Monday 10 October 2011

Capability and Cultivation

Amartya Sen's ideas about capability are useful in presenting a relatively simple way to think about how people 'cope'. And the dimensions of coping include all those aspects of daily life which give us scope for making choices, and steering ourselves through situations. Those who have more capability have more choice. The dimensions of capability might be (I'm still thinking about this...)
1. money
2. skills and competences
3. social capital
4. psychological health (which may be related to education or social capital)
5. physical health

These factors are inter-related. Skill, competences or psychotherapy are often received as services in exchange for money (education). Social capital and attachments can have a strong relationship to psychological health, as well as a big impact on education. Physical health has a bearing on psychological health and the broader networks of care-taking within families, the workplace and social networks. Family attachments can also be a means to financial solutions for individuals.

But to list these factors is to try to get a handle on what 'capability' looks like. It is, I think, the way in which the individual protects themselves from risks, whether those risks are related to finances, employment, psychological or physical health, or indeed the finances, employment, psychological or physical health of those we care about (which in turn has a knock-on effect on individuals).

But most importantly is the fact that capability does not suddenly arise, but emerges over time: it is cultivated by family, school, university, the workplace and society. The central question of education, as Luhmann identified, is one of 'cultivation'. It extends from the cultivation of the home environment, the cultivation of university environment and the cultivation within the working environment. It includes issues like the organisation of learning environment, social and economic policies to support children and parents, and the nurturing of corporations as learning organisations. The central issue of cultivation relates not simply to "what" is done, but to the "way" it is done. In this way, cultivation is a "rhetorical" matter.

Cultivation reflects the interventions and environments which lead to the formation of personal identities and individual psychological health. Central to its concerns are an understanding of the psychology of identity. My particular interest is how this psychology of identity concerns the attachment relationships between individuals. Technology contributes to the formation of attachments and to their maintenance. Technical skills and competencies can be engendered within the home, within formal education or amongst friends. It requires economic access to the tools necessary: technical skills and competences are unlikely to form in the absence of the tools they are performed with. But neither will capability be cultivated in the absence of the meaningful human attachments which will gently coax the development of self.

This is why the 'technology' discussion is the 'education' discussion: because for technology to be useful, it requires capability, but capability only arises through cultivation. This raises the question as to the kinds of social organisation which might best foster cultivation. In a sense, that is a 'pedagogical' question - or at least, it is a question that teachers will often ask themselves when they are planning lessons. But really, it is a question about the organisation of society. For in a world where the cultivation of capability is fundamental to survival, and where cultivation occurs in so many contexts and cuts across traditional institutional boundaries (from family to school to work to university), the challenge remains to find ways in which cultivation, the attachments necessary for it, health, economy and schooling can most effectively work together. The drive for the convivial society has precisely this agenda.

This takes me back to Illich's arguments. But what Illich didn't fully consider is the drivers for economic behaviour in the modern world. I think the issue of the manufacture and distribution of risks is the principal driver. Capability mitigates against risk. The society that most effective cultivates capability is a convivial society. I might ask (if I'm trying to be optimistic) whether technology, increasingly wired into the biology of attachment, provide new ways for people to come together? But what is the risk behind a dream like that? The enframing is so difficult to escape. Perhaps, Heidegger's wish would be for people to live 'poetically'.  That means living more gently and sensibly and in response to local needs and conditions. To use the cultivation analogy: growing tomatoes in Kent is very different from growing tomatoes in the Sahara!

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