The Capabilities Approach & Social Justice in LAIS, Part 1 by Mckinley Churchwell

When tackling social justice, it is important to have a framework to use for assessment and theorization. As an individual, you have cobbled together a framework for judging the need for justice from societal influences and your own experiences. As a librarian, your framework probably falls in line with ALA’s Code of Ethics; you probably care deeply about intellectual freedom and information literacy.

But, are those frameworks, your personal and professional, mashed together good enough? Do they make you feel comfortable when considering the many issues of social justice? Do those frameworks inspire you to action? Do you feel that you truly comprehend the heart, soul, and mission of the library 100%?

Today, I would like to tell you about Martha Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach. In my next post (the sequel), I’ll be talking about how the core capabilities of Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach can be (and in many cases already, unknowingly, are) addressed in the LAIS field. It is important for librarians to be aware of this approach so that they can better visualize the possibilities of the library and our role in serving the community. This approach fits especially well with the idea of the “whole person librarian,” a librarian who will collaborate with or act similarly to a social worker; the “whole person librarian” will apply social work practices and radically include and engage with their community white utilizing nonjudgmental listening (Zettervall, 2015, p.13). So yes, I do believe this theory could be important in shaping the future of librarianship.

Without further ado…

A Brief Introduction to the Capabilities Approach
The Capabilities Approach sprung from the mind of Amartya Sen in the 1980’s as an economic theory, however, that is not the Capabilities Approach that you will be learning about today (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d.). You will be learning about a theory of social justice that considers elements such as human dignity and entrenched inequality due to discrimination or marginalization (Nussbaum, 2011). The theory you will be learning about is none other than Martha Nussbaum’s (2011) Capabilities Approach which examines quality-of-life and theorizes social justice. This approach is not just concerned with the number of capability achievements that a person can acquire (i.e. professional success, buying a house, and so on), but with the quality of those capability achievements (Nussbaum, 2011).

But wait, you might be wondering, what exactly is a capability?
A capability is pretty much a right, but better. Nussbaum describes capabilities in this fashion, “They are the answers to the question, ‘What is this person able to do and to be?’” (2011, Kindle Location 242). Capabilities are “opportunities to choose and to act” (Nussbaum, 2011, Kindle Location 242). Capabilities reside inside an individual are also created by “personal abilities, and the political, social, and economic environment” (Nussbaum, 2011, Kindle Location 244). You can probably already see how nicely the idea of capabilities fits into librarianship; after all the very existence of libraries and librarians “is based on creating opportunity (read: equity) for all of our patrons” (Sonnenberg, 2017, p. 18).

Nussbaum identified ten Central Capabilities:

  1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
  2. Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
  3. Bodily integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
  4. Senses, imagination, and thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason-and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid nonbeneficial pain.
  5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside side ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety.
  6. Practical reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)
  7. Affiliation. (A) Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.) (B) Having the social bases of self-respect and nonhumiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of nondiscrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin.
  8. Other species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
  9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
  10. Control over one’s environment. (A) Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association. (B) Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers. (2011, Kindle Locations 376-393)

We will be returning to these capabilities in installment 2 of “The Capabilities Approach & Social Justice in LAIS” and making them tangible. However, I bet many of you can already think of examples of ways libraries already enable these capabilities or could do more to allow everyone to be their most capable self.

Works Cited

  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (n.d.). Sen’s Capability Approach. Retrieved September 30, 2017, from
  • Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating Capabilities (Kindle Locations 219-395). Kindle Edition.
    Sonnenberg, J. (2017). School Libraries as Activist Spaces: Moving Social Justice to the Center of Our Practice. CSLA Journal, 41(1), 18-11.
  • Zettervall, S. S. (2015). Whole Person Librarianship. Public Libraries, 54(2), 12-13.


3 thoughts on “The Capabilities Approach & Social Justice in LAIS, Part 1 by Mckinley Churchwell

  1. Wonderful essay.
    See Introduction to Public Librarianship, 2nd ed. “The Future of Public Libraries in the
    Twenty-First Century: Human Rights and Human Capabilities” p. 340 ff. The 3rd edition out next month also addresses Nussbaum’s work.


  2. Your post made me think of something Roxane Gay said when she was a keynote speaker at ACRL, she was saying how it wasn’t enough to call oneself an ally, in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as LGBTQ rights. Gay said that we can’t just call ourselves allies, we have to do something, and when someone asked her how we can do that, she gave kind of a vague answer which left me wondering what I can do to be a better ally. Thank you, McKinley, for a thorough explanation and direction!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. With your post, I think about a conversation we were having in a different class about what changes we anticipate in libraries. One topic my group discussed was the possibility of creating a safe center where patrons can come to discuss legislature and politics to raise political awareness in patrons. We talked about how one of the programs the library could hold was one to help break down proposed bills that are up for a vote and to try to the best of our abilities to give all sides so that the patrons can feel confident about the way they vote. I think you do very well with explaining both the approach and the whole person librarian. It’s very easy to note how natural our shift to whole person librarianship is.


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