Accepted paper:

Critical agency in digital development


Tony Roberts (Sussex University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper uses critical theory to extend Sen's capability approach and to argue that key to digital development should be enhancing people's critical-agency i.e. their ability to critique and act upon any power and political constraints on their development.

Paper long abstract:

Amartya Sen's capabilities approach offers significant benefits for understanding digital development and is increasingly popular as a research framework. Sen's approach requires researchers to decentre technology and to evaluate the extent to which digital development interventions increase people's freedom and ability to realise their own idea of development. However this paper argues that Sen's approach also has significant weaknesses that limit its value in addressing the intersections of power, politics, and digital development. Sen's liberal individualism and the absence of any sustained analysis of power in his work are problematic for critical researchers. There are some less-explored aspects of Sen's work which may offer a way forward. Most capabilities approach research has focused on Sen's concepts of 'capabilities' and 'functionings' at the expense of his concepts of 'unfreedoms' and 'critical-agency'. Sen describes development as a process of expanding people's freedoms, and removing 'unfreedoms' such as social deprivation and political tyranny. He also insists that people's 'critical-agency' is key to any participatory development process, by which he means people's freedom and ability to question dominant norms and values. Having identified tackling unfreedoms as central to development, and emphasising 'critical-agency', regrettably Sen leaves the concepts undefined and under-theorised. This paper contributes a definition of critical-agency and its contents, and draws upon critical theories to provide recommendations for how people can use ICTs to enhance their critical-agency to remove the unfreedoms that constrain their development. It concludes that critical-agency and the removal of unfreedoms should be core elements in future digital development initiatives.

panel P01
Power, politics and digital development [Information, Technology and Development Study Group]