Pearson and responsibility: (mis-)understanding the capabilities approach

Matthew Thomas Johnson, Morgan Brigg, Mary Graham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Aboriginal Australian public intellectual Noel Pearson has gained prominence and influence for his brand of policy reform in Indigenous affairs by drawing upon the capabilities approach. This article challenges the coherence of Pearson's position, arguing that his unrelenting focus on personal responsibility leads him to conflate different elements within capabilities thinking. Pearson 1) mistakes social capabilities (to which people are entitled) for human potential to be unfolded, and 2) casts and prescribes personal responsibility as a type of latent capability. The latter a) inverts the capabilities approach wherein phenomena such as personal responsibility arise as an effect of the realization of latent capabilities rather than serving as latent capabilities themselves, and b) is at odds with the liberal basis of the capabilities approach that rejects imposing “good” ways of life on people. This is illustrated through reference to Pearson's advocacy of Direct Instruction teaching and engagement with the “real economy”. The paper recognizes Pearson's contribution to the policy debate and that the problems he highlights are real, but argues that the remedial approaches adopted are problematic, including in terms of Pearson's stated stance against assimilationist policy agendas.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-267
Number of pages17
JournalAustralian Journal of Politics and History
Issue number2
Early online date23 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016
Externally publishedYes


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