Inequality of What? Socioeconomic Reporting and Capability, Participation and Precariousness

Friday, 3 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW2.1.03 (Tower Two)
Ortrud Lessmann, Helmut-Schmidt University, Hamburg, Germany
Peter Bartelheimer, SOFI (Soziologisches Forschungsinstitut), Göttingen, Germany
Amartya Sen’s 1979 Tanner-Lecture „Equality of What?“ has triggered a lasting debate on the right “metric” for welfare and theories of justice. Which dimensions and aspects of (in-)equality, and what aspirations are taken into account, and with what priorities? In part as a result of this debate a broad consensus has emerged that GDP per capita cannot serve (any more?) as a good proxy for well-being on a macro level of society. Several initiatives on the political level have furthered the search for indicators and alternative measures. The data-bases have been broadened accordingly and statistical methods refined. However, the debate is dominated by economists and philosophers. Sociological research has mainly influenced the debate by providing cross-sectional and longitudinal micro data for analyses that permit the construction of social indicators that go beyond income and economic factors.

This paper presents a conception of well-being developed for the socioeconomic reporting network (soeb) in Germany. The conception draws upon the capability approach, the debate on participation in the context of the UN convention of rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) and recent social stratification theory concerned with precarious living conditions. By combining the capability approach with these other discussions the conception squarely places individual well-being in the context of societal developments without deviating from ethical individualism. It shifts the attention from income poverty and the poor to the social mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion or affiliation and disaffiliation, thereby overcoming the binary classification of  poor and non-poor and replacing it with a more differentiated model of graded social positions of participation and inclusion.

Socioeconomic reporting aims to get a better understanding of the transformation of the German socio-economic model. The basic assumption is that the economy and ways of life are changing simultaneously, each in its own way, while mutually influencing each other. The objective of socioeconomic reporting is to observe the interplay of the economy, politics, institutions and individuals and the resulting changes in social structure. It asks how individual well-being and collective social positions are affected by changes in this interplay, for example by changes in the organization of labor. Hence, socioeconomic reporting needs a conception of well-being that is able to capture these effects. The capability approach lends itself to this task for several reasons: (1) it views well-being as multidimensional (requiring a pluralistic metric); (2) it favors the direct measurement approach as opposed to the indirect, income-based approach to welfare measurement; (3) it aims at measuring well-being objectively without disregarding the subjective aspects of well-being and (4) with its emphasis on freedom of choice the capability approach respects individual decisions. Thus, it does not fall prey to the allegation of paternalism which is the most scorching criticism against the direct approach to welfare measurement.

The conception of well-being used in socioeconomic reporting in Germany is based on the capability approach. However, the  awkward German translations of “capability” that have been proposed so far  either have a technical ring or are misleading because they have a different meaning in colloquial language. On the other hand, the obligation to implement the UN CRPD and to assure participation of persons with disabilities has triggered a public discourse centered around “Teilhabe”, the German rendering of “participation” in the official translation of the UN convention. The German term stands for the claim of persons with disabilities and – more broadly – the disadvantaged to their fair share in society’s well-being. In this sense, participation goes beyond taking part in decision making to performance in life situations. The aspect of empowerment is well captured by the German translation. Furthermore, the model of functioning and disability used to illustrate the international classification of functioning, disability and health (ICF) exhibits a similarity to the basic structure of the capability approach that suggests the combination of the two approaches.

Well-being as defined in the capability approach corresponds to participation in the sense of the CRPD. Well-being needs to be understood in its societal context. But the rules of acceptance and belonging to a society change, as do the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, of moving up and down the social ladder. Sociological concepts of social stratification try to grasp patterns of inequality expressed in collective social positions. A recent theoretical development is the concern with “precariousness”. Uncertainty about the future and the inability to make plans for the future is not restricted to poor people, but extends to people whose living conditions are precarious. The phenomenon is difficult to grasp empirically since it has many subjective aspects, and to what extent the precarious potential of increasing non-standard employment (temporary, part-time, labor leasing) is realized largely depends on individual household and family arrangements.

In its attempt to better understand the transformation of Germany’s social structure socioeconomic reporting aims at operationalizing the concept of precariousness. As suggested by R. Castel (2000), social strata (“zones”) of participation, precariousness und exclusion are being distinguished. In order to do so, thresholds (“fault lines”) need to be defined along the dimensions of personal relations, economic activity and provision for standard risks. The conception of well-being as participation thus expands beyond the identification of the poor. Although there is not much literature linking the capability approach to the sociological debate of precariousness, there is a debate on “secure functionings” (a term brought forward by Wolff and de Shalit 2006) and of human security in the context of development.

The paper lays out the conception of well-being as participation (“Teilhabe”) in the steps sketched above: First, the attractive propositions of the capability approach are outlined, then the link to the debate about participation in the context of (rights of) people with disabilities is drawn, and finally the paper extends the conception to capture the issue of precariousness. In conclusion, the merits and problems of this expansion of the conception of well-being are highlighted.