Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

April 7-10, 2006

Axel Honneth’s approach to social justice (FH, pp. 110-197).


1.  Introduction


Set within context of renewal of critical theory and meeting original aims of the Institute of Social Research – understand social movements and work toward realizing their objectives.   Critical engagement of social theory.  Fraser has theorized the “struggle for recognition” and the “politics of identity” (FH, p. 111) that characterize many contemporary social movements.   Honneth does not disagree with Fraser’s concern with both redistribution and recognition, both being necessary to deal with current injustices.  So the debate is not so much at the political level as being concerned with the more philosophical issues of which of the theoretical languages (related to redistribution or recognition) is better suited to meeting political demands within critical theory (FH, pp. 112-113).  Honneth argues that “the terms of recognition” is better able to meet the problems of “widespread feelings of injustice and the normative objective of emancipatory movements (FH, p. 113).  One problem of Fraser’s perspectival dualism is that it may provide a perspective on the two aspects of injustice in a way that separates the material and symbolic to the point that they cannot be simultaneously addressed.


Central to Honneth’s argument is that feelings of social injustice, moral injustice, and social injury are not confined to issues that have emerged within social movements and, as a result, have been highlighted in the public arena.   Rather, critical theory must also pay attention to everyday social misery and moral injustice, in addition to issues raised by social movements.  In order to do this, Honneth argues that the terms of recognition is a more useful place to start and such a theoretical approach can conceptually deal with both these privately felt and publicly identified social injustices. 


2. Demystifcation of identity struggles (pp. 117-125)


Each social movement brings to the foreground of public discussion a set of social injustices, issues such as disrespect and marginalization of the individuals and groups who constitute the social movement.  These movements deal with value convictions of members, lifestyles, overcoming stereotypes and norms about ascribed characteristics, traditions, and ways of life.   While the women’s movement and movements of ethnic groups and sexual minorities can be categorized as having some common characteristics that justify the term “identity politics,” there are also some problems with this approach.


·      Everyday misery.  Some of the major social injustices are in the form of social deprivation and everyday oppression, and these issues do not always come to the public eye through social movements.  Among these Honneth cites unemployment (creating individual depression and social isolation), poverty among single mothers with limited job qualifications, the downgrading and obsolescence of previously valuable job skills, the poverty of the rural economy, and poverty among large families (FH, pp. 118-9).   Political and social movements have often ignored these and continue to do so – they represent difficult issues for politicians and governments, so these issues are often left out of the spectrum of political debates. 


·      Other social movements.  Some of the social movements that have become powerful are those built around exclusion of outsiders – examples include some black nationalist groups and German skinheads.  There are also nationalist groups, white supremacist groups, survivalists, and some aboriginal groups that contain aspects of this form of exclusion.   Thus identity politics contains a diverse set of groups and goals, some of which may promote inclusion and social justice but others of which are aimed at preserving exclusion, subordination, and inequality.


·      New or old social movements.   Many of the new social movements pursuing issues of identity and recognition are not really new and many of the “old” social movements contained elements of struggles for recognition and identity.   Some examples of these have been provided earlier – struggles against slavery, civil rights movement, first wave of feminism, immigrant organizations.   Even the labour movement contained cultural and symbolic elements.   Motivational sources of resistance and protest in peasant and labour movements (EPThompson and Barrington Moore, p. 131.   Experience of violation of locally transmitted claims.  The goals of recognition were important in the labour movement, with working class ways of life and achievement being worthy of respect.  Further, Honneth argues that “the moral vocabulary in which nineteenth century workers, groups of emancipated women…and African-Americans in big US cities in the 1920s articulated their protests was tailored to registering social humiliation and disrespect” (FH, p. 135). 


3.  Injustice as humiliation and disrespect (FH, pp. 125-134)


In order to develop a critical social theory, Honneth argues that it is not sufficient to just pay attention to social movements and the issues they raise, but it is necessary to gain “an improved insight into the motivational sources of social discontent and resistance” (FH, p. 125).  It may be that the theoretical issue of recognition that Fraser addresses is not so much a result in a change in public concern or a change in how people feel injustice.  Rather, it may be a result of social theories that have not properly theorized these feelings and experiences of injustice.  If it is the latter, then an improved theoretical approach is necessary and Honneth considers this to be a better theoretical understanding of the politics of recognition and its implications.


In Marxism the rational-purposive actions of workers (the actions of the proletariat) would achieve social justice through redistribution of the means of production so all would benefit.   Within this framework the cause of social injustice was objective and clear (maldistribution of resources) and a set of rational actions could overcome this injustice.  As a result, there was no need to appeal to issues of recognition.


In terms of the new social movements the problem is an assumption that these social movements adequately address the underlying discontent and suffering that led to the social movement.  While the goals of social movements may reflect an underlying set of social injustices, these goals do not necessarily lead to a full understanding of the underlying cause of social injustice.  One example is that related to racism against African-Americans and other people of colour.  While discriminatory and racist attitudes and views on the part of white people constitute a problem, it is not clear that this is the sole or even most important source of the poverty and community disclocation problems these people suffer.  Many of the problems may be more related to poverty, isolation, ghettoization, urban structures, location of jobs, types of skills, etc. than to racism. 


For Honneth, the concept of social suffering has a “normative core.” He argues that “feelings of discontent ad suffering, insofar as they are designatied as ‘social,’ coincide with the experience that society is doing something unjust, something unjustifiable” (FH, p. 129).   Social suffering and discontent possess a normative core of disappointment or violation of normative expectations.  Part of this comes from experiences of a lack of institutional rules, measures, and procedures, or the inequitable application of these.  Further, social institutions may not work in line with the generally accepted claims that are made for the institutions.    Dissatisfaction with rules that one cannot see any reason for (inflexible and non-transparent bureaucracy) or violation of rules by some but enforcement of these rules on others.   Honneth cites studies of labour and peasant movements where “social injury to one’s integrity, honor, or dignity represents the normative core of the experience of injustice” (FH, p. 131).   He argues that from other studies “the experience of a withdrawal of social recognition – of degradation and disrespect – must be at the center of a meaningful concept of socially cause suffering and injustice” (FH, p. 132).  


4.  Spheres of recognition (pp. 138-150)


Honneth argues that Fraser ignores the issue of legal equality.  He indicates that the legal sphere and claims for legal equality are not included in either of the redistribution or recognition demands as discussed by Fraser.  (Note though that Fraser emphasizes impediments to parity of participation, and presumably legal impediments are part of this).   Honneth further argues that there are “graduated levels of recognition within the social order which have emerged historically and which result in a “historically established recognition order” (FH, p. 137).   Fraser argues that the traditional social order was characterized by social status and recognition as the social order, and distribution emerged from this.  She argues that modernization led to specialized orders, with varying combinations of economic/material and cultural/symbolic means of distribution and recognition.   By contrast, Honneth argues that differentiation and specialization of institutions has led to “differentiation of three social spheres of recognition” (FH, p. 137).


The three spheres of recognition that emerged with the development of a bourgeois-capitalist, or modern, society, that are identified by Honneth are love in intimate relations, law in legal relations, and achievement in social hierarchies. 


·      Love.  This is affective recognition (recall Parsons’s pattern variables of affection and affective neutrality, although Parsons does not identify these with recognition).  These are the means by which “individuals acquire trust in the value of their own bodily needs” (FH, p. 139).  Honneth regards this as a means by which children are accorded respect, allowing them to develop self-confidence.   A similar process with respect to love between partners emerged as this “opened up to the feeling of mutual affection” (FH, p. 139).  These processes of childhood and marriage became part of the intersubjective form of social relationship, where affection and care govern these relationships.   Honneth considers the institutional development of childhood and marriage to be historical phenomena, with this specific form of recognition emerging to govern these types of social relationships.


·      Law.  Honneth also argues that a similar development occurred with respect to “legal recognition of the individual” characterized by a status (citizenship) with certain rights which were inherent in the individual or emerged as a result of place of birth or age (FH, p. 139).  Honneth argues that this development led to a separation of legal rights from social esteem – in the legal sphere people were respected in a legal sense, in that they had various rights.   While social esteem did not disappear, esteem and law became two separate spheres of recognition, at least in theory.


·      Achievement.  The distinctive individual also began to have the possibility of achievements, which were attached to the individual.  In earlier society, such achievement was credited to rank or status (nobility and peasantry, masters and slaves).   Achievement became the sphere in which social esteem operates, with achievements being governed by merit or meritocracy (FH, p. 141).   One way this occurred was through splitting work into what was valued (jobs and pay) and what was not valued (work in home, volunteer, not paid), with major consequences for distribution and distributional inequalities.    This is not a natural division but one associated with particular historical developments, certain value principles, and undoubtedly as a result of exercise of power.   But what this points to is that principles of distribution have principles of recognition underlying them – what is valued is recognized and what is not valued may be misrecognized.


These are historical developments that created much greater possibilities for individual development, recognition, and freedom, as compared with traditional societies.   However, they also create the possibility for misrecognition and can harm or prevent self-development.  Honneth argues that participation in activities and social interactions where there is mutual recognition can help self-development.   He states “only by participating in interactions whose normative preconditions include reciprocal orientation to specific principles of recognition can individuals experience the enduring value of their specific capacities for others” (FH, p. 143).  On pages 143-147 he argues that this takes the development of recognition to a different stage than what was argued by Hegel.




5.  Distribution conflicts as struggles for recognition (pp. 150-159). 


In this section, Honneth addresses the issue of whether distributional inequalities can be understood as being rooted in misrecognition.  He argues that more needs to be considered than redistribution of income through state social welfare measures (eg. measures such as progressive taxation, minimum wage legislation, government programs aimed at improving access to health and education).   Rather, Honneth points toward taking “into account the non-state spaces where the initial effort to delegitimize the prevailing distribution order are undertaken” (FH, p. 151).


The approach is twofold – recognition of legal equality of individuals and recognition of the achievements of individuals. 


·      First, Honneth claims that Fraser ignores the legal order as a sphere of recognition.  He argues that recognition of legal equality, and attempts to achieve legal equality by those who were not initially accorded such equality, have been key issues in the history of capitalism.   Examples could be women’s struggles to achieve full property rights in the first wave of feminism and reforms of labour law that accorded more rights to workers and trade unions.   These were important in establishing the principle of legal equality and this principle is related to a principle that there should be “social rights that guarantee every member of society a minimum of essential goods regardless of achievement” (FH, p. 152).   This principle emerges from the concept of recognition and is important in determining how goods and services are distributed.  


·      A second principle is that of recognition of achievement of people when their contributions are undervalued and some do “not receive sufficient consideration or social esteem under the prevailing hegemonic structure” (FH, p. 153).   There is a particular social division of labour that emerges in capitalism (recall feminist analysis and Wright’s model that includes organization and skill assets), a division that is not natural but constructed by markets, corporations, and organizations.  It is also constructed by the particular valuations society places on certain individuals (who is appropriate to be manager, professional; who is appropriate for difficult labouring jobs).  The prejudices associated with such constructions are a form of misrecognition of the potential contributions of some individuals and are an improper application of the achievement principle.


Example (FH, p. 153):  It is not the type of work that distinguishes female jobs and professions, that is, female jobs are no simpler nor do they require fewer abilities.  Rather, the problem of undervaluation of female jobs and professions is that once these are occupied by females, there is a decline in the social standing or esteem associated with these jobs and professions.  That is, once a particular set of jobs is occupied by women, it is these jobs that suffer a decline in the social status hierarchy.  Thus gender functions as a cultural measure in the organization of the social division of labour, a measure that structures the degree of social esteem accorded to the work.  The social esteem is accorded to the job or profession not because of the intrinsic nature of the work associated with the job but as a result of who occupies it.  This lower social esteem and valuation occurs in unpaid women’s labour in the home and volunteer organizations and when a profession changes from being occupied primarily by males to one occupied primarily by females.   As a result, in this case what appears to be a maldistribution of pay or valuation of women’s work is really a problem of misrecognition.  It is the misrecognition that leads to the lower valuation.


From this, Honneth draws the conclusion that debates and struggles over proper distribution of society’s resources emerge from an inadequate or incomplete application of a “prevailing legitimation principle.”   That is, experiences of injustice emerge when principles of equality or achievement are not applied as a result of deep-seated, underlying cultural patterns.  From this he states that different views about and struggles over the proper distribution of resources in society “typically take the form of social groups…attempting to throw the established evaluative models into question by fighting for greater esteem of their social contributions, and thereby for economic redistribution” (FH, p. 154).  Such disputes over the distribution of resources may not appear to be primarily in the economic or material sphere.  But Honneth is arguing that the root of such maldistribution is a misrecognition of the contributions or status of some individuals or groups, and a misapplication of the principles of achievement – the principles of equality and love could also be added.  


Honneth’s approach then is to take the three principles of recognition (love, law, and achievement) and couple them with “the cultural values involved in the institutional constitution of the economic sphere” (FH, p. 155).  It is these cultural values that give a particular shape to the division of labour (sectors primarily occupied by men, women, immigrants, etc.) and a distribution of status (FH, p. 156). 


One question that he does not appear to address is whether worker-employer disputes over wages and working conditions are, at root, connected to misrecognition.  These are the classic form of distribution struggles, associated with trade unions and class divisions in capitalist society.


6.  Recognition and social justice


The issue Honneth addresses in the section from p. 160 is how the principle of recognition is related to issues of identity politics and how recognition can be considered to be at the root of social justice.


In terms of identity politics, Honneth means contemporary social movements that are aimed at overcoming disrespect for members, achieving a cultural identity for their members, and obtaining a place in society for individuals and groups who have been misrecognized.  Identity politics is primarily concerned with “the elimination of discrimination through the exercise of legal rights…[and] group-specific forms of preference, recognition, or participation” (FH, p. 161).  An example could be how aboriginal groups attempt to overcome racism and negative attitudes that others have towards them, while at the same time attempting to their culture, treaties, and self-governance recognized by the larger society around them.  Honneth argues that assigning issues raised by these social movements to the cultural/symbolic sphere, as Fraser does, is not helpful.   While there are many aspects to these social movements, often involving issues of redistribution as well as recognition, Honneth argues that many of these can be dealt with in the legal sphere.  That is, by applying the recognition principle of legal equality, many of these issues can be addressed.


Honneth classifies these into three types of issues (FH, pp. 164-168):

·      Protection from external encroachments.  Freedom of speech and religion are usually protected by law.  But some of the religious or cultural practices may require exemptions from the law, with special treatment accorded the group so that their practices and beliefs can be met.  For example, Sikh headgear, exemption of pacifists from military service.

·      Recognition of cultural identity may require “resources or preventive measures to promote and develop the cohesion of the community” (FH, p. 164).  Examples could include heritage and aboriginal language instruction or community centres.

·      Recognition or respect from society’s majority culture.  Honneth argues that accepting other cultures in this way might mean moving beyond the three principles (love, law, achievement) outlined earlier.  At the same time, he argues that many of these issues might be handled through the equality principle, with recognition that other cultures and values are as worthy of esteem as our own.  


From these considerations, Honneth considers the demands of current social movements that involve identity politics to be part of recognition and achieving social justice through recognition. 


7.  Achieving social justice and social progress


Honneth argues that it achieving social justice requires attention to the three principles of love, law (equal legal treatment), and achievement (social esteem) in recognition.   As noted earlier, he derives these principles using an historical analysis of how the three spheres emerged as modern capitalism developed.   These spheres change as society changes, so there are changes in the way that these spheres of recognition unfold and how they affect an individual or group at any particular time.   For Honneth, the key to social justice is that “for the individual subject, the possibility of realizing individual autonomy depends on being able to develop an intact self-relation through the experience of social recognition” (FH, pp. 180-181).  But the ways an individual experiences this recognition may change – this may be part of the difference with Fraser.   That is, it is not that distribution and recognition are two dimensions but that the emphasis may change with situation and time, as people experience different forms of misrecognition.  


Honneth argues that people expect social recognition of their capabilities by others and the disappearance of this results in experiences of disrespect and humiliation.   He situates this within the context of socialization and integration.   As an individual is socialized into society, he or she develops expectations concerning responses of others.  The individual comes to see himself or herself as both and individual and as a full member of society “by gradually being assured of their specific capabilities and needs that constitute them as personalities” (FH, p. 173).   This understanding is developed as a result of the supportive social interaction patterns that the individual experiences in social interaction.   At the same time, Honneth argues that the individual understands what society is, as the individual interacts with others and expects “inclusion through stable forms of recognition” (FH, p. 173).  This is the process of integration into the norms and patterns associated with social interaction and inclusion in social institutions and social relationships.   This dual process of socialization and integration provides recognition to the individual and so long as this continues, then the individual does not normally experience misrecognition.  But when the principles of recognition do not operate, society no longer represents a legitimate way of ordering social relationships.   That is, these are legitimate only so long as mutual recognition means that “members are included in the context of social life” (FH, p. 173).   Honneth concludes that

The justice or well-being of a society is proportionate to its ability to secure conditions of mutual recognition under which personal identity-formation, hence individual self-realization, can proceed adequately.  (FH, p. 174)


In this setting, what is just depends on what is involved in social recognition and how different subjects recognize each other in social relationships.  That is, people act and interact in different spheres and institutions – home, school, jobs, public life.  Given the different forms of social interaction and the different types of activities associated with each of these, the principles of social justice come into operation depends on the situation.  (see FH, p. 181).

·      Neediness.   Individual subjects must be recognized in their neediness and the principle that has priority in this case is love or affective care.   This is most applicable in personal and family relationships and in intimate relationships.  

·      Legal equality.  In the field of relationships governed by law, the appropriate principle is legal equality.

·      Cooperative relationships.  Here the principle of merit or achievement operates, as in jobs and work relationships.  In other public activities, social esteem may be the result. 

For there to be justice, these principles must operate in a way that individual autonomy and identity is assured and there can be individual self-realization.  The operation of these three principles is a standard for measuring social justice.  Where these standards are not met and there is misrecognition of the individual, then this results in humiliation and prevents individual autonomy – an unjust situation. 


Progress.  The preceding argument leads Honneth to construct a standard for measuring social progress or social development – which societies or which social arrangements provide better conditions for achieving individual autonomy, inclusion, and mutual recognition.  As opposed to earlier, traditional societies, Honneth argues that modernity has provided members with opportunities to develop a greater degree of individuality.  This is a result of many developments but the separation of relations of recognition into the three spheres of love, legal equality, and achievement is part of the reason for this.  In this setting individuals “are able to experience more aspects of their own personalities along the different models of recognition” (FH, p. 184).   It is the simultaneous development of individualization and social inclusion that are an important aspect of these relations of recognition.   That is, individuals have greater possibility for self-realization in that they are not tied to traditional activities, locations, or cultures.   At the same time, more individuals are included in social relations and the scope of inclusion has widened (democracy, labour force, public life, media, globalization).   At the same time, social justice does not operate fully so there can be serious misrecognition.   Honneth states that social arrangements are just and progressive only if all three principles operate.


Honneth’s standard for judging progress is whether there are opportunities for individualization at the same time as there is expansion of social inclusion.  This operates at the level of social relationships among individuals, whereby mutual recognition occurs and people can develop their personalities.   At the level of society, this means inclusion of more people in these social relationships.   He argues that this can occur as follows:

either new parts of the personality are opened up to mutual recognition, so that the extent of socially confirmed individuality rises; or more persons are included into existing recognition relations, so that the circle of subjects who recognize one another grows.  (FH, p. 186). 

At the same time, Honneth argues that it may be difficult to translate this condition into the private, legal, and public spheres.   But he argues that this provides a reasonable way to attempt to achieve social justice.


Using the same criteria, Honneth develops criteria for distinguishing claims of injustice – those claims that might be justified and those which might not be.  Recall that Fraser’s criteria for determining what was unjust was whether the problem being complained about impeded parity of participation.  Similarly, her standard for judging proposals to rectify injustices was again whether the proposed change would improve parity of participation.   For Honneth, the standard for judging claims of injustice is whether development of individuality is impeded and, for proposed changes, whether the proposed change can potentially lead to an expansion of the social relations of recognition.   That is, “the two measures of individualization and inclusion…represent the criteria” (FH, p. 187).


In the case of the legal sphere, this is often straightforward – where there are inequalities in law, according equal rights can be considered a means of moving in a more socially just direction.  In the sphere of love, Honneth points toward “step-by-step elimination of role clichés, stereotypes, and cultural ascriptions that structurally impede adaption to others’ needs” (FH, p. 188).  In terms of achievement, Honneth provides little in the way of guidelines except for arguing that social esteem should not be judged only on the basis of what is normally considered a job or “gainful employment.”





Fraser, Nancy and Axel Honneth.  2003.  Redistribution or Recognition? a Political-Philosophical Exchange, Verso Books, London.  (FH)



Last edited April 10, 2006