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Freedom of Choice and Poverty Alleviation

Ortrud Leßmann ()

Review of Social Economy, 2011, vol. 69, issue 4, 439-463

Abstract: The Capability Approach (henceforth CA) views poverty as a multidimensional phenomenon that is not only characterised by lows levels of achievement in the various dimensions but also by a restricted opportunity to choose among different ways of life. The CA thus puts a lot of emphasis on (limited) freedom of choice as a crucial aspect of poverty. If poverty is seen in this way there are two ways to improve the situation of the poor: by broadening the set of opportunities open to them or by strengthening their ability to choose. The paper concentrates on the latter. Although the CA discusses several possibilities for strengthening the ability to choose it does not explicitly consider the role of enhancing the capability of choosing as a means of poverty alleviation. The paper summarizes which circumstances are seen in the CA as suitable for strengthening freedom of choice. Namely, the paper discusses the market as an institution that trains the ability to choose, democracy as a political institution that is based on freedom of choice and participatory methods as an attempt to build explicitly on freedom of choice of the participants. Two shortcomings in the theoretical conceptualization of freedom of choice in the CA are identified by discussing these institutions and circumstances: first, the interplay between social structures and individual agency is not modelled in much detail within the CA. Second, the CA does not provide an explicitly temporal model of agency. The paper takes a closer look at these shortcomings from a sociological perspective since the questions they raise are core questions of sociology. The problems are intertwined. In order to tackle the problem of social embedding in the CA one needs to introduce time and processes as well. Sociological approaches show how social structures evolve from the interaction of individuals. The paper gives an example of how sociological concepts of this interaction can be used for drawing a model of social work for strengthening the agency of the poor. The paper proceeds as follows: first the view of poverty as capability deprivation is presented. The second section gives an overview of the areas in which the CA discusses the strengthening of individual choice: the market, democracy and participatory projects. The third section elaborates on the shortcomings of the CA identified in the preceding section from a sociological perspective and introduces a concept of social work developed in a similar theoretical context. The conclusion summarizes the lessons and outlines further lines of research.

Date: 2011
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DOI: 10.1080/00346764.2011.577349

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