Craig Calhoun: Human development as an individual, social and transformative process

The Long Read. An interview with Craig Calhoun on rearticulating human development.

During May, the ISC will be featuring essays written by experts on Rearticulating Human Development. This is a joint project with the UNDP. ISC members and your networks are encouraged to participate.


Realizing human potential and capabilities lies at the heart of the notion of human development. But this is not only an autonomous process involving individuals. It has an undeniably social dimension. Indeed, what counts as realization is often a shared social activity: being in love, being able to have a family, being able to launch a business or being able to take part in a social movement.

Sharing or solidarity among people is key to realizing capabilities. In fact, our capabilities include working with others, helping others, loving others, cooperating with others and exchanging with others. Putting it in terms of the slogan during the French Revolution, we have focused quite a bit on liberty and, to an extent, on equality. But we have tended to ignore fraternity or solidarity. Yet, as we are finding out now, the way in which we live together is as vital to democracy as individual liberty and the relative equality among people.

Transformation is a relatively undertheorized aspect of human development. Unlike a plant that grows in a predictable manner from a seed, the human being does not simply realize some pre-existing potential. It transforms itself. This propensity to transform is evidenced by, for example, paths of learning, increased life-expectancy with better nutrition and healthcare, technologically enhanced capacities (such as prosthetics) and even acquiring immunity via genetic engineering. What is true at the level of individuals is also true, perhaps even more so, at the level of societies. For example, when most people in a society become literate and can read and share information, that transforms what it means to be human.      

Is there something universal about the notion of human development and, if so, how? That depends a bit on what we mean by universal. Clearly, humans develop differently and realize different capabilities. For example, human beings do not have the potential just for one language, they have the potential for many languages, which is why we see such a dizzying diversity of languages in the world. One could say that what is universal is the capability for diversity, not simply a capability for sameness.

Solidarity between humans and non-humans

The idea of human development focuses specifically on human beings. But if the social dimension is important, as we have seen, then we also need to expand its ambit to include our relationship with non-human beings, whether living or non-living. Part of our potential to be who we are is grounded in such relationships, despite their difference from our human relationships. We have always had an intuition of being part of nature, an intuition that has been proven right by advances in science and technology. For example, we have found out that 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. This changes how we understand what it means to be human, and there is now greater recognition of the interconnections among human beings, other living beings and, indeed, the non-living world.

The coronavirus pandemic and its impact on understanding human development and transformation

First, the pandemic and the consequent economic crisis remind us that our capacities to realize our own agendas, to develop our own potentials, rely on social solidarity. At the same time, we discover that we lose something fundamental when we are compelled to stay at home or when we come to think of other people as infection risks.

Second, the pandemic is different from a massive earthquake or tsunami. It marks a more profound change, part of the transformations of being human. Whenever it ends – and that may not be soon – we will not simply go back to normal. We will be producing a new normal.

Finally, the pandemic reminds us that we cannot completely control human development and human possibilities. Not least given the large-scale, complex systems that we inhabit and are part of. How will we react to the growing awareness of the interdependence of this system? Will we continue to think of human development in individualistic terms? Or will we instead recognize the shared and interdependent basis for developing our potential and capabilities?


Based on an interview with Craig Calhoun.

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