Between Structure and Agency
: Structural Injustice in the Capability Approach, its Applications, and in Genetically-modified Corn Farming in Bukidnon, Philippines

Student thesis: Doc typesDoctor of Philosophy


At the heart of this thesis is the concern for justice amid, and in resistance to, social structures that are unjust. More specifically, I investigate whether the capability approach can be used to understand and analyze the background conditions of injustice in concrete applications, without losing a sense of individual agency, especially the agency of those who are most disadvantaged.
To do this, I survey both the capability approach literature on justice--particularly those of Amartya Sen, Sabina Alkire, and Jay Drydyk--examining its existing conception of structural injustice, and whether it can be used in such types of analyses. I also draw from the work of feminist critical social theorists Iris Marion Young and Sally Haslanger to further develop and specify a concept of structural injustice and its mechanisms for sustaining and perpetuating injustices. This theorical discussion is also informed by my field research with the LUCID Project, which studied the social and economic impact of nearly 20 years of genetically-modified, high-yield variety corn on the small farmers of the Upper Pulangi watershed in the province of Bukidnon, southern Philippines, in which I sketch the social structure that enables small farmers to participate in these farming practices, but also illustrating how they are disadvantaged and how their agency is constrained in this context.
I propose and sketch a capabilitarian critical analysis of structural injustice, a mode of social analysis that allows a researcher to articulate and analyze a concrete situation of injustice in terms of the social structural processes that produce and reproduce injustice, while also accounting for the positions occupied by the various agents who participate in the social structural processes. The degrees of agency of these various participants--that is, whether they experience the social structure as enabling or disabling of their agency--gives us not only points of evaluation and assessment of who is the most disadvantaged in an unjust social structure, but also (and equally importantly) gives us a direction for further investigating the mechanisms that allow these structures to perpetuate as well as possible levers of change. Expanding on Haslanger’s social ontology, in my sketch I focus on reasons to value as the drivers of the social structural processes that underpin the social structure. Unjust social structures are unjust because they misrecognize or exclude a plurality of possible reasons to value the resources around which the social structural processes are organized. This limits and impedes the capabilities and possibilities for action of some agents while enabling possibilities for other agents better positioned and whose reasons to value are aligned with that of the social structure. We can thus find the limitations of the existing social structure, how it is perpetuated, and identify the agents that occupy the most disadvantaged positions within that structure.
This sketch of a capabilitarian critique, finally, addresses what other capability scholars have identified as a gap in the literature, particularly on operationalizing the approach to make analyses that focus on the background conditions of injustice--that is, the broader social factors and processes that contribute to and perpetuate the concrete situations of injustice.
Date of Award12 Mar 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Namur
SupervisorStephane Leyens (Supervisor), JULIE HERMESSE (Co-Supervisor), Christophe Flament (President), Nathalie Frogneux (Jury), Agustin Martin Rodriguez (Jury) & Jay Drydyk (Jury)


  • structural injustice
  • capability approach
  • theories of justice
  • social justice
  • genetically-modified corn farming
  • Philippines

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