Re-thinking health literacy: using a capabilities approach perspective towards realising social justice goals

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3 Citations (Scopus)
306 Downloads (Pure)


Health literacy has gained popularity as a useful concept to promote and protect health. Even though health literacy research has been prolific it has also been fragmented, facing challenges in achieving its empowerment and social justice-related aims. Crucial limitations make the application of its principles to the health of vulnerable and underrepresented groups problematic, even though these groups are disproportionately affected by ill health. Efforts to refine and make the concept more relevant have tended to expand health literacy models and situate health literacy “in context” to reflect environmental and social factors shaping health literacy. Context-related factors however, have not been consistently embedded in operationalisation and measurement efforts. This paper argues for health literacy to be re-conceptualised through a capabilities approach lens. It proposes that the capabilities approach can uniquely address the conceptual and methodological criticisms applied to health literacy, whilst encompassing its critical conceptual understandings of health. The advantage of this approach over and above other developments in health literacy theory and practice is its focus on both people’s opportunities or freedoms to achieve desired health-related aims, and their ability to do so. It enables shifting the focus away from health literacy as individual skills and competencies and towards the enabling or inhibiting factors shaping health literacy. A participatory approach is seen as essential for realising this conceptual shift.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages9
JournalGlobal Health Promotion
Issue number3
Early online date11 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2020


  • critical health literacy
  • community health literacy
  • migrant and minority ethnic health
  • health capability
  • capabilities approach
  • participatory approaches
  • equity
  • empowerment


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