Sunday, May 08, 2005
Lots of people are downloading this draft. Please consider getting the book in which it was later published.
Batterbury, S.P.J and J.L. Fernando. 2004.
Amartya Sen. In P. Hubbard, R. Kitchin
and G. Valentine (eds.) Key thinkers on space
Order book: http://www.sagepub.co.uk/book.aspx?pid=106064
Review essays on Key
Thinkers on Space and Place were
published in Environment and Planning A
2005, volume 37(1) January,
pages 161 – 187 [Mark Boyle, Richard Peet,
Claudio Minca, Michael Samers,
Kirsten Simonsen, Mark Purcell, Elspeth Graham, Phil
Hubbard, Rob Kitchin, Gill Valentine]. Those
essays could be downloaded from the publisher’s website until recently – now
they require a subscription (too expensive for most libraries, alas). Dick Peet pointed out that Sen hardly
constitutes a key theorist on space and place issues – a fair point that I am sure
he would accept!
Simon Batterbury and Jude L. Fernando
version. final text differs and was published as Batterbury,
S.P.J and J.L. Fernando. 2004. Amartya Sen. In P.
Hubbard, R. Kitchin and G. Valentine (eds.) Key thinkers on space and place.
Simon Batterbury (PhD,
Jude Fernando is a Sri Lankan political economist
Amartya Kumar Sen is an
intellectual of global stature, highly influential in international public
debate, and operating from the pinnacle of university life. He was born in 1933, and grew up in
are diverse, and have required an intellectual engagement that has spread well
beyond his early classical and neoclassical training. Over the years he has
contributed to social choice theory (a technical field in economics), more generally
to welfare economics, the understanding and measurement of poverty,
explanations of famine and hunger, agrarian change and rural development
issues, and he has conducted a wide engagement with ethics, moral philosophy
and the meanings of ‘development’. His empirical investigations involve wide
ranging international comparisons, but with a primary focus on
In his early years Sen was preoccupied with welfare economics, and made contributions to the formalistic (mathematical) expression of social choices, alongside some work on Indian agriculture and peasant economies (Desai 2001, Corbridge 2002, Sen 1962). His early technical work resulted in significant challenges to Kenneth Arrow's ‘impossibility theorem’, which is a proposition about the impossibility of making consistent collective judgments under certain common conditions. Essentially, Sen challenged the view that individuals make rational, utilitarian choices about their own welfare. In Rational Fools (1977), he dismisses the notion that the individual acted purely according to self-interest with regards to welfare or income decisions, for life would be nonsensical if they did so, and later said: “To try to make social welfare judgements without using any interpersonal comparisons of utilities, and without using any nonutility information, is not a fruitful enterprise” (Sen 1995: 8). How people make decisions is influenced by non-utility concerns like equity, class position, and family influence (Sen 1992, 2002). The technique of ‘revealed preferences’ does not distinguish what drove those decisions and choices. Interpersonal comparison of utility (the value of a commodity achieved in consumption) is vital because there are inequalities that result from self-interested maximisation, many of them undesirable. While these observations appear commonsensical to political economists, Sen’s points were challenging and controverisal to neoclassical utilitarianism. Social choice theory still figures in his work - he sums its central contribution thus: "If there is a central question that can be seen as the motivating issue that inspires social choice theory, it is this: How can it be possible to arrive at cogent aggregative judgments about the society (for example, about 'social welfare,' or 'the public interest,' or 'aggregate poverty'), given the diversity of preferences, concerns, and predicaments of the different individuals within society?" (Sen 1998 no pages). Earlier, and anticipating some of his future research on democracy and ethics, Sen pointed out that the "ultimate guarantee for individual liberty may not rest on rules for social choice but on developing individual values that respect each other's personal choices" 1976).
Since the 1960s Sen has moved from the development of formalistic models, to theorizing the ethical foundations of development itself. An important bridge-builder in his intellectual journey has been the concept of human “capability”. By the late 1980s Sen was defining capability as “a set of functioning bundles representing the various alternative “beings and doings” that a person can achieve with his or her economic, social, and personal characteristics" (Drèze and Sen 1989: 18; Sen 1985). Capability is “tantamount to the freedom of a person to lead one kind of life rather than another" in an Aristotelian sense (Nussbaum and Sen 1993: 2). It follows, therefore, that the individual’s capability can be repressed – for example by denying a person access to basic services (including food, education, land, freedom of expression, or health care), or realized - through a person’s own agency, but also through supportive actions by other individuals and a range of institutions, including (very importantly for Sen) the ‘developmentalist’ state capable of public action. The core of development itself it is, therefore, the enjoyment of freedom – not just freedom of speech in a narrow sense, but freedom for individuals to realize their capability.
Sen’s major contribution to date on this issue, Development as Freedom (Sen 1999) is
consistent with his earlier work on comparisons of individual preferences and
values, but it goes much further in redefining human wellbeing to mean the
enhancement of capabilities. He says “Development consists of the removal of
various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choices and little
opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency” (Sen 1999 xii). He separates
well-being into two components: well-being concerned with individual interests,
and well-being concerned with the interests of others. There are three major
roles for freedom: it is seen as having direct importance to people; it is also
instrumental since it enables people to attain desired ends; and finally,
freedom has a constitutive role necessary for dialogue on these desired ends
and for making moral decisions (Gasper 2000). Since it is consistent with these
three roles, democracy is viewed as the most preferred system of governance
with the greatest capacity to expand basic freedoms. Achieving development,
then, requires the expansion and improvement of capabilities and entitlements
for the poor and underprivileged (education and health care figure prominently
in Sen’s empirical work, notably in
another stage on his intellectual journey Sen received acclaim his foundational
work to improve the indicators used to measure poverty rates and human
development (Sen 1997), which was instrumental in the development of the Human
Development Index (HDI) and its expression in the United Nations Development
Programme’s Human Development Report, which signalled something of an
alternative to the neoliberalist “Washington consensus” on poverty measures.
Sen showed that human development was high in a number of countries, even
though their per capita incomes (the standard measure of growth used by the
World Bank and other international agencies) were low. Hence, he and subsequent researchers at the
UNDP have argued that development priorities should be geared more towards
improving human development
(capabilities) – assessed though wide-ranging multivariate indices -
rather than growth-centered economic policy.
This effort was part of a move towards discussing other contributors to
capability, including gender roles, fertility, and gendered mortality risk (Sen
1990). For example, Sen has argued strongly
for the extension of freedom and independence to women and children in
developing countries, which he says has demonstrable effects on wellbeing,
poverty alleviation, and mortality. He regards the
neglect of women’s nutrition and health (not least among poor African-Americans
Despite these applications of his work, Sen has largely abstained from collective action or an activist role in the issues he has raised though his writings and the practices they have spawned (Corbridge 2002, The Guardian 2001), although he was involved in left-wing politics as a student (Sen 2001, no pages). He prides himself on never having worked directly for governments and is cautious about giving policy advice, but he has used funds from his Nobel prize to set up the Pratichi Trust, which is concerned with redressing illiteracy and lack of schooling in India and Bangladesh (problems explored in Drèze and Sen 1995). In Indian affairs he labels himself somewhat left of centre, opposed to the present excesses of the ruling BJP’s Hindu nationalism and its role in nuclear proliferation, but remaining a strong supporter of gender equality, pluralism, and pro-poor policies. But has publicly distanced himself from some more radical positions on development, particularly in relation to Gandhi’s belief in local self-sufficiency and technological skepticism, and he sees an “ugly side” to many forms of localist, communitarian, and religious politics. This emerges from his support for ‘minimal universal’ human values and needs, and while remaining tolerant of difference he supports a sort of cultural ‘bricolage’ over localism (Corbridge 2002:185). Like Anthony Giddens, Sen is a qualified supporter of economic globalization for its potential to tackle poverty and inequality, even though it “doesn’t always work” (Sen 2001, no pages) and should not be reduced to the unfettered expansion of trade and markets. More democratic and egalitarian globalization is possible, for which strong civil society movements may be required, but “One's concern for equity and justice in the world must not carry one into the alien territory of unreasoned belief” (Sen 2001 no pages) as he says of the anti-globalization movement. His approach to these and other issues always beautifully expressed, rational, and developed through rich and thoughtful analysis. It is important to re-state that equality and justice, and the rights of the poor not to suffer “unfreedoms” figure centrally in almost all his work (Sen 2001, no pages).
In his attempt to insert the theoretical space for a dialogue on equality into the rather introverted world of mainstream economics, and to be specific about the notions of equality and how to realize them, Sen has made some insights that have been debated and applied by geographers and related disciplines, particularly development studies. In the crudest sense, much of his work plays attention to geography, through inter-area and inter-state comparisons (e.g. Drèze and Sen 1995, and several subsequent volumes), and through specific reference to places and historical events. Yet Sen holds to a cosmopolitan view of territoriality, and thus in accordance in his belief in universal rights, he argues that culture transcends place rather than as Arturo Escobar argues, ‘residing in places’ (Sen 2004).
By far the greatest attention by geographers has been to his work
on poverty and famine. Sen has identifies insidious, quotidian hunger as a
major concern (Sen 1984), but his explanation of widespread famine seized the
public interest. When Sen was a small
boy he witnessed the direct effects of the1943-5 famine in
Poverty and Famines was Sen’s most influential work, and his famous ‘food entitlement
decline’ (FED) explanation was further elaborated with the gifted economist
Jean Drèze, in several volumes, using extended empirical cases (Drèze and Sen
fascinating offshoot of entitlement theory is “environmental entitlements”
developed by the Environment Group at the Institute for Development Studies,
Key advances and controversies
Sen’s work is particularly challenging to critical scholars, because much of it is highly original and it cuts across disciplines and schools of thought, making it difficult to isolate. Yet it is very widely read and adopted and thus impossible to ignore. Sen is in an ambiguous position in regard to his neoclassical roots in economics, being both master and critic of the discipline. The radical implications that may be drawn from his support for human emancipation, equality, justice and poverty alleviation have largely been taken up by others (including many PhD students worldwide) pushing his sometimes abstract ideas much further– Sen himself practices “cautious boldness” (Cameron 2000) – raising issues dear to the heart of his critics, but never quite severing them from a faith in more conventional development economics and public policy responses. Several of his key contributions have attracted widespread discussion, usually to call for extension of his analysis, rather than wholesale rejection of it (Fine 2001, Alkire 2002).
On famine and entitlements, Ben Fine (a former student) finds an "unresolved tension between micro-foundations of entitlement analytic and the broader recognition of famine as irreducibly macro, not least because famine is more than the sum of its individual parts…” (Fine 2001:8). Sen is aware of political-economic forces, pointing out that “famine is dependent upon 'the exercise of power and authority …alienation of the rulers from those who ruled . . . the social and political distance between the governors and the governed" (1999, p.170) but as Fine says, this does not go far enough – Sen’s understanding of power and structures is “superimposed, not built, upon the micro-foundations". There is always a political economy to famine that can explain why people starve.
geographers have taken up the challenge of explaining famines, sometimes paying
more attention to the combined socio-economic/natural hazard nexus. Blaikie et
al (1994) develop heuristic models that make multilevel causation of famine,
and processes of vulnerability, more explicit. Michael Watts, who provided one
of the most detailed Marxist arguments for the colonial origins of famine
(1983), is broadly sympathetic to Sen.
He argues that if poverty (and famine) is a result of ‘capability
failure’ and a lack of entitlements, the prime response must be to overcome
vulnerability and to address demand for food. But processes of oppression can
lie at famine’s roots, the development of ‘critical autonomy’ and a strong
‘sense of society’ is needed to enhance freedoms (2000: 57). Following Marx,
A powerful school of thought has emerged in famine studies develops this argument about social and political embeddedness. While not completely dismissive on Sen’s focus on individual entitlements and the importance of accountability and democracy, its proponents argue convincingly that that the perpetuation of armed conflict and violence in famine situations serves certain elite interests, as in the 1980s famine in Sudan and 1970s Ethiopia where famine was used as a political weapon (Keen 1994, de Waal 1989, Middleton and O’Keefe 1998). The creation of ‘complex emergencies’ produces beneficiaries, as well as many victims. Yet “war famines”, where ‘freedom to choose’ is clearly violated beyond repair, have no treatment in Sen’s entitlement approach. Other important criticisms, aside from challenges to Sen’s data, include the fact that many famine deaths occur through ill health, not starvation (De Waal 1989), and that endowments – like communal livestock herds, or common property – lack clear property rights and be the subject of overlapping claims, making them “fuzzy entitlements” that are analytically indistinct (Devereux 2001:253).
A related concern follows from this. Apart from developing abstract notions of capabilities and entitlements, Sen has said little over the years about opulence and the inequalities resulting from growth and from wealth, despite his deep interest in equality and ethics (Gasper and Cameron 2000: 986). There is little discussion on the relationship between the production of ‘opulence’ and the depravation of capabilities and entitlement (but see Sen 1987). He has of course questioned the ethics of unconcern about inequality and poverty in the modern age (Sen 2001). Nonetheless the classical view that production of prosperity for an increasingly tiny minority must surely relate to ‘unfreedoms’ and the denial of capability enhancement for the majority through the appropriation of surplus value is absent, and the case for radical redistribution of wealth (through the welfare state, Scandinavian-style, for example) is not present in Sen’s major works (Cameron 2000:1043).
Some critics of Sen ask for a much richer conception of ‘self’ that sees human agents as much more than beings seeking to attain capabilities. Giri argues Sen’s conceptualization of ‘self’ is too narrow in this regard (Giri 2000: 1018). Despite Sen’s emphasis on agency, there is little discussion on “striving for self-development on the part of the poor” (p1007). Unlike Anthony Giddens conception of the autotelic self (Giddens 1994), a ‘reflective dimension of self’, with values and worldviews and responsibility is not a full part of Sen’s analysis despite his call to insert value into welfare analysis (see above).
Lastly, there is a certain level of ambiguity in Sen's notion of
‘development as freedom’. Freedom is, more often than not, accompanied by its
foreclosure. One may be able to secure a great deal of equal opportunity within
a competitive economy, but equal opportunity neither guarantees equal access,
or win-win situations for everyone. Sen is less than clear about tackling the
conflicts that result from people’s pursuit of freedom: development seems to be
about “more choice”, which must surely have limits (Gasper 2000: 999). But how
exactly are freedoms achieved? By what political means?
How may the poor challenge vested interests other than through votes? Does Sen support protest against the state in the name of
freedom? Critics see difficulties in
Sen’s work here, and a failure to recognize the vitality of "concerted
struggles against the powers of vested interests, at all spatial scales”
(Corbridge 2002: 209). In defending plurality of freedoms under democracy in
Several authors suspect that the reasons for certain absences in Sen’s work have to do with his philosophical choices and his continuing commitment to economic principles which he has extended and pushed, but never really overturned (Benicourt 2002, Cameron 2000, Fine 2001). Corbridge argues that “Sen's liberalism leaves him poorly equipped to deal with questions of entrenched power and the politics of conflict and social mobilization” (2002:203), and there is no real political economy of capitalism in his work, surprising given the political and ethically charged issues that he has addressed (Fine 2001: 12). This is not to suggest at all that he is unaware of such issues (Sen 2001, 2002).
Amartya Sen is a beacon of common sense in the interdisciplinary terrain he occupies (Corbridge 2002). Entitlements and capability stress human agency, not constraint, and they carry “some sense of worth and of real people’s lives” (Gasper 2000:996). His commitment to understanding and resolving inequality, and expanding basic freedoms, has placed utilitarians and many mainstream economists in an uncomfortable position. Social scientists in general should be enormously grateful that this important ambassador for humane economics (Desai 2001) can reach the ears of policymakers worldwide with his beguiling ideas, even if his theoretical and empirical work places far less attention on the injustice of the political economy that structures social action, than it does on promoting and nurturing social action itself.
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and Public Action.
Nussbaum M, and Sen A.K.
1993. The Quality
Sen, A. K. 1970. Collective
Choice and Social Welfare.
Sen A.K 1981. Poverty and Famines: an essay on
entitlements and deprivation
Sen, A.K. 1985. Commodities and Capabilities.
Sen A.K. 1997 On Economic Inequality. An Expanded Edition with a Substantial Annexe by James Foster and Amartya Sen. Oxford: Clarendon Press.(Ist ed 1973)
Sen, A.K. 1999. Development as Freedom.
Alkire, S. 2002. Valuing Freedoms. Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty
Bebbington, A. J. 1999. Capitals and capabilities: a framework for analyzing peasant viability, rural livelihoods and poverty. World Development 27: 2021–44.
Bohle H-G (ed.) 1993. Worlds of Pain and Hunger: Geographical Perspectives on Disaster Vulnerability and Food Security. Saarbrucken/Fort Lauderdale, FL: Verlag Breitenbach Publishers.
Cannon T., Davis
Benicourt, E. 2002. Is Amartya Sen a Post-Autistic Economist?, Post-Autistic Economics Review, 15: article 4. http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/review/issue15.htm
Cameron, J, and D. Gasper.2000. “Amartya Sen on inequality, human well-being, and Development as Freedom.” Journal of International Development 12(7).
Cameron J 2000 Amartya Sen on economic inequality: the need for an explicit critique of opulence. Journal of International Development 12(7) 1031-1045
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Devereux, S. 1993. Theories of
Devereux, S. 2001. Sen’s entitlement approach:
critiques and counter-critiques.
Fine, B. 2001Amartya Sen: A Partial and Personal Appreciation. CDPR Discussion Paper 1601. Centre for Development and Policy Research. SOAS http://www.soas.ac.uk/Centres/CDPR/DP16BF.PDF
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Gasper, D. 2000 Development as Freedom: taking economics beyond commodities – the cautious boldness of Amartya Sen. Journal of International Development 12: 989-1001
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Middleton, N and
O’Keefe, P. 1998. Disaster and Development: the
politics of humanitarian aid.
D. 1994. The benefits of famine. A political economy of
famine and relief in southwestern
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Sen, A.K. 1998. Autobiography. Swedish
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de Waal, A. 1989. Famine That Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984–1985.
Williams C.C. and J. Windebank. 2003. Poverty and the
 Drèze’s own background is important – he is a singular example of an academic economist who works on poverty, but who has embraced that condition voluntarily for much of his life, eschewing materiality.