Human development as an individual, social and transformative process

Craig Calhoun discusses, among other things, the importance of including solidarity (among humans and with non-humans) and transformation as central concepts to enrich our ideas about human development.

The ISC is featuring contributions from the global science community on Rethinking Human Development. This is a joint project with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

What do you think is fundamental in the human development concept?

I am very sympathetic to the view that Martha Nussbaum has developed through the capabilities approach that the core of human development is realizing the potentials and capabilities of human beings. I would add that it is also about social capabilities. I think that both Amartya Sen and Nussbaum also saw the social dimension, but sometimes the capabilities approach is taken up as though it was all about individuals realizing their autonomous capabilities. Could they do well in exams? Could they get good jobs? Could they have small businesses? Microcredits? But these examples are situations that involve other people as well, and I think that nobody realizes their human potential completely by themselves. Moreover, the things that count as realization are often shared social things: whether we are talking about being in love or having a family, or being able to launch a business, or being able to be part of a social movement.

First, is therefore to address these questions in terms of capabilities and potentials. Second, to make sure that we look through an individual and social/collective lens. Third, I would distinguish human development from human transformations (for lack of a better word) when we approach the concept of capabilities. Indeed, when we speak of human potentials to be developed, we tend to think there is something set at the beginning. There is the potential one has, but on top of this there are the capabilities one is going to develop.

I think realizing what is already there, as our potential, is part of the story. Human beings do not just develop. A plant may develop from a seed; it is completely preordained what the path of development is, and if nothing goes wrong (no drought or early frost), the plant develops. That is not quite true of people; there are many more forks in the road. But there are also potential transformations. This is true at the individual level, but it is even more true at the level of populations or societies, or the species itself.

I will illustrate this idea with a couple of examples: firstly, the extent to which people have changed physically with nutrition and with better healthcare, meaning that people are taller on average in many different countries. They can overdo this change and become obese, but that is not better nutrition, rather it is too much food. The transformation of human beings is interactive with the social environment.

But beyond the merely physical we are altering human beings with technologies in a variety of ways. Some are supports for human beings as they work, some are prosthetic devices that have become more and more sophisticated, and somewhat change what it is to be human. Going further, genetic engineering is another field where potentials are transformed. We could engineer human beings to be immune to certain diseases. But then, how do we regulate the research and ensure equitable access and distribution of benefits?

What this points to is the extent to which being human is not just a matter of realizing fixed capabilities; it is something that can be transformed over time. And again, people as individuals change, but these transformations are also social. If you think of languages – inventing a language or becoming literate – this is a transformation that occurs at the individual level. But for a society to be literate, in which most people can read and share information, is a transformation in what it means to be human and what capabilities humans will have.

Building on your work on solidarity networks, how could this fit within the human development concept?

I mentioned that human development could be thought of as social capabilities: realizing the capability depends on sharing or solidarity among people. Sometimes this solidarity is warm, loving and friendly, which is our everyday sense of solidarity; but sometimes it is a matter of social organization, through markets and businesses. In the middle of this coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis related to it, we see how much we depend on social solidarity; how much our capabilities to realize our own agendas or our own possibilities are interdependent with other people. Part of our human capabilities is to work with others, to help others, to love others, to cooperate with others, to exchange with others.

If we go back to something like the French Revolution with its slogan ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’, political theory of development has focused ever since first and foremost on liberty, and secondarily on what the trade-off is with equality, but tended to overlook solidarity, what was then called fraternity, which refers to the ways in which we cooperate. The way in which we live together is as vital as individual liberty, and relative equality among people is vital to making democracy possible. And again, we see in the disruptions we face now with the pandemic how that solidarity can be damaged and how we feel that we have lost something basic to ourselves.

Reflecting on the observation that we are interdependent at the local level as much as at the global level, do you think it is possible to build a universal concept of human development or human transformation?

It depends on what we mean by universal: humans develop differently and realize different capabilities. Taking the example of languages, maybe a good way to look at this is to say human beings do not have the potential just for a language, they have the potential for languages and the result is that humans speak different and multiple languages. The universal concept is a capability for diversity, not a capability for sameness.

How do you see these solidarity networks applying with non-humans?

I think we do have solidarity with non-humans. The obvious example for many people will be a dog or a cat. But in a variety of ways, we are interdependent with non-human beings, with nature, and inanimate objects. Now, I do not think it is a problem for the concept of solidarity and feeling that we should have some solidarity with these non-human beings; it is a moral question whether we live up to that solidarity: do we fail if we are mean teachers? Do we fail if we are not vegan? Do we fail if we allow the environment to be destroyed? It raises moral questions for us. Just as relationships with other people raise moral questions for us. Should we have inequality? Should we dominate people? How do you treat people with respect?

Within that, though, there is a big question about how special human beings are or are not. The human development idea focuses very specifically on humans. If we begin to think about that socially, we also need to begin to think about it in relationship to various kinds of environments and to other non-human beings. In addition, part of our potential to be who we are, the capabilities at the beginning of human development, only exist because of our relationships to others and we do not have to say they are exactly the same as our human relationships to recognize that they are relationships.

Would you say these aspects of the question are understudied at the moment?

Yes, but I think they are becoming more and more prominent; there has been a growing recognition of the ways in which we are interdependent with other beings. This has come from different directions: there is thinking about the rights of animals or non-human animals; thinking about nature in some different sense with regard to climate change, in the potential destruction of the Earth and our relationships to nature itself.

The idea that we are part of that nature, of that whole Earth, has also come up in other ways with medical and technological scientific changes. For example, most of the genetic material inside our bodies is not unique to us; it is transient and comes and goes with the microorganisms in our body. That is a path of scientific development that did not come out as a rethinking of what human development means except in fairly specific scientific medical senses. However, it does change how we understand what it means to be human. This why I think for the last 20 years or so, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of the non-human to understanding the human.

To what extent do the academic fields where these questions emerged cross and meet?

They ought to cross a lot more than they do. This also then extends to the relationship to other kinds of knowledge. All of the disciplines and all of the specializations are guilty of defending their territories and prospering even at the expense of others. But it is key to pay attention to science across disciplines in this rethinking of the human being and rethinking of the world as a whole. There is, however, more and more recognition of the need for interconnection.

And do you think that situation affects the ways in which policy-makers may pick up on academic knowledge to design policies?

I think there is a direct path in which a specific bit of scientific knowledge can inform a policy. For example, we know about the patterns of social influence on smoking and we use that knowledge in policy-making. The second path is a kind of technology: it is not policy that science first informs but the development of a technology, which then raises policy questions. If you think about genetic engineering, even now very few policy-makers have a deep understanding of it. But the science that has informed the technology of genetic engineering is pushing the policy-makers.

There are other paths by which science does get to policy, including changing a general sense of what the issues are and the understanding of them. In the context of the pandemic, for example, the role of scientists is partly to directly inform policy-makers; to say, this is a good technique epidemiologically to reduce the spread of the virus. But it is also partly to shape public understanding and a notable example of this is climate science, which reached large parts of the public faster than it reached policy-makers and created a public demand for policy-makers to ‘listen to the scientists’ as Greta Thunberg put it.

How would you explain this observation on climate science? Is the narrative easier to capture for the general public?

I think it is partly because policy-makers tend to pursue short- to medium-term immediate goals, which means they do not often think about the next hundred years or the rest of human possibilities. For example, if your task is to write the regulations about distributing face masks in the middle of the pandemic, then you might pay a little attention to science. But you are mostly going to pay attention to economic and other factors that shape your ability to get the face masks produced and distributed.

Rather, it is not that the whole public picks up on scientific concerns but there are groups that do, and they spread it and create engagement. The public may not know what to do, but it turns to policy-makers and expects them to do so. The general public appears as civil society organizations, social movements, religious leaders, ethical leaders and others with strong articulated views, such as journalists; the public has many faces and we see it with climate change, with the pandemic, there is a lot of public uptake, but it is not distributed in an even pattern.

The biggest pathway for science is unfortunately a relatively slow one, but a really important one: education. It is really the translation of science into education of new generations in general and of professionals in particular, that brings scientific knowledge most to policy, by way of educating wide ranges of people including future policy-makers.

With regard to the current COVID-19 pandemic, do you have observations to make about how it changes our understanding of human development and human transformation?

The first observation is that we have wanted to think the pandemic was a very short-term emergency and that is partly true in the sense that an emergency means something is urgent and demands our attention now. But in other ways that is a misleading idea. We think emergencies happen unexpectedly. Well, the specific pandemic was unexpected, but that there would be pandemics and infectious diseases was not; it was predictable. We could have been better prepared.

The notion of emergency implies to us a very short-term, focused event. After an earthquake we have to do a certain amount of rebuilding and we have to take care of survivors. The pandemic is a different situation: it is a change. First, I think the pandemic will go on longer than most people and most policy-makers think. Second, there is the potential for reinfections and for the pandemic to become endemic, at which point it changes our general living conditions similarly to the way that we live with a variety of other diseases. As we realize that this is something that is part of the transformations of being human and not just a short-term event, we will go back to ‘normal’. We will be producing some new normal.

The pandemic has other implications: it reminds us that we cannot completely control human development and human possibilities. It might remind us that we live in very complex, large-scale interdependent systems. Systems thinking is not very well developed, not just among the general public, but among policy-makers; we tend to isolate issues and try to deal with separate parts.

The pandemic is a lesson in interdependence: the way in which it is global, the way in which infection spreads among people, and the way in which it is interdependent with the state of our institutions. Obviously, healthcare and hospitals have been overwhelmed, but the fact that the economy is in crisis is based in large part on financial leverage; it is not just jobs, but finance, institutions, credit and stock markets. All this encourages a sense of interdependence. How well we will do at thinking about this sense of interdependence is uncertain, but that is a human development question because we either think about human development in very individualistic, separate terms, or we recognize how much the development and possibilities for each of us are interdependent with others.

Do you wish to cover any additional aspect?

We talked about different academic fields, different research specialities relating to each other and coming to a better understanding of transformations in the human being. We also addressed how the pandemic should make the connections between social sciences and natural and physical sciences much more continuous. The pandemic is so clearly a public health issue, not just a curative medicine issue, however crucial this is to understanding it. This public health crisis is a mixture of social and human sciences, natural sciences and medical sciences.


Craig Calhoun is Professor of Social Sciences at Arizona State University. Previously, he has been Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), President of the Berggruen Institute, and President of the Social Science Research Council. He has taught at the University of North Carolina, Columbia University and New York University, where he founded the Institute for Public Knowledge. His books include: Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China, Nations Matter, The Roots of Radicalism, and Does Capitalism Have a Future?

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