Research, Theory

Technology as freedom and unfreedom: why I like the capability approach

I’ve been working with a new theoretical framework for my research over the summer. Capability theory draws on the writings of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. It is concerned with models of development that give people the freedom to choose the lives the value: giving us analytical frameworks to appreciate how people’s perceptions of their own situations and capacities might be constrained by poverty or social marginalisation. As a feminist who’s work is concerned with the lives of young women, its important to me that this framework is especially able to incorporate concerns of gender justice (Nussbaum, M., 2003)

Whilst these ideas are deeply embedded in development contexts – serving as the basis for indices such as the UNDP Human Development Report – its only in recent years that there has been a broader movement of people trying to use this framework to understand technology. A recent special issue of the Journal Information Technology for Development was dedicated this to this subject: “Development as freedom – how the Capability Approach can be used in ICT4D research and practice”.

I’m only just starting to engage with this theory but I’m really excited about it for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it gives us a language and framework to talk about technology and social justice – opening up a realm described by Justine Johnstone (2007) as ‘technological justice’ “looking at computer technologies in terms of their contribution to people’s abilities to define and lead lives that they value”.

Secondly, it works well with the notion of ‘affordances‘ I have previously discussed on this blog – the things which a certain technology might promote or inhibit and it also gives us space to interrogate the ideologies embedded in technologies. In her work on the Capability approach and the ‘medium of choice’ Dorothea Kleine (2011) talks about how these affordances can limit or allow freedom of choice. I particularly like the neat phrase “Technologies can be a source both of freedom and of unfreedom.” (2012)

So far, the work I’m reading on capabilities comes from the ICT4D (ICT for development) field. But I’ll save my post about ICT4D and why we can’t use the same theory to apply to technology and development in my own backyard for another day!


Johnstone, J. 2007. Technology as empowerment: A capability approach to computer ethics. Ethics & Information Technology, 9, 73.

Nussbaum, M. 2003. Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice. Feminist Economics, 9, 33-59.

Kleine, D. 2011. The capability approach and the ‘medium of choice’: Steps towards conceptualising information and communication technologies for development. Ethics and Information Technology, 13, 119-130.

Kleine, D., Light, A. & Montero, M.-J. 2012. Signifiers of the life we value? – considering human development, technologies and fair trade from the perspective of the capabilities approach. Information Technology for Development, 18, 42-60.


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