The Potential of the Capability Approach for Developing a Sociology of Democracy

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 6:15 PM
Room: 503
Oral Presentation
Jean-Michel BONVIN , University of Applied Science and Arts Western Switzerland, Haute école travail social et santé , Lausanne, Switzerland
The capability approach emphasizes the tight connection between democratization and social justice, thus providing an essential clue in the “agency vs. structure” debate. In Development as Freedom (1999), Sen insists on the constructive value of democracy that, ideally, should allow all people to effectively take part in collective decision-making processes, i.e. to express their viewpoints, wishes, expectations, etc. but also the information and knowledge they have about the issue under scrutiny, and to make them count. In other words, democratization should permit all people (agency) to be part of the construction of the social fabric (structure), thus contributing to a more reflexive relationship between agency and structure. The paper focuses on the potential of such a perspective for developing a sociology of democracy; it both discusses its normative foundations, and suggests analytical tools for its implementation in the empirical enquiry. 

At normative level, Sen’s fascination for democracy has raised sharp criticisms: real democracy does not match Sen’s ideal at all; only active deliberators are allowed to enjoy the full benefits of democracy (cf. Cohen’s objection of athleticism), etc. In The Idea of Justice (2009), Sen strives to answer these criticisms: he develops a notion of democracy as public reasoning, emphasizes the relevance of issues such as the informational role of democracy, the inescapable plurality of principles and the needed focus on tolerant values. The paper assesses to what extent these developments take up the normative challenges raised by the criticisms. At empirical level, the concept of “capability for voice” as a basis for the sociological use of the capability approach is presented, and the factors facilitating (or impeding) its effective implementation are identified, thus providing an analytical grid for the sociological enquiry of democracy and participation.