Jack Whitehead, Department of Education, University of Bath

7 June 2004



In the course of researching the creation of living educational theories I have engaged with and drawn insights from the theories of philosophers, sociologists, theologians, psychologists, historians, psychotherapists and political economists. My colleagues Jean McNiff and Hugh Lauder have both drawn my attention to the economic theory of human capability of Amartya Sen and the purpose of this brief paper is to distinguish this theory of human capability from the economic theory of human capital in the development of my own living educational theory.


In saying this I am mindful of the claim that no sophisticated theory of education can ignore its contribution to economic development  (Halsey,  Lauder, Brown, & Wells; 1997, p. 156) and that the economic theory of human capital as developed by Halsey et.al. tends to replace the explanations of educational theory by its own explanations under the following conditions of ‘nominal impact’:


We have tried to show that there is a social and scientific zeal about the potential of education for addressing many of our most important social needs. What is lost in this zeal is a more careful analysis of the potential of education within the constellation of conditions and complementary inputs that are necessary for education to pay off…..


The fact of the matter is that education is just one factor, albeit an important one, in an overall melange of conditions that determines productivity and economic competitiveness as well as the levels of crime, public assistance, political participation, health, and so on. Education has the position for powerful impacts in each of these areas if the proper supportive conditions and inputs are present. It has the potential for a very nominal impact when the complementary requirements are not in place. By ignoring this set of facts in both policy and in our research, we tend to overstate the potential of education for improving society. We need to be realistic about what education can do and what other changes are necessary to maximize the effects of education and to realize our aspirations for economic and social betterment.  (p.250).


Amartya Sen (2003) in his analysis of Development as Freedom offers a different economic theory, that of human capability. What I particularly like about Sen’s theory is that it includes the formation of values and the emergence and evolution of social ethics as part of the process of development along with the working of markets and other institutions. His theory of human capability places education at the centre of economic and social betterment and resists the limiting tendency of the economic theories of human capital to explain the processes of human betterment in ways that omit some of the values in human capability theory.


Sen connects  a "human capital" orientation and a  "human capability" orientation by saying that both seem to place humanity at the center of attention.  At the risk of some oversimplification he says that while the literature on human capital tends to concentrate on the agency of human beings in augmenting production possibilities, the perspective of human capability focuses on the ability-the subústantive freedom-of people to lead the lives they have reason to value and to enhance the real choices they have.


For Sen the yardstick of assessment concentrates on different achievements in the two theories:


Given her personal characteristics, social background, economic circumstances and so on, a person has the ability to do (or be) certain things that she has reason to value. The reason for valuation can be direct (the functioning involved may directly enrich her life, such as being well-nourished or being healthy), or indirect (the functioning involved may contribute to further production, or command a price in the market). The human capital perspective can-in principle-be defined very broadly to cover both types of valuation, but it is typically defined-by convention-primarily in terms of indirect value: human qualities that can be employed as "capital" in production (in the way physical capital is). In this sense, the narrower view of the human capital approach fits into the more inclusive perspective of human capability, which can cover both direct and indirect consequences of human abilities. (p. 293)


Sen goes on to say that there is a crucial valuational difference between the human-capital focus and the concentration on human capabilities - a difference that relates to some extent to the distinction between means and ends:


The acknowledgment of the role of human qualities in promoting and sustaining economic growth-momentous as it is-tells us nothing about why economic growth is sought in the first place. If, instead, the focus is, ultimately, on the expansion of human freedom to live the kind of lives that people have reason to value, then the role of economic growth in expanding these opportunities has to be integrated into that more foundational understanding of the process of development as the expansion of human capability to lead more worthwhile and more free lives. (p. 295)


Sen believes that the use of the concept of "human capital,"  contributes to accounts of "productive resources" and is thus an enriching move but that it does need supplementation because human beings are not merely means of production, but also the end of the exercise. He says that we must go well beyond the notion of human capital, after acknowledging its relevance and reach. He sees his theory of human capability as additional and inclusive, rather than, in any sense, an alternative to the "human capital" perspective.


He gives as an example the possibility of the expansion of female education reducing gender inequality in intrafamily distribution and also helping to reduce fertility rates as well as child mortality rates. He points out that the expansion of basic education may also improve the quality of public debates and says that these instrumental achievements may be ultimately quite important – taking us well beyond the production of conventionally defined commodities.


In looking for a fuller understanding of the role of human capabilities, we have to take note of:


i)                      their direct relevance to the well being and freedom of people;

ii)                    their indirect role through influencing social change; and

iii)                   their indirect role through influencing economic production



The relevance of the capability perspective incorporates each of these contributions. In contrast, in the standard literature human capital is seem primarily in terms of the third of these roles. There is a clear overlap of coverage, and it is indeed an important overlap. but there is also a strong need to go well beyond that rather limited and circumscribed role of human capital in understanding development as freedom. (pp. 296-297)


In the creation of living educational theories (http://www.actionresearch.net/living.shtml) individuals explain their own learning in educational enquiries of the kind, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ These explanations include the unique constellations of values, that help to constitute the life of the individual, as explanatory principles for the learning.These embodied values can include freedom, justice, compassion, love and enquiry as well as their negations and are not reducible to one value, such as freedom. Where Sen’s economic theory of human capability is most helpful, rather like Raven’s (1995) New Wealth of Nations, is in being open to the legitimacy of explaining the education of social formations in terms of the living educational theories of those who are constituting the formation. It is also helpful in the creation of living educational theories of explaining the value of the economic theories of human capitalin understanding social formations as well as their limitations.



Halsey, A. H., Lauder, H., Brown, P. & Wells, A.S. (1997) Education: Culture, Economy and Society. Oxford; Oxford University Press.


Raven, J. (1995) The New Wealth of Nations. New York; Royal Fireworks Press.


Sen, A. (2001) Development as Freedom, Oxford; OUP.