February 16, 2020
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A Woman's Sight

Sen is praised as a "feminist economist" but it is not very clear what "feminist" actually stands for (except for a general concern with gender issues) and why Sen qualifies

A Woman's Sight
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Capabilities, Freedom, and Equality: Amartya Sen
By Bina Agarwal , Jane Humphries , Ingrid Robeyns (eds)
OUP 553 pages Rs 795

Economics being an overwhelmingly male-dominated discipline, one would expect a feminist critique of it to be far-reaching. This book focuses on Amartya Sen’s capability approach as a conceptual framework to analyse well-being, freedom and related matters. This approach is submitted to intensive scrutiny from a gender perspective and used to explore a wide range of gender-related issues, among them intra-household inequality, reproductive freedom, political participation and the foundations of social justice.

The first part has 12 articles initially published in Feminist Economics, followed by a wide-ranging "conversation" between the editors and Sen. The rest is a reprint of five of Sen’s classic papers. Sadly, the first part is dominated by conceptual arguments. There’s a dearth of empirical analysis, except for scattered material on missing women, reproductive freedom and slavery. In this respect, the book contrasts with Sen’s persistent efforts to bring conceptual work (including the capability approach) to bear on practical issues. Nevertheless, this highly original collection of writings provides rich illustrations of the capability approach’s relevance to gender issues.

However, as far as feminist critique goes, the book is a little disappointing. Sen is praised as a "feminist economist" but it is not very clear what "feminist" actually stands for (except for a general concern with gender issues) and why Sen qualifies. A notable exception is Martha Nussbaum’s bold assessment. Taking issue with the notion that freedom is always a desirable social goal, she points out that "gender justice cannot be successfully pursued without limiting male freedom". Amartyada, what say?

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