For more than a decade, the concept of recognition has been a prominent part of the landscape of academic political theory. As the term is commonly used, to be recognized means to be seen or regarded whether directly or through the mediation of social and political institutions under some practically significant description; that is, under a description that makes a difference in the way its bearer is treated, perhaps even shaping the terms in which she understands herself, and which thereby helps to configure her powers and possibilities.

Thus understood, the idea of recognition has served as a point of connection between broad philosophical themes the relationship between freedom and intersubjectivity; the nature of identity and difference, and the analysis of a wide range of concrete political topics: multiculturalism in higher education (Taylor 1994), official language policy, aboriginal rights, and land claims (Tully 1995), gay and lesbian rights (Bower 1997), religious conflict (Thompson 2002), racism (Gooding-Williams 1998), claims to national self-determination (Patten 2001), interstate conflict in world politics (Ringmar 2002), sexual domination, reparations for historical injustice (Kutz 2004), homelessness (Feldman 2004), and the toleration of dissent, among many others.

Each of these topics has given rise to lively literature of its own, but they have also had an eVect in the aggregate. If the explosion of interest in issues of identity and diVerence among political theorists in the 1980s and 1990s represented a reaction against the field’s preoccupation with distributive justice, as well as against the economism of some kinds of Marxist theory, by the mid-1990s some scholars began to worry that the pendulum would swing too far in the other direction, obscuring the persistent and intensifying problem of ‘‘material inequality’’.

One aim of this chapter is to introduce the rich debate that has grown up since then over the relationship between ‘‘recognition’’ and ‘‘redistribution,’’ or, more broadly, between the problem of identity-based injustice and the problem of economic injustice. Another aim of the chapter, however—and the one I shall pursue first is to chart the surprisingly diverse range of uses of the term ‘‘recognition’’ in recent political thought. For all its familiarity, and notwithstanding the general definition with which I began, the concept re- mains deeply, although not always explicitly, contested; and attention to crucial but often neglected diVerences among approaches to recognition can open new avenues for thinking about its vexed relationship with redistribution.


The range of discourses that make use of the concept of recognition is soberingly wide. Even to focus on the two documents usually credited with provoking the recent surge of interest in the idea—Charles Taylor’s (1994) ‘‘The Politics of Recognition’’ and Axel Honneth’s (1996) The Struggle for Recognition, both first published in 1992—is already to confront two quite diVerent works. Taylor’s essay was partly an effort to make sense of the political landscape of the time, and partly a transposition of the ‘‘liberal- communitarian’’ debates of the 1980s onto fresh terrain. Taylor proposed that such phenomena as the canon wars in higher education and the Canadian constitutional crisis could be understood as examples of the ‘‘politics of recognition,’’ in which people seek to transform the ways in which they are seen and esteemed by others, and so to satisfy the deeply rooted human need to be recognized as the bearer of a distinctive identity.

‘‘Difference-blind’’ liberalism, he argued, cannot adequately respond to this need, for while it is also an instantiation of the norm of equal recognition, it is an excessively narrow one, which recognizes only those qualities that are taken to be universally shared.1 In turning to the language of recognition, Taylor echoed other Anglophone political theorists who had employed the term, including Michael Walzer (1983) and especially Isaiah Berlin (1969); yet he also and more explicitly drew the idea of recognition from earlier thinkers, including Herder, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel, and post-Hegelian theorists of the dialogical self such as M. M. Bakhtin and George Herbert Mead.

For Axel Honneth, ‘‘recognition’’ was not primarily a means to grasp such phenomena as the rise of identity politics or new social movements: instead, the concept of recognition served as the basis for a systematic reconstruction of the tradition of critical theory, which would take the lesson of Habermas’s linguistic turn—grounding critique in the norms implicit in communication, rather than in the realm of production—while also giving these norms, and thus critical theory’s emancipatory aspirations, a more reliable empirical anchor in everyday reactions to injustice.

On Honneth’s account, injustice is felt in the first instance not as the transgression of an explicit linguistic norm, but as a denial of intersubjective recognition that violently disrupts a subject’s relationship to herself, whether through physical abuse (which corresponds to the level of recognition Honneth calls ‘‘love’’, the refusal of basic moral respect or legal protection (‘‘rights’’), or the ‘‘denigration of an individual or collective ways of life’’. This approach to recognition shared some points of reference with Taylor’s—most obviously Hegel and Mead, who form the cornerstones of The Struggle for Recognition. Unlike Taylor, however, Honneth focused not on Hegel’s Phenomenology but on his pre-1807 Jena manuscripts—a choice that reflected the influence of Habermas (1974), and which also signaled Honneth’s participation in an ongoing conversation among specialists in German idealism about the development of the concept of recognition (Anerkennung) in the work of Fichte and the young.

Hegel And Honneth’s use of Mead, who helped him explain how identity could be socially constituted yet also open to perpetual innovation, paved the way for his increasingly intensive engagement with other strands of psychology, especially the object-relations tradition, in his ongoing effort to identify the sources of human subjects’ creativity.

Influential though these approaches to recognition may be, they do not exhaust the field. Political theorists interested in recognition are increasing if belatedly, engaging with the long and distinguished history of Hegelianism in twentieth-century French thought, where the idea of recognition has long played a  crucial role,  thanks in part to the influence of  Alexandre Koje’s lectures on the  Phenomenology in the 1930s. Intersecting with this history, but also extending beyond it is a rich body of work that critically engages Hegel’s account of the master-slave relationship as part of the analysis of modern chattel slavery and racial domination.

Recognition is also a continuing theme in the history of feminist interpretations of Hegel, from critiques and rewritings of his philosophical appropriation of Sophocles’ Antigone to wider explorations of the potential, or lack thereof, of Hegel’s thought for feminist politics. And, finally, the term ‘‘recognition’’ has also had an active life at a greater distance from Hegel: as a term of art in poetics, for instance, it dates back as far as Aristotle although the idea of tragic anagnoˆrisis is also an important ancestor of Hegel’s concept of recognition.


How are we to make our way through this dense thicket? Rather than attempt to spell out the idiosyncracies of each of these authors’ uses of ‘‘recognition,’’ I oVer a set of three orienting questions that can usefully be brought to the reading of any of them. These questions mark out some of the important dimensions of conceptual space within which diVerent approaches to recognition can be located; or, in some cases, along which a single author’s work may be tensely stretched or fractured.

First, is recognition a discrete good or a general medium of social life? Political theorists often treat recognition as one among many different objects of human pursuit, possession, and distribution. Sometimes this is an artifact of recognition’s rhetorical role as a counterweight to more familiar concepts such as interest or class. At other times it is the result of efforts to integrate the idea of recognition into a theory of distributive justice, either by applying the same liberal principles that govern the apportionment of ordinary tangible goods (Patten 2001); or by insisting that recognition, like other social goods, has its own appropriate sphere of influence and the internal principle of distribution.

By contrast, theorists who approach the concept of recognition as part of a philosophical treatment of intersubjectivity are more likely to deny that recognition is a sharply bounded good, or even a ‘‘good’’ at all, in the sense of an object that can be possessed. Instead, they often regard recognition as a ubiquitous mechanism by which meaningful social relations are constituted, deliberately or otherwise. Such expansive uses of the concept can be found in the tradition of French Hegelianism I have described; among contemporary scholars of Hegel such as Robert Williams, who treats ‘‘recognition’’ as a general structure expressed in an enormous range of particular social practices and institutions (Williams 1992, 1997); and to some extent also in Honneth’s reconstruction of recognition as a ‘‘unified framework’’ within which all sorts of moral issues can be encompassed although, in what will turn out to be an important equivocation, Honneth also continues to treat ‘‘recognition’’ as something explicitly claimed or demanded.

Second, how is the concept of recognition related, if at all, to the idea of justice? Theorists often treat ‘‘recognition’’ as an intrinsically normative concept: to be recognized means to be treated justly; conversely, an unjust relationship of recognition is in a certain sense not a relationship of recognition at all but a form of misrecognition. Indeed, much of the recent wave of work on the subject has been devoted to answering the further question of how, exactly, to distinguish recognition from misrecognition.

For some authors, adequate recognition involves treating others in ways that confirm and arm their distinctive identities or valuable qualities. In response to the objection that the politics of recognition ignores or, worse, undermines the malleability of these identities, other authors have moved toward what might be called formal rather than substantive criteria of successful recognition: people are recognized properly when they are included in the ongoing collective activity through which identities are made and remade; or when the institutionalized evaluations to which they are subject permit them to participate in the social life on terms of ‘‘parity,’’ as ‘‘full partners in interaction’’ or when such recognition serves the purpose of overcoming broader ‘‘structural inequalities’’.

Finally, another group of theorists further complicates the association of recognition with justice by suggesting that recognition and misrecognition are tightly connected, not opposed: Lacan, for instance, describes the formation of the ego through imaginary identification as a kind of necessary misrecognition Bourdieu argues that the recognition of a form of social authority as legitimate is always also a misrecognition of its arbitrary- ness and I and others have suggested that the desire for the recognition of identity may itself be an important source of dominative or exploitative social relations as well as of justice.

Third, what is the object of recognition; that is, what does an act of recognition recognize? Political theorists typically conceive of recognition as directed to- ward identity, and, in the first instance anyway, toward the identity of another person or group (although such other-directed recognition is also typically understood as part of an exchange through which recognizing subjects also come to identify themselves). Of course, ‘‘identity’’ can itself be under- stood in a range of ways.

For theorists who approach recognition through debates over identity politics, identity often refers to a multidimensional set of applications with and diVerences from others along socially salient axes such as language, nationality, gender, culture, and race. Others, especially those who approach recognition through Hegel, conceive of ‘‘identity’’ more broadly as individual personhood, a constellation of valuable qualities in virtue of which beings deserve respect from others, and whose forms of expression range from the idiosyncratic to the universal.

Thanks to the ambiguity of the word ‘‘recognition’’ itself, however, it often remains unclear whether identity in either of these senses is to be conceived as recognition’s object, something is given in advance to which an act of recognition responds; or its product, a social relation constituted through exchanges of recognition. In response to this ambiguity, and to the deeper tensions in identity-based accounts of recognition that it indicates, I have suggested that recognition can also be understood as directed toward the conditions of one’s own action rather than toward an identity, whether another’s or one’s own: this recasting of recognition as an ‘‘acknowledgment’’ of one’s own practical finitude draws on uses of the term ‘‘recognition’’ in Greek tragedy and Aristotelian poetics as well as the work of the American philosopher Stanley Cavell.


Keeping in mind the diversity of approaches to recognizing these three questions reveal, we can now take up one of the most important responses to the prominence of this theme in contemporary political thought. In 1995, in response to what she saw as the ‘‘eclipse of a socialist imaginary’’ by the rise of a politics focused on identity and culture, Nancy Fraser published two essays investigating the conflicts that arise between the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution (Fraser 1995a, 69; 1995b , 166; both reprinted in 1997a). In Fraser’s account, the recognition–redistribution dilemma is centered on the problem of ‘‘group differentiation.’’ In struggling against cultural injustice, the politics of recognition tends to promote the specificity of social groups, while the politics of redistribution frequently works to undermine such specificity (for example, by trying to ‘‘abolish the gender division of labor’’); thus, social groups that have both cultural and political-economic dimensions—such as those defined in terms of gender and race— find themselves caught between the competing imperatives of these two modes of politics (Fraser 1995a, 74). Fraser’s response to this dilemma was to introduce a cross-cutting distinction between two types of remedy for injustice, whether cultural or political-economic.

Fraser’s essays provoked immediate and sometimes acrimonious debate. Although even in these early interventions Fraser had been careful to criticize economic as well as cultural reductionism, some of her readers charged that her approach effectively resubordinated the politics of culture and identity to economic concerns. That reaction may not have done justice to Fraser’s intentions, but it was not groundless: because her initial description of the recognition–redistribution dilemma assumed that the typical form of recognition politics was normative, while the typical form of redistributive politics was transformative, Fraser’s concluding endorsement of an across-the-board transformative approach did seem to imply that it was cultural politics, not redistributive politics, that was going to have to change its tune.

Her critics also took issue with her placement of various groups on a spectrum from purely cultural to purely economic; objected to her reduction of justice to two and only two dimensions, which seemed to foreclose consideration of the distinctive problem of political exclusion and inclusion; and, perhaps most importantly, charged that her conceptual distinction between recognition and redistribution, or between culture and political economy, was too rigid.5 In response to such concerns, Fraser has revised her approach in several ways.

First, if in Fraser’s initial essays the distinction between transformative and normative remedies was the linchpin of her argument, in her more recent work that distinction has been displaced to the margins of her approach. Now, Fraser integrates recognition and redistribution differently: by treating them as irreducible dimensions of a single, overarching idea of justice, which is expressed in the norm of ‘‘parity of participation.’’ That norm ‘‘requires social arrangements that permit all (adult) members of society to interact with each other as peers,’’ and it has both ‘‘objective’’ conditions, involving the distribution of wealth and other resources, and ‘‘intersubjective’’ conditions, involving the institutionalized patterns of value that assign (or fail to assign) people the status of peers.

Second, from the point of view of moral philosophy, Fraser now defends this approach against rival accounts—particularly Honneth’s and Taylor’s on the grounds that it makes recognition a matter of the right rather than the good, appealing to universal standards of justice rather than to controversial visions of individual self-realization. Third, Fraser also connects this two-dimensional norm of participatory parity to the social-theoretic position she calls ‘‘perspectival dualism,’’ which aims to account ‘‘both for the differentiation of class from status’’ that is, of objective economic mechanisms from intersubjective orders of value—‘‘and for the

causal interactions between them’’, thereby avoiding both eco- nomic and cultural reductionism as well as the ‘‘night in which all cows are grey’’ that she attributes to ‘‘poststructuralist anti-dualism’’. Finally, Fraser now allows that there may be a third, distinct dimension of justice and injustice, analytically separable from recognition and redistribution, which concerns the inclusion and exclusion of people from political decision-making—for example, through the ‘‘framing’’ of what are actually transnational political problems in national terms, which unduly confines democratic participation within the boundaries of supposedly sovereign states.


A closer look at one disputed feature of Fraser’s account her insistence on an analytic separation between recognition and redistribution, rooted in an understanding of the modern political economy as a diVerentiated system of social integration will provide an occasion to return to the three orienting questions about a recognition that I posed earlier. As we have seen, Fraser’s interlocutors have criticized her distinctions between redistribution and recognition, class and status, and culture and political economy but they have done so in quite diVerent ways.

One version of the critique draws attention to the causal interconnections between culture and identity on the one hand and political economy on the other. The terms in which people are recognized often have important distributive consequences: the denigration of non-normative sexualities, for example, helps to sustain the maldistribution of resources ranging from health care to police protection. Conversely, access to material resources can help to ‘‘sustain’’ cultural identity; and the institutions through which resources are distributed, for instance, bureaucratic welfare states also shape the identities of those under their jurisdiction. These are vitally important insights, but they do not cut especially deeply against Fraser: as she has pointed out, the analysis of such causal relations does not challenge indeed, it requires the underlying analytic distinction between recognition and redistribution.

A second, more radical critique asserts that the relationship between recognition and redistribution is not only causal but also constitutive—that redistributive claims themselves, for example, cannot be grasped without some reference to the notion of recognition, since, as claims of justice, they depend upon ‘‘some understanding of the worth of persons’’. Thus Majid Yar casts the politics of redistribution as a subspecies of the politics of recognition because the economic goods with which it is concerned are actually the material embodiments of ‘‘shared human evaluations:’’ we struggle to possess objects that ‘‘concretize’’ others’ respect for us, or to distribute objects in ways that confirm our membership in a community of meaning (Yar 2001, 298). Likewise, Honneth argues that the politics of redistribution is at the bottom of recognition because it involves For empirical studies that highlight these interactions see the essays collected in Ray and Sayer (1999); Hobson (2003); and Rao and Walton (2004).


Struggles over the meaning and value of diVerent human activities. Modern capitalism, he suggests, replaces the old principle for the distribution of esteem—according to one’s membership in an estate—with the new principle of ‘‘individual achievement within the structure of the industrially organized division of labor’’; but because this achievement principle depends upon some background understanding of what counts as valuable work, ‘‘distribution struggles under capitalism’’ typically involve efforts to transform the prevailing interpretation of ‘‘achievement’’ for instance, in ‘‘the feminist struggle to socially valorize ‘female’ housework’’ and reproductive labor.

Do these more radical critiques constitute a compelling critique of Fraser’s ‘‘perspectival dualism?’’ One response Fraser might make most straightforwardly applicable to Yar’s challenge is that such efforts to resolve redistribution into recognition do not satisfactorily account for the real if incomplete differentiation of modern political economy from more encompassing ethical frameworks: the distinguishing feature of capitalism is ‘‘its creation of a quasi-objective, anonymous, impersonal market order,’’ which, while ‘‘culturally embedded,’’ is not ‘‘directly governed by cultural schemas of evaluation’’.

Honneth, of course, does oVer an account of the distinctiveness of capitalism: he reads its development as a differentiation of the field of recognition itself into three dimensions, governed by the distinct principles of love, law, and achievement, rather than as differentiation of norm-dependent from norm-free modes of social integration. 

Here, however, Fraser has a second response available. While some struggles over distribution under capitalism may aim at transforming prevailing interpretations of the achievement principle, this is by no means the typical form of redistributive politics: ‘‘struggles against neoliberal globalization,’’ for instance, ‘‘aim to end systemic maldistribution that is rooted not in ideologies about achievement, but in the system imperatives and governance structures of globalizing capitalism,’’ and which is ‘‘no less paradigmatic of contemporary capitalism than the sort fueled by the non-recognition of women’s care work’’.

Still, I think Honneth and Yar are right to suggest that redistribution—and, more broadly, the operation of political economy—cannot be understood without some reference to the notion of recognition. The question is: ‘‘recognition’’ in what sense? To the first orienting question I suggested earlier is recognition a discrete good or a general medium of social life? critics like Honneth and Yar over an equivocal response: although they treat recognition as the foundational ethical concept, not as merely one good among many, they nevertheless continue to treat recognition as a good, as something sought and demanded by individuals and groups, and which they may at various times lack or possess. And this conception of recognition as a good perhaps the overarching good fits well with their implicit answer to the second orienting question, about the relationship between recognition and justice: for them, to be recognized is to be treated justly.

This way of using ‘‘recognition’’ inflects Honneth’s and Yar’s accounts of the constitutive connection between redistribution and recognition: since they see recognition as a fundamentally normative concept, they locate this constitutive connection at the level of norms, reading struggles over distribution as claims for recognition; and this makes them vulnerable to Fraser’s rejoinders. But how would the relationship between redistribution and recognition look if we moved even further toward treating recognition as a general medium of social interaction rather than a good and if we attenuated the conceptual connection between recognition and justice?

The beginning of an answer can be found in Judith Butler’s response to Fraser, and in particular in a brief observation near the end of her essay about the place of the distinction between the ‘‘material’’ and the ‘‘cultural’’ in Marxism. This distinction, Butler argues, is not Marxism’s taken-for-granted ‘‘conceptual foundation.’’ To the contrary, Marx and some of his successors sought precisely ‘‘to explain how the cultural and economic themselves became established as separable spheres indeed, how the institution of the economy as a separate sphere is the consequence of an operation of abstraction initiated by capital itself ’’. In her reply to Butler, Fraser identifies this as a ‘‘deconstructive’’ argument whose point is simply to dissolve altogether the distinctions between culture and economy, recognition and redistribution.

But there is another way to understand the force of Butler’s claim, and Marx’s. The point of studying the emergence of the economy as a separate sphere through capitalism’s ‘‘operation of abstraction’’ is not to reveal that, after all, there is no difference between culture and economy. Instead, it is to identify a contra- diction within capitalist social forms: on the one hand, these forms do involve a separation of the economic from the cultural, and this separation is no mere illusion; on the other hand, the very means by which this separation is produced such as the emergence of a distinctive mode of valuation that abstracts ‘‘exchange-value’’ from use also testify to an ongoing continuity of ‘‘economic’’ and ‘‘cultural’’ forms. 

This is a ‘‘perspectival dualism’’ of a diVerent kind, which complements Fraser’s: if her dualism allows the analyst to examine any social practice now from the standpoint of distribution, now from the standpoint of recognition, this dualism lets the analyst acknowledge the reality of the social differentiations that underlie the distinction between recognition and redistribution, while simultaneously understanding those differentiations as symptoms of a deep contradiction within modern social life.

By adopting a different sense of ‘‘recognition,’’ then, we may be able to discern connections between recognition and redistribution at a different point than Honneth and Yar suggest: not only in the normative content of redistributive claims, but also and more fundamentally in the ways of seeing, regarding, and evaluating people and things as bearers of quantitative labor- power, for instance; or as loci of exchange-value that are constitutive of economic forms. Yet this, in turn, invites one further conceptual shift. Although the approach I have just sketched diVers from Honneth’s and Yar’s in its answers to the first and second orienting questions about recognition, it still presumes a fairly conventional answer to the third question, about recognition’s object: on this view, recognition is still a matter of seeing and treating someone or something else under some description: as a laborer or commodity, for example. But the alternative sense of ‘‘recognition’’ as a kind of acknow- ledgment of one’s own condition or circumstances may be apt here too.

For Hegel, it is recognized in this sense that really does critical work: his account of the struggle for recognition and the master-slave relationship is, in eVect, an account of a subject’s contradictory effort to secure certainty of its own independence through the establishment of a hierarchical social form an effort that ironically testifies to the subject’s continued dependence on others while materially insulating him, however imperfectly, from the force of this contradiction. If the ‘‘recognitions’’ constitutive of capitalism are contradictory in a parallel way, then these recognitions might also be said to amount to misrecognition in the sense of failures of acknowledgment; and at least some of the systematic inequalities and hierarchies characteristic of contemporary economic life might be understood to be sustained in part by modern subjects’ existential investments in the capitalist imaginary.

Yet if this way of conceiving of ‘‘recognition’’ opens new avenues for thinking about its connections to redistribution, it also oVers a new way of thinking about the diVerence between these terms. As I have mentioned, one of the most important changes in Fraser’s position has been her increasing concern with a third, ‘‘political’’ dimension of justice. Sometimes, her characterizations of injustice in this dimension seem to refer to a distinct set of obstacles to participatory parity that are ‘‘political’’ in a narrow sense: ‘‘electoral rules that deny a voice to quasi-permanent minorities,’’ for instance.

At other times, however, Fraser seems to have in mind a kind of injustice that is prior to the issue of participatory parity altogether. If the norm of participatory parity tells us that ‘‘justice requires social arrangements that permit all (adult) members of society to interact with one another as peers’’ this nevertheless begs a question: ‘‘Who are the subjects among whom parity of participation is required’’? Fraser’s question reminds us that the application of the norm of participatory parity always follows a kind of distributive logic, for that norm aims to ensure that goods whether material or cultural are allocated in a way that pro- motes parity among a group whose membership is known.

But just distributions of this kind depend on a prior willingness to acknowledge the networks of relationship and interdependence that make one’s own actions relevant to others (and vice versa), even when those networks reach outside what Fraser calls the ‘‘frames’’ that we ordinarily use to map our obligations. We do not know in advance who the others are to whom this prior sort of justice is owed: that’s the point, and it is what distinguishes recognition in the sense of acknowledgment that is directed in the first instance at oneself and one’s own practical finitude from both redistribution and recognition as those terms are ordinarily understood.

Previous Post Next Post