Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

April 12, 2006

Conclusion to Redistribution or Recognition?


The approach of each of Fraser and Honneth highlights issues related to misrecognition, maldistribution, inequality, and injustice and presents ways of dealing with these.   Among the conclusions I draw from the discussion and debate are the following. 


1.  Theoretical approach  


Part of the debate between Honneth and Fraser revolves around the theoretical question of how to approach a discussion of social justice.  Fraser adopts a pragmatic approach while Honneth argues that it is necessary to understand the root causes of experiences of injustice and build a critical theory from this.


Fraser begins her analysis with a study of social movements, the stated goals of these social movements, and an understanding of how these are related to claims of injustice and to means of achieving social justice.  From this historical, political, and social analysis she develops a theoretical model that explains different types of injustice (maldistribution and misrecognition) and proposes a means of overcoming these (parity of participation).   Her analysis is pragmatic in that it builds on the experiences of social movements and an analysis of existing social institutions and relationships.


Honneth’s approach is to develop his principles (love, law, achievement) from “reflection the historical conditions of personal identity-formation.”  He contrasts this approach with that of an empirical study of research on justice (Miller’s approach) and a “distinction between patterns of social relationships.” (FH, p. 181).  The latter presumably refers to Fraser’s argument for a basic distinction between distribution and recognition, constructing this argument from her examination of how society and its social institutions are structured and operate.  Honneth argues that his critical analysis is better suited to determining what are the possibilities “of overcoming the given order” (FH, p. 239).  He argues that the pragmatic approach of Fraser does not deal adequately with this, so that it is necessary to investigate the root causes of social injustice and a theory of how they can be overcome (transcendence).


2.  Two- or one-dimensional approach


Fraser argues that there are two dimensions to achieving social justice – recognition and redistribution.  In the economic and material sphere, where social institutions and relationships are structured by class, issues of distribution and redistribution are central.  In the cultural and symbolic sphere, where social status structures social institutions and relationships, issues of recognition and misrecognition are the main concern in attempting to move toward more socially just arrangements.  The two dimensions constitute different aspects of individual and group experiences, the two spheres (economic and cultural) became differentiated historically, and social movements have addressed the two dimensions in different ways.  At the same time, Fraser argues that many, or most, actual injustices involve both misrecognition and maldistribution, so that any attempt to achieve social justice must pay attention to each of the two dimension.  The standard of participatory parity is the means by which injustices in each sphere can be addressed.


In contrast, Honneth argues that recognition is the primary feature in achieving social justice.  If people are recognized as individuals, this allows them to develop their personal individuality; mutual recognition accorded to and by others in social interaction is a means of building social integration and social inclusion.  He argues that the sphere of social recognition encompasses issues of both recognition and distribution.  At the same time, he argues that recognition takes different forms – love, legal equality, achievement – in different spheres of social life that have become differentiated from each other in the modern era.  


Given Fraser’s single standard for resolving injustice and given Honneth’s threefold division into forms of recognition, perhaps there is less dimensional difference between the two approaches than what each author claims.   That is, Fraser’s two dimensions have one means of resolution and Honneth’s single dimension of cause splits into three dimensions of resolution.  


One problem I see with Honneth’s approach is that he does not explicitly address the traditional issues of distribution, maldistribution, and redistribution.  While Fraser considers material inequalities, class structures, and the maldistribution of resources to be important problems in contemporary capitalism, Honneth does not appear to address these in a straightforward manner.  While it may be that misrecognition is at the root of class structure, it is not clear how recognition can lead to a resolution of the inequalities that emerge from private ownership of the means of production.  


Honneth is critical of Fraser for ignoring the legal sphere as an area where equality and rights are contested.  Honneth’s argument is that the legal sphere has been an important arena for obtaining equal rights.  In return, Fraser argues that she has not ignored equality in law.  Rather, she does not consider the law to be a separate sphere (as are the economic and cultural/symbolic spheres) but as a set of procedures that apply to both dimensions of justice.  She states that law serves “at once as a vehicle of, and a remedy for, subordination” (FH, p. 220).  She provides examples of how law can be important in dealing with issues of sexual orientation (cultural/symbolic/status sphere) and inheritance/corporate property (economic sphere).                             


3.  Achieving social justice


Honneth argues that there may be common ground between his approach and that of Fraser with respect to equality.  Both favour movement towards greater equality in organizations and structures (legal and economic) and in participation (inclusion and participatory parity).  This means “all members of society regard one another as having equal rights and each is therefore accorded equal autonomy” (FH, p. 176).  For Fraser though, this is achieved through equal participation whereas for Honneth the goal is indentity formation and mutual recognition.


For Fraser, the standard associated with achieving social justice is parity of participation or participatory parity.  Where current social arrangements impair the ability of some to participate in social institutions and enter into social interactions with one another as peers, then there is social injustice.  Where social arrangements that are being considered or proposed have a promise of improving the ability of people to participate in social interactions as peers, then that is a move toward more socially just institutional arrangements.  Fraser argues that issues of distribution and of recognition are involved in an actual situation of injustice, so that achieving social justice always requires consideration of both these issues, with attempts to overcome both maldistribution and misrecognition.


For Honneth the standard for achieving social justice is that social changes promote individualization and inclusion and an expansion of the spheres of recognition.   This means developing “the possibility of realizing individual autonomy” by developing “an intact self-relation through the experience of social recognition” (FH, pp. 180-181). 


In terms of difference of approach, Fraser argues that Honneth does not develop standards by which identity formation and self realization might be judged.   For both writers, the general approach to social justice is clear.  However, it is not clear exactly how Honneth’s standards of individual autonomy and inclusion are to be applied and exactly what participatory parity means in practice.


4.  Practical politics


Neither write appears to intend this book as a guide to political action, in that the discussion and debate is primarily concerned with theoretical issues.  At the same time, since each author is primarily concerned with addresses the issue of social justice, the analysis should provide some implications for political and social action.


Honneth makes few statements about applied politics.  The primary recommendation appears to be related to legal equality.  Honneth indicates that many of the issues of social injustice could be dealt with by applying the principle of equality in the legal sphere.  At the same time, he argues that it is necessary to consider the achievement principle, although it is not clear how this connects with the equality principle.   Since Honneth argues that there is a single underlying issue of relations of recognition, this would seem to point toward a single solution – however, he does not seem to identify an agent that could transform current social arrangements to those that are more just.


Fraser’s approach points toward combining principles and experiences from different approaches and groups.  Since each situation of injustice involves different aspects of maldistribution and misrecognition, each group should be made aware of how these principles apply to their own situation and the situation of others.  Fraser argues that public debate and discussion is a central aspect of making people aware of the problem areas and working out solutions.   These discussions and conclusions will assist in applying the principle of participatory parity in concrete situations.  In terms of political activity, this appears to point toward coalitions and alliances among groups that are attempting to produce a more socially just society.   Fraser further points toward  transformative solutions (socialism and deconstruction) – social changes that would transform the underlying relations of distribution and recognition to produce a socially just society.


5.  Lessons for sociological theory


·      Different approaches and debates.  Different methodologies and approaches, different assumptions, and different issues addressed.  Insights by examining each approach.


·      Approach – pragmatic or deep-rooted?  Honneth works in the tradition of a critical theory where theorists attempt to construct an all-encompassing explanation of the social world, working from some basic causes.  Fraser’s approach to theory is more flexible and pragmatic, working from observations about current social issues and movements.


·      Recognition and intersubjective.  After reading this book, these concepts appear inadequately theorized in social theory.  This appears to be the case even in those approaches such as interactionism, that primarily address issues such as the development of the self and social interaction.


·      Meaning of social justice.  This is undertheorized in sociology and these two approaches demonstrate ways of addressing issues of social justice.


·      Important to retain connection of theory to social world, social movements, and considerations of social justice.


6.  Other issues


Fraser – who is included in social arrangements is an increasingly important issue.  See her article on globalization.   See Nancy Fraser, “Reframing Justice in a Globalizing World,” New Left Review, 36, November-December 2005, pp. 69-88.




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



Last edited April 12, 2006