The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition

Arjun Appadurai


Why does culture matter for development and for poverty reduction? The capacity to aspire is a future-oriented cultural capacity. This book chapter from Stanford University Press argues that strengthening the capacity to aspire could help the poor to contest and alter the conditions of their poverty. Culture is a dialogue between aspirations and sedimented traditions. Traditions, linked to issues of social class, can conflict with development goals. Policymakers must approach the creation of a culture of aspiration through capacity building.

The popular way of thinking of culture as ‘the past’ and development as ‘the future’ creates an aspiration conflict. Development literature points towards the possibility of a self-recognition culture of immediate survival in the poor. This implies that with all of their energy focused on survival, the poor do not have the luxury of linking present actions with future beneficial outcomes.

A culture of aspiration is a ‘navigational capacity’ in that it provides a map of norms that leads to future success. In reality, the poor lack the opportunities and pathways needed to achieve their aspirations. This means that the culture of aspiration is a capacity enjoyed by the more affluent members of society.

The poor lack the capacity for aspiration because of their specific orientation in society. Conditions that prevent the poor from building a culture of aspiration include:

  • Social structures that specifically constrain the poor and force them to subscribe to norms that further diminish their dignity, exacerbate their inequality, and deepen their lack of access to material goods and services.
  • Lack of voice necessary to engage in civic action constrains the poor from participation in policy decisions that affect their lives.
  • Constraints on opportunities. Where pathways between aspirations and reality exist, they are likely to be rigid.

Since poverty reduction and development work have everything to do with the future, strengthening the capacity to aspire can enable the poor to combat poverty.

  • Whenever an outside agent enters a situation where the poor are a major concern, they must identify the cultural rituals that perpetuate cultural consensus. Rituals of consensus production may provide a place to change the terms of self-recognition that define the way in which the poor function in society.
  • Capacity building should focus on local education that increases the ability of the poor to understand the links between aspirations and achievement.
  • Outside agents should encourage internal efforts to cultivate voice among the poor.
  • Any development project or initiative must develop a set of tools for identifying the cultural map of aspirations that surround the specific intervention. This may require the use of specific technologies or material inputs.


Appadurai, A., 2004, 'The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition', in Rao, V. and Walton, M., (eds.) Culture and Public Action, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, California, pp 59-84.