Aspirations and capabilities: the design and analysis of an action research project in Khayelitsha, Cape Town
The central theme of the study is whether deliberate actions to realise aspirations can and would be likely to increase capabilities amongst the poor, and whether such attempts might reduce poverty. Capabilities are seen here as real opportunity sets which people can use to achieve what they want to be or do (Sen, 1990:43-44). In addition Amartya Sen also emphasises the important role of agency in the achievement of capabilities (Sen, 1985). The relationship between aspirations, agency and capabilities is therefore explored, with emphasis on whether people can escape a potential poverty trap by deliberate and focused use of agency. I also ask what role structural opportunities and constraints play in this process.The study has been largely inspired by the idea of Arjun Appadurai (2004) that the poor might be constrained in their efforts to escape poverty because they lack the capacity to aspire, as they might have been socialised to accept that their aspirations would not be realisable. This idea was tested in a five year action research programme in Site C, Khayelitsha, near Cape Town. The dissertation offers an analysis of the programme in which a group of women was assisted in voicing their aspirations and subsequently worked on the realisation of these aspirations with a limited amount of support and facilitation by the researcher. Although many papers have been written on the social and economic implications of Appadurai’s idea, both within and external to the human development approach, the practical implementation of the idea in a project seems to be novel. The analysis of aspirations and capabilities is contextualised in the dissertation. The history and migration of the participating women show how their lives have been shaped by colonialism, apartheid, and their own cultural practices. This is followed by a discussion of the literature which informs the research and the analysis. The capability approach is discussed with particular reference to its conceptual tools, and the differences in the approaches of Sen and Nussbaum are briefly described. I review the ways in which capabilities are generally measured, and discuss the perspectives of different authors on individualism in the approach. Adaptation and agency as seen from the perspective of the capability approach provide important conceptual material for the analysis in a later chapter. A number of studies which assessed capabilities by qualitative means are then briefly reviewed, and these again provide background information for the analysis of the Khayelitsha study. The study on the use of agency in the capability approach reveals that there are lacunae, which could possibly be addressed by amplification from other disciplines. With this in mind agency is further explored in different disciplines – economics, psychology and social theory. Particular attention is given to three classical theorists of agency, Giddens, Bourdieu and Habermas, but the work of Archer, Latour, Long and Joas is also reviewed. I then recommend that the capability approach would benefit from a hermeneutical analysis of agency, and indicate specific elements which I think can be brought forward into such an extension. The literature review also includes a section on aspirations, which takes account of the conceptual relationship between aspirations, agency and capabilities. The empirical material is introduced under the umbrella of an action research programme which spanned a five year period. As part of this programme there was a household survey to obtain benchmark data. This was followed by the presentation of a life skills course based on Participatory Action Research or PRA methods. Between late 2006 and 2010 the women implemented their decisions, and their actions were observed. The main research process during this phase was an ethno-methodological study of the participating women. During this phase a number of life histories were recorded and I also conducted a set of individual interviews which focussed on individual agency. In 2010 I assessed the women’s increase in functionings and capabilities by taking note of actions taken towards achieving their aspirations, and in 2012 I recorded seven interviews on the rural-urban dynamics in their lives. The main findings of the household survey are given in a separate chapter on research findings. The different recordings of the aspirations the women articulated, and how these changed, are also recorded in the chapter on findings. The analysis of the respondents’ increase in functionings and capabilities is done with reference to an adaptation of a diagram published by Robeyns (2005:98), which visualises the essential conceptual parts of the capability approach. I adapt the diagram for a specific social context, for aspiration formulation, for agency assessment, and for the assessment of increased capabilities. In a second analysis chapter I do a hermeneutic agency analysis of six of the participating women in the context of the capability approach, asking whether the pursuit of their aspirations had been agency-unlocking. This is followed by a concluding chapter.