Adapted but not preferred: human capabilities and wellbeing in oppressive environments

OUTPUT TYPE: Conference or seminar papers
TITLE AUTHOR(S): C.Desmond, S.Swartz, H.Van Rooyen, Working GroupHSRC Welllbeing
Print: HSRC Library: shelf number 9999
HANDLE: 20.500.11910/11282

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The capabilities approach draws attention to freedom, conceived of as the extent to which individuals have the capability to choose between different functionings (different things they would like to do or be). Oppressive environments limit the availability of options, or in capabilities language: they act to reduce the available combinations of functionings which individuals are free to select between. External constraints are, we argue, only one of the ways in which oppressive environments limit capabilities. Over time, oppressive environments may constrain the ability of individuals to take up options which are apparently available to them. Internal capabilities - the abilities developed over time which allow individuals to take advantage of the opportunities available to them - are shaped by the environment, and continued oppression often shapes or hinders their development such that they act as a constraint on people's ability to live the life they have reason to value. Adapted preferences, when individuals accept their oppression as normal, not viewing their circumstances as egregious infringements on their freedom, have received attention in the literature, especially in relation to women's self-assessed well-being. Individuals adapting to their oppressive environments is, however, only part of the story. The foundational work of Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Steve Biko, followed by other global south academics, outlines how oppressive environments take their toll on people, in ways other than adapted preferences. Dehumanizing treatment, over time, dehumanizes. In contrast to adaptive preferences, they argue that many people living in oppressive environments are angry at the treatment they receive, but that they feel powerless (at least as individuals) to fight back against such treatment. This anger and sense of powerlessness can lead to apathy and, for some, self-destructive or anti-social behaviour. In South Africa we have wealth of data on wellbeing, but we have not adequately captured the myriad internalized effects of living in oppressive environments, and how these limit freedom. We do not know who is most affected and how these effects are limiting their ability to live the life they have reason to value. Without this knowledge, it is unsurprising that we do not have interventions, which we argue are warranted, to support people to overcome the consequences of prolonged exposure to dehumanizing treatment