Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

March 31, 2006

Notes on Redistribution or Recognition? a Political-Philosophical Exchange


Introduction to Redistribution or Recognition?


For the final two weeks of Sociology 319 this semester, we will be examining the ideas and approaches of Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth as presented in the book Redistribution or Recognition? a Political-Philosophical Exchange (Verso Books, London, 2003).   In the notes I will refer to this book as FH.  

FH is intended to illustrate how contemporary social theory can be developed and applied to current social issues, demonstrating that there can be well argued and structured differences and debate over both the theory itself and applications of the theory in the social world.   The text contains an initial statement by each of Fraser (FH, pp. 7-109) and Honneth (FH, pp. 110-197), and then a debate between them (FH, pp. 198-267).  Both authors operate from within the tradition and approach of critical theory, with Honneth being more in the European philosophical tradition and Fraser within the American pragmatic tradition.   Both are concerned with issues of social justice, constructing analyses that provide directions and programs that they argue could help achieve social justice.  However, each has a somewhat different definition of what social justice means and different recommendations about how to achieve social justice.   While neither writer could be considered a postmodernist, each attempts to address issues of social justice in the current context, that of a late modern or postmodern world.


The issues addressed in FH are how to reduce inequality, exploitation, and subordination that individuals and groups face in contemporary society.  Both authors argue that these are problems faced by individuals as a result of their class, sex, race, sexuality, or other forces.   Fraser focuses on the issues of injustice that have been raised by social movements and groups – primarily dealing with issues raised by feminists, working-class movements, poor people, racial and ethnic groups, and gays and lesbians. 

Honneth is also concerned with these but also focuses on situations and concerns that may not come to the public eye through these social and political movements.  He is thus concerned with recognition of rights, cultural appreciation, and interpersonal issues, where injustice may appear as humiliation, disrespect, or nonrecognition or individuals or groups.  As a result, Honneth argues that, in order to achieve social justice, it is necessary to overcome this nonrecognition and accord recognition and rights to all.  In fact, for Honneth, exploitation and inequality can only be ended through a prior according of recognition to those who are exploited. 

In contrast, Fraser argues that it is necessary to focus on both the material or economic issues of distribution and redistribution and the cultural or status issues of recognition.  In Fraser’s view, recognition and redistribution are each distinct and separate dimensions that cannot be reduced to each other.  Since any actual form of injustice (racism, sexism) involves both material and status issues, correcting the injustices requires paying attention to resolving economic inequalities and dealing with cultural, symbolic, and status inequalities.

Theories.   The theoretical approach of the writers is interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary (FH, p. 4) in that they deliberately address issues that cross conventional disciplinary boundaries are use approaches from philosophy, political science, and social theory.   Honneth is more philosophical, drawing on the Hegelian view of recognition and the European critical theory tradition.   Fraser’s approach draws more from political theory in that she is more concerned with social movements and the resolution of injustices through the political and social programs and actions of these movements.   Both writers use social theory – attempt to look for applications of the approaches discussed this semester.  The Marxist and critical theory influence is strongest and the microsociological approaches are not central.   But the influence of feminist and postmodern approaches should be evident.


Nancy Fraser (1947 –  ) is Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics in the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science at New School University.   She is one of the leading figures of Critical Theory and widely regarded as the most important feminist critic and moral philosopher of the present moment.  After receiving her Ph.D. from the City University of New York (1980), she taught for many years at Northwestern University, before coming to the New School in l995. Co-editor with Andrew Arato of Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, she has published extensively in political philosophy, social theory, “Continental” philosophy, and feminist theory. 


Fraser’s first book, Unruly Practices (1989), proposed a critical theory of the democratic welfare state that went beyond issues of distributive justice, then preoccupying political philosophers in the Anglo-American liberal tradition.  Inspired by New Left critiques of bureaucracy and feminist critiques of androcentrism, she defended the expanded understanding of politics found in European thinkers, such as Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas, even as she also found much in their thinking to criticise.   Drawing on the insights of the linguistic turn, she proposed a major shift in critical focus: from the standard liberal focus on conflicts over need satisfaction to a radical-democratic focus on the “politics of need interpretation.”  Translated into German, Unruly Practices was among the first sustained efforts to integrate post-structuralist and critical-theoretical approaches.


Fraser’s second major book exuded a more sombre mood. Written in the wake of the simultaneous rise of identity politics and neo-liberalism, Justice Interruptus (1997) diagnosed the decoupling of “the politics of recognition” from “the politics of redistribution” and the relative eclipse of the latter by the former.  Disputing sectarians who championed one of these paradigms to the exclusion of the other, Fraser proposed a “two-dimensional” theory of justice that integrated the best insights of each.

These works instigated her continuing research into a new theory of social justice enlightened by a grasp of contemporary society, linked to a political strategy capable of uniting the main camps within progressive politics today.


In her contribution to the recent Redistribution or Recognition?, co-authored with Axel Honneth, she proposes that maldistribution and misrecognition are two relatively independent “dimensions of justice,” corresponding to two “folk paradigms” of justice, manifested in the “old,” class-based social justice movements and the “new” social movements of recent decades.  This situation requires, according to Fraser, a “dual perspective” analysis, leading to a strategy that combines redistribution and recognition.

All oppressions, she notes, are complex. “Exploited classes” do not suffer only from economic injustice. They also experience a lack of recognition of their social contribution.  Likewise, “despised sexualities” do not only experience recognition-related injuries.  They also suffer from economic disadvantages, such as obstacles to passing on wealth to their children and job insecurity in some professions.  Hence economic class and social status are two analytically distinct, but factually intertwined, forms of injustice, whose remedy is always some combination of redistribution and recognition. 

The advantage of taking a dual perspective approach, Fraser argues, is that it prevents the reduction of one to the other, and it makes us alert to the potentially negative unintended side-effects of one-sided remedies for injustice.  So, Fraser proposes, what is needed is not a new, super-category that would embrace both misrecognition and maldistribution.  We need, instead, a bifocal analysis of every situation, combined with democratic debate and the pragmatic evaluation of the probable effects of every effort at redistribution and recognition.  But this does not mean uncritically supporting every struggle that claims to be for redistribution or recognition.  By applying what she calls the “norm of participatory parity” – which refers to the material and cultural conditions necessary for every individual to exercise their autonomy – it is possible to deal with the difficult cases where claims for recognition conflict with demands for redistribution, and vice versa.


Nancy Fraser sums up her most recent thinking on her web site as follows:

Until recently, most theorists of justice have tacitly assumed the Westphalian sovereign state as the frame of their inquiry.  Today, however, the acceleration of globalization has altered the scale of social interaction. Thus, questions of social justice need to be reframed.  Whether the issue is structural adjustment or indigenous land claims, immigration or global warming, unemployment or homosexual marriage, the requirements of justice cannot be ascertained unless we ask: Who precisely are the relevant stakeholders?  Which matters are genuinely national, which local, which regional, and which global?  Who should decide such questions, and by what decision-making processes?  I propose to address such questions by theorizing the relations among three fundamental dimensions of justice: distribution, recognition and representation.  I shall argue that questions of distribution and recognition are today inextricably imbricated with questions of representation.  I will also argue that under current conditions such questions do not admit of any single wholesale answer.  As a result, there is no alternative to a politics of representation, in which the framing of questions of justice becomes a matter for democratic deliberation.  Thus, a politics of redistribution and recognition must be joined to a politics of representation, oriented to decision-making processes and governance structures.  Put differently, the theory of social justice must become a theory of democratic justice.

Nancy Fraser’s work has contributed to the increased focus now being given to the ethical approach to social issues and responds to concerns of the whole range of social justice constituencies. Her concentration on the interrelations between distinct, and even hostile, approaches to social justice and the unforeseen ramifications of policies across different domains of social justice are of profound interest to both public policy-makers and activists.


Axel Honneth.  Born in 1949 in Essen, Germany, Honneth received his M.A. in philosophy from the Universities at Bonn and Bochum in 1974 and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Freie Universität, Berlin in 1982.  From October 1989 to July 1990, he was a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin. Honneth has been Professor of Philosophy at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe University of Frankfurt/Main since 1996, and Director of its Institute for Social Research since 2001.  In May 2004, Honneth received the F. Palacky Honorary Medal for Merit in Social Sciences, presented by the Academy Council of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic Awards.

Axel Honneth is an internationally renowned social theorist who has creatively continued the legacy of the Frankfurt School's Critical Theory.  Under his direction, the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research has reclaimed its earlier mission of combining radical social and political analysis with rigorous philosophical inquiry.  Drawing on the work of Habermas in particular and combining it with insights from recent French thought, he has explored the themes of recognition and power with special insight.  A prolific writer, Honneth has published numerous critical essays and books on social theory and its history, including "The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts" (1996), and "The Critique of Power: Reflective Stages in a Critical Social Theory" (1993).  Honneth's more recent publications include "Suffering from Indeterminacy: A Reactualization of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" (2000), "Recognition or Redistribution? Changing Perspectives on the Moral Order of Society," with Nancy Fraser (2003), and "Anxiety and Politics" (2003).  



The particular issue of concern to Fraser and Honneth in this book is how social justice can be achieved in the contemporary world.  Earlier theorists, especially those in the Marxist and socialist tradition, emphasized redistribution, that is changing economic, political, and social conditions and structures to obtain a socially just distribution of resources, wealth, and income.  This was represented by social movements connected with trade unions, socialist or social democratic political parties, and social welfare programs such as pensions, minimum wage legislation, unemployment or employment insurance, child welfare, anti-poverty programs, and progressive taxation.  Social theorists and those involved in social movements devoted to pursuing these aims generally looked on achievement of these reforms as a means of redistributing the wealth of society more equally, so that all members of a society could benefit equitably and in order to reduce or eliminate extreme economic inequalities.   These are what Fraser and Honneth refer to as redistribution or achieving distributive justice.   For the most part, distributive justice appears to have been concerned with achieving greater equality among members of society, while making sure that minimum needs of people were being met.  

Over the last sixty or seventy years, it became apparent that social movements and struggles for redistribution or distributive justice alone were inadequate or incomplete mechanisms for achieving social justice.  The class-based social movements (trade unions, social democractic political parties) that attempted to achieve distributive justice did not always address inequalities related to sex and gender, ethnic or racial discrimination and difference, national and regional inequalities, discrimination on the basis of culture and religion, or issues related to diverse sexualities and sexual practices.  Even more problematic was that some of the movements for distributive justice ignored, made secondary, or downgraded struggles related to these latter issues, using the argument that the class struggle must be the primary focus.  Among social and political movements that have highlighted the issues that are not strictly class struggles are the movements against colonialism and for national independence and human rights that have occurred around the world since the second world war; the civil rights movement in the United States, struggles for land claims and rights among First Nations and other aboriginal peoples; feminism and women’s rights; employment equity; and gay and lesbian rights and queer theory.  While it may be misleading to put all these social movements and issues together, they have sometimes been termed “identity politics” – that is, demands from groups to have their identity recognized and injustices of misrecognition and exploitation ended.  Fraser and Honneth term these “claims for recognition” and the two authors agree that these claims are central to contemporary social movements and some political struggles.

Where the two authors disagree is on the relative importance and distinctiveness of redistribution and recognition in the attempt to achieve social justice.  Fraser argues that both redistribution and recognition are required in order to create social justice, and these represent two distinct but inter-related forms of struggle for social justice.   That is, those who are considered minority groups or who have been treated inequitably and not provided the opportunity of equal treatment are most likely to be subjects of both maldistribution and misrecognition.  Many members of such groups have been exploited and not permitted to participate equitably in the distributive sphere, while at the same time as their identity and claims have been ignored and not recognized.  Social justice requires addressing both the issues of maldistribution and misrecognition.  As a result, for Fraser, redistribution of society’s resources and recognition of each member of society are inter-related, but analytically distinct, aspects of any attempt to achieve social justice.

For Honneth, recognition is the primary issue, from which other claims for social justice proceed.  That is, it is necessary for others (not members of a particular group) to accord recognition to all individuals who are members of society and to the culture and rights of groups whose members have suffered from misrecognition in order to begin tackling issues of maldistribution.  Rather than separate the issues of distribution and recognition, Honneth attempts to put them in a single dimension, that of recognition.  This allows him to place the traditional socialist goals of redistribution within the same framework as that of claims for recognition.  In contrast, Fraser emphasizes the different types of claims, so her approach lends itself more to attempts to establish coalitions across the different types of claims. 

To make his argument, Honneth focuses less than Fraser on social movements and more on moral injustices, such as everyday social misery (FH, p. 114) and poor quality of life.  These fit within the phenomenonological approach, similar to the ethnomethodological approach.   For Honneth, it is also the everyday injustices as they are felt through the experiences that are felt by individuals, injustice as humiliation and disrespect.  He argues that it is this form of injustice that lays the basis for inequitable economic and material treatment.  That is, for Honneth, cultural and symbolic inequalities precede  economic inequalities.  These inequalities could occur at one or more different levels – the personal or intersubjective level (unequal treatment of individuals), in the legal arena (unequal or different rights and privileges), or in the structures of society (systemic discrimination) (FH, pp. 138-143).   Honneth argues that if recognition is accorded to everyone at each of these different levels, then it can be possible to address other inequities.  But if there is not a willingness to recognize others, then it will be difficult to address issues of distributional social justice. 



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

Information about Fraser from

Nancy Fraser web site:

Photos of Honneth, Fraser, and other theorists are available at:

Information about Honneth from


Last edited April 7, 2006