Applying the capability approach for housing research. A golden methodology? No such thing exists

with No Comments

“if the capability approach is expected […] to generate a specific and distinctive methodology, […] one may be disappointed.”

Sabina Alkire (2007)

“You know, more housing researchers are interested in the capability approach. But they don’t know how to apply it”. Time and again, I’ve encountered the questions: “What methodologies should we use for applying the capability approach for housing research?”

Of course, choosing a research methodology depends on what the housing researcher wants to investigate. It also depends on how the researcher transforms the concept of the capability approach (CA) into practical research terms. It is also related to which tenents of the CA the researcher wants to keep for designing a research methodology, considering the purpose or hypothesis of the research.

A Myth on Distinctive CA Methodologies

Looking for a methodology without defining what s/he is going to research…? Indeed, this approach is not normal. Obviously, a research methodology is a logical procedure of problem-solving. It is regardless of which theory (or framework) a researcher is applying. However, this basic principle is often forgotten even among the experienced researchers.

For some housing researchers, there seems to be a misunderstanding of ‘specific and distinctive methodologies for the capability approach exist’. But, there are no such golden methodologies. In many papers and books on the CA, the words ‘operationalization’, ‘measurement’ or ‘evaluation’ appear often. I sometimes wonder if this causes such misunderstandings.

Perhaps it is also because of the term ‘approach’, rather than ‘-ism’ or ‘…. theory’. The CA is not a theory because it does not explain about poverty and inequality. It is rather a framework for understanding wellbeing and justice. Although it is only a framework, I would say that it has an aspect of ‘theory’ and ‘-ism’ because it is a way of understanding a social matter. In this sense, I can compare it to the situation “what methodologies can I use for applying Marxism to housing research?”. Marxism is a way of understanding a socioeconomic symptom and problem causality. However, researchers would hardly expect a distinctive methodology for its application.

I personally have not yet conducted empirical research with the CA, at the time of writing this post. But, at least from literature reviews, I can say one thing: The process of applying the CA is the same as for other common research. A researcher selects a theoretical framework, digests its perspective, tries to see a problem from that perspective, defines a hypothesis or question, and designs a methodology by integrating the tenets of the theoretical framework (i.e. distinctive features comparing to other theoretical frameworks).

Some recommendations

Applying a theory (or theoretical framework) is like to wear glasses with coloured lenses. Through the different lenses, you see a symptom, problem or causality of something differently. And you analyse whether this brings better insights closer to reality. If you are struggling to find a way to apply the CA, it is best to start with, at first, digesting what the CA is about (You may think ‘Isn’t it too obvious?’ Maybe, but many housing researchers want to skip this step and look for a shortcut to conduct research). After that, perhaps you can analyse the tenets of the CA in comparison to other conventional theories/perspectives that have been used for your research topic. By reflecting the tenets, you can design a methodology that aligns to the CA.

Adapted from Stephnie Duguay

There are no golden methodologies for applying the CA. However, it can still be useful to have a look at other examples and get some sense. For the housing researchers who want to have a look, I recommend starting with the literature listed below.

  • Alkire, S. (2007) Choosing Dimensions: The Capability Approach and Multidimensional Poverty
  • Chiappero-Martinetti, E. and J. M. Roche (2009) Operationalization of the Capability Approach, from Theory to Practice: A Review of Techniques and Empirical Applications. In Chiappero-Martinetti, E. (ed.) Debating Global Society: Reach and Limits of the Capability Approach. (Or, for its draft version: click this link)
  • Comim, F. (2008) Measuring Capabilities. In F. Comim, M. Qizilbash and S. Alkire (eds.) The Capability Approach: The Concepts, Measures and Applications.

But, I strongly recommend researchers pay attention to the purpose of the CA applications, while reading the literature. The readers should keep it in their mind that ‘for which problem to solve, and for what purpose, did they design this methodology?’ ‘where is this application on the broad spectrum of the CA application?’ In addition, these papers are already more than 10 years old. So much research has been done since then. I recommend you consider the literature above only as an entry point. Housing researchers need to explore other literature to get inspired, and design a methodology that fits with their problem-solving logic.

Additional notes

For highlighting again that there is no such golden methodology of the CA application, I add these texts from Alkire (2007:2).

“It needs to be emphasized that the CA engages with and draws upon a plethora of methodologies and analytical techniques. It does not compete with the techniques used to identify domains of interest, or different data for multidimensional poverty comparisons. The capability approach can draw on quantitative, qualitative, participatory, or subjective data, as well as examine income data, although income data alone are perhaps the crudest form of measurement.”

“Different applications of capability approach can – and no doubt will – be utilized, depending on the place and situation, the level of analysis, the information available, and the decisions involved. Methods will be plural. So if the capability approach is expected to generate one specific, universally-relevant set of domains for all evaluative exercises, or to generate a specific and distinctive methodology for identifying the poverty domains of any particular group values, one may be disappointed.”