The capability approach to work
The uses and limitations of a political
philosophy on sociological soil
Stemming from the work of Amartya Sen, “the capability approach” is today widely disseminated and used internationally in the field of the social sciences, inspiring several hundred contributions. However, aside from a few well-known authors, French sociology seems quite disinterested in the potential contributions of the Senian oeuvre. Based on a methodically constructed corpus of academic texts, this article seeks to put the epistemological and empirical significance of this research programme into perspective. Following a presentation of the conceptual apparatus produced by Sen, along with the comments and controversies that it raises either from an epistemological or methodological point of view, I observe the way in which researchers in the social sciences apply the capability approach to the subjects of work and employment, subjects that for this approach are one of the entry points to the French intellectual world. The ways in which authors attempt, more or less successfully, to overcome or circumvent some of the approach’s limitations and above all to operationalize it for empirical research ends, are examined. Three fundamental points, touching on notions of counterfactual reasoning, agency, and conversion are specifically discussed since they could well deepen sociological inquiry into the worlds of work. Through this analysis of the Senian approach, the conditions for the reception and use by sociologists of the political philosophical work of an economist are called into question.