the approach (Sen, 2009). In this
work, service user capability for voice would need to be developed; that is “their
effective possibility to express their concerns with regard to the choice of the
informational basis” (Bonvin & Farvaque, 2005, p. 269). The capability for voice
concept bridges the gap between subjective preferences and objective assessment
in evaluation.
In terms of evaluating a CA to career guidance there are further limitations that
would need to be overcome. Evaluation underpins evidence-based practice in career
guidance: it is therefore important, but it is also problematic. A range of approaches
are available (Hooley, 2014; Killeen, 1996). Some use objective measures of career
outcomes, such as salary; others use subjective measures, such as job satisfaction.
Criteria may be economically or employment focused, but they may also
conceptualise career development as an educational experience and therefore adopt
learning outcomes (Killeen & Kidd, 1991). Some prefer psychological measures of
attitudinal change or quasi-clinical measures of well-being related variables. Easy
to measure variables tend to be preferred, although they may not offer the most
insightful approach, and service user’s perspectives are often neglected (Plant,
2012; Plant & Haug, 2018), particularly in the consideration of deeper and strategic
issues, such as how service outcomes are defined and prioritised. The challenges
of evaluating career guidance are considerable, and the CA implies that career
capabilities are the desirable focus. On the one hand this opens-up a fresh way of
conceptualising the outcomes of career guidance—by assessing the capability set:
the range of realistically attainable lives/careers that can genuinely be accessed (Sen,
1985, 1990, 2003). On the other hand, this creates new problems. Whilst unrealised
potentialities are intriguing, they are difficult if not impossible to capture for the
purposes of evaluation. Furthermore, career guidance is not necessarily complete if
a range of opportunities have been opened-up. It also serves to help people choose
one path among many i.e. in the language of the CA, to select the functioning that
they have reason to value (Sen, 1985, 1990, 2003). Sen (2003) does however offer
the practical compromise, whereby observations of capability are constructed based
on presumptions, relating well-being to the achieved and observed functionings,
rather than the capability set.
A final key issue in evaluating career guidance is consideration of the level of
analysis to be used. A ‘good’ result might be understood at a micro (individual),
meso (group/organisation), or macro (societal) level (Killeen, 1996). Whilst
individual level analysis tends to be given primacy, it is important to recognise the
potential for career guidance to be a community level intervention (Thomsen, 2012),
and the potential for conceptualising capabilities at this meso level. In pursuing this
route, the issue of public deliberation becomes particularly salient. All the issues
explored in this section have ethical implications for practitioners. The CA to career
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International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance (2021) 21:447–463
1 3
guidance would suggest that autonomy is a central ethical principle for practice
(Robertson & Egdell, 2018), and that career choices are to be understood as values-
based. Ethical problems and dilemmas may arise where there are clashes between
the priorities of individuals, communities, practitioners, and career services. Whilst
debate and discussion may go some way towards reconciling these differences, some
conflict of values may be unavoidable.
In summary, the key question for career guidance, arising from the issue of
evaluation, is whether capabilities can be measured. There are arguments that only
functionings can be measured, as substantive freedoms and opportunities cannot be
observed, only deduced (Chiappero-Martinetti etal., 2015; Verd & Andreu, 2011;
Zimmermann, 2006). Indeed, at the theoretical application level, the blurring of
the boundaries in the CA between options and capabilities are highlighted (Gasper,
2002). As such there are difficulties when operationalising the CA for the real world
in measuring capabilities separately from functionings (Walby, 2012). The mutual
dependency of capabilities, functioning and conversion factors add another layer
of complexity (Kremakova, 2013, p. 403). Added to this service users may not be
used to expressing their views and may find it hard to answer the open questions
required to identify the benefits of capability informed career guidance interventions
(Chiappero-Martinetti etal., 2015).
Having examined these three groups of challenges, it is concluded that the CA
stands up well to conceptual critiques, provided the claims made for it are moderate.
It offers a distinctive philosophical approach to social justice, but clearly not the
only possible approach. The differences between Sens approach and a Rawlsian
perspective should not be overstated (Pogge, 2002; Rawls, 1999; Sen, 1985,
1990, 2003; Yılmaz, 2016), but the CA does ensure that the pragmatic challenges
of converting resources into lifestyle outcomes are not neglected. It offers a fresh
approach to thinking about careers by virtue of deriving from economics, but
in common with its parent discipline, it is not equipped to provide an adequate
sociological analysis of inequality in careers, or a psychological description of
career choice processes (Carpenter, 2009; Dean, 2009; Gasper, 2002; Kremakova,
2013; Robertson, 2015; Sayer, 2012; Zimmerman, 2006). Nonetheless, the CA may
provide a frame within which transdisciplinary dialogue about career development
can take place.
It presents practical challenges in making the leap from theory to practice,
leaving many difficult choices for the practitioner in terms of identifying resources,
conversion factors, and outcomes (Chiappero-Martinetti etal., 2015; Robertson &
Egdell, 2018; Verd & Andreu, 2011; Walby, 2012; Zimmermann, 2006). It offers a
new angle on assessment, evaluation, and service user involvement, but offers few
guidelines on meeting these challenges. “The problem is that even though such an
approach develops a challenging attempt to conceptualize freedom with regard to
public action, it provides neither a theory of society nor a methodology of inquiry,
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1 3
International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance (2021) 21:447–463
dimensions that are both required for sociological investigation” (Zimmermann,
2006, p. 469).
Its fundamental limitation as an approach to career guidance is its incompleteness.
It can stimulate thinking, but only by combining the approach with psycho-social
perspectives on careers can an adequate understanding be achieved. Given the
diversity of career development concepts now available it seems likely that a variety
of hybrid approaches are possible. Thus, there may be no single CA to career
guidance, but the potential for a diversity of models for practice sharing a common
starting point, inspired by the work of Sen.
Funding Theauthorsreceived no specific fundingfor thiswork.
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of interest The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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... Improvements in display design must be made, namely, the suitability of transparent text displays and supporting images for career readiness material with career planning goals because students need to understand the complex college entry and selection process. Besides that, planning becomes essential to help students understand academic plans according to their talents and interests [29]. After the researcher developed the initial form of the product and carried out the validity test, the average result of the EdukasiKarir validation test by media experts was 77.9% with eligible criteria and can be used but with improvements. ...
... Sen only outlined the capability approach in general terms without providing lists of capabilities or specifying how this approach can be used in various contexts (Robertson, 2015;Robertson & Egdell, 2018;Zimmermann, 2006). Egdell and Robertson (2021) argued that a lack of sociological analysis of conversion factors discussed in Sen's capability approach is not favourable for informing the design of career interventions and turning resources into positive career-related outcomes. Hart and colleagues (Hart, 2016;Hart & Brando, 2018;Hart et al., 2014) proposed two core capabilities, namely, the capability to aspire and the capability to realize aspirations as important components to operationalize the capability approach to working with children in school or educational settings. ...
Full-text available
Inspired by Amartya Sen’s conceptualization of capability, this article examined how the introduction of an experience-driven (ED) framework into the capability approach helps inform the delivery of a career support service project targeted at youth aged 15–21, who are not in education, employment or training (NEET youth) with difficulties to develop their career capabilities. Based on a thematic analysis of ten individual interview transcripts collected from five career practitioners and five ex-users, the study discussed four interlocking domains of experiences and experience-driven career interventions for enhancing youth’s capabilities to aspire and realize aspirations with a transition from the zone of proximal development to the zone of aspired development, namely, recognition, exposures, self-growth and transferability. We recommended further research studies on evaluating the effectiveness of using the ED framework for applying the capability approach to strengthening the career capabilities of service users characterized by diversity and vulnerability in different service settings.
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‘Work-first’ (or ‘workfare’) activation policies severely restrict the choices of the unemployed. Can third-sector organisations (TSOs), with their person-centred mission, support long-term unemployed adults to make their own choices, given individual and societal constraints? Commentators often focus on ‘what works’ in supporting those with complex needs; others draw on the ‘capabilities approach’ (CA). With commentators often talking past each other, two key issues emerge. First, what constitutes real choice, and, second, how do we deal with the testimonies of programme users when those experiencing social deprivation may overstate the choices available to them? We argue that the CA’s dichotomisation of ‘true/real’ versus ‘constrained/no’ choice is problematic for a balanced assessment of choice possibilities across different programmes. Building on insights from current literatures, we develop a framework for researching choice possibilities. Using qualitative research, we apply this framework to a TSO employability programme in England, and find users have more control over their choices compared with UK workfare policy. The article contributes to international debates on the value of the CA, the links between programme form, user choice and well-being, and the scope for TSOs to deliver on their user-centred mission and prefigure better alternatives to workfare.
This book provides a deeply psychological view of working in America with the intention of transforming existing assumptions and policies about work. At its best, working can provide a powerful sense of aliveness and meaning in our lives; yet, working can also be the source of psychic pain, distress, and despair. The book uses psychological and social science research in conjunction with qualitative analyses of 58 in-depth interviews with adults from across the country who were working or struggling to find work. This book explores the various ways in which working serves to sustain a sense of aliveness, including being able to survive and thrive, connect with others, contribute to something greater than ourselves, be the best we can be, being able to care for others, and being able to work without oppression and harassment. A major conclusion of this book is that the workplace in America is eroding across many dimensions, leaving people feeling untethered and insecure about their futures, with many people feeling anxious and very distressed. Recommendations for individual and community-based adaptations are described along with suggestions for public policy reforms, including efforts to infuse human rights into the workplace, create more sustainable working conditions, and develop supportive structures in society and the economy that allow all people to engage in decent and dignified work.
New models of career education are needed to prepare young people for changes and challenges in the world of work. We propose that the psychology of working framework/theory (PWF/PWT) has the potential to shape career education in transformative ways that are attentive to shifting dimensions of the local context and the marginalization of large segments of the world population in seeking access to decent work. In this article, we present theory and research supporting the PWF/PWT and its application for career development intervention, with specific attention to the constructs of youth purpose and critical consciousness as important resources for coping with massive changes in the world of work and growing inequality. We provide examples of how this might be done, drawing from our current research–practice partnerships that are designing, delivering, and evaluating PWF-/PWT-informed career intervention.