Redistribution and Recognition? Nancy Fraser on Social Justice

Should theorists of social justice focus on a politics of ‘recognition’ – the valuation of desperate identities and practices? Or, rather, should they aim for a politics of redistribution – focused of wealth, income, capabilities or other social goods?

This large and important issue forms the central question of the volume Redistribution or Recognition? by Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth. In their ‘political-philosophical exchange’ (as the subtitle of the book reads), Fraser and Honneth propose different answers to the question of how redistribution and recognition ought to be related. Both agree that an adequate understanding of social justice must encompass both, and that recognition is not superfluous. But there the agreements ends, and the debate begins.

The volume makes for a lively read. Fraser begins by sketching here two-dimensional conception of justice, and Honneth responds by outlining his theory of justice as recognition. Each then offers a rejoinder to the other. Somewhat rarely, the volume should be equally interesting to readers interested in analytic political philosophy as well as readers interested in critical theory and social philosophy. In today’s post, I sketch Fraser’s argument, focusing in particular on her theory of justice; I summarize her social philosophy, and the political implications of her thought more briefly.

Redistribution or Recognition? A False Antithesis

Fraser begins by sketching two ‘folk paradigms’ of justice – the redistribution paradigm (RDP) and the recognition paradigm (RCP). According to RDP, social injustice is socio-economic, it afflicts classes (which are products of unjust political economy), and remedying it requires economic restricting. A canonical example is simplified-Marxism. According to RCP, social injustice is primarily a matter of cultural devaluation of a status group’s culture, and remedying it is a matter of cultural or symbolic change.

After sketching this intuitive contrast, Fraser argues that the antithesis between them is a false one. Whill we can fashion ideal societies that fit one or the other model, most actual social inequalities are ‘two-dimensional.” That is, most subordinated groups suffer “both maldistribution and misrecognition in forms where neither of these injustices is an indirect effect of the other, but where both are primary and co-ordinals” (19). Fraser then argues that in contemporary American society, gender, race and class oppression are two-dimensional in this sense.


[O]ne should roundly reject the construction of redistribution and recognition as mutually exclusive alternatives. The goal should be, rather, to develop an integrated approach that can encompass, and harmonize, both dimensions of social justice (26).

Fraser’s Theory of Justice: A Two-Dimensional Approach

After drawing this conclusion, Fraser poses four questions:

  • Is recognition really a matter of justice, or is it a matter of self-realization?
  • Do distributive justice and recognition constitute two distinct paradigms, or can one be subsumed by the other.
  • How can we distinguish justified from unjustified claims for recognition?
  • Does justice require the recognition of individuals or groups, or does recognizing common humanity suffice?

In sketching her own theory, Fraser attempts to answer each question. First, she argues, recognition is a matter of justice (the right) rather than axiology (the good). It is a matter of justice because certain forms of misrecognition deny persons “the status of full partners in social interaction simply as a consequence of institutionalized patterns of cultural value in whose construction they have not equally participated” (29). Treating recognition as a matter of justice means treating it as an issue of social status: actors can either by social peers with reciprocal relations of equality, or suffer from status subordination via miscrecognition.

According to the status model of recognition, misrecognition is neither an impairment of self-realization or a psychic deformation, but rather an “institutionalized relation of subordination” (29). Take the case of racial profiling in which policing practices treat young black males as dangerous because of racialized conceptions of criminality. In such cases , the institutional perception of blackness as danger inhibit persons from achieving the status of “a full partner in social life”.

This approach has four advantages: (1) it permits justification of recognition claims without affirming any one conception of the good; (2) it locates the wrong of miscrecognition in institutions and social practices, rather than in individual psychology; (3) it avoids the claim that each has an equal right to social esteem, only offering the weaker claim that “everyone has an equal right to pursue social esteem under fair conditions of equality of opportunity; and (4) it permits integration of recognition with redistribution.

How, then, should recognition and redistribution be integrated? Fraser argues neither can be subordinated to the other –status subordination occurs to the wealthy as well as to the poor; conversely, not all maldistribution is the product of miscrecognition. Instead, Fraser proposes a ‘two-dimensional conception of justice’ which treats recognition and distribution as ‘distinct perspectives on, and dimensions of, justice’ (35).

Calling the model two-dimensional, however, might be something of a mistake. Take the following passage:

As already noted, the normative core of my conception is the notion of parity of participation. According to this norm, justice requires social arrangements that permit all (adult) members of society to interact with one another as peers. For participatory parity to be possible, I claim, at least two conditions must be satisfied…[an] objective condition [which] precludes forms and levels of economic dependence and inequality that impede parity of participation….[and an] intersubjective condition [which] precludes institutionalized norms that systemically depreciate some categories of people and the qualities associated with them” (36).

This sounds a lot like Fraser is articulating a single principle –a principle of parity—and then deducing two further conditions from it. The principle itself is quite similar to certain articulates of democratic equality (see Anderson for one example). Moreover, Fraser later suggests one can deuce a third condition—that certain ‘political’ inequalities are also precluded; so the view is really three-dimensional.

The principle of parity is prima facie plausible. But, Fraser does little work to actually defend it against other conceptions of the ‘point’ of equality (say, luck egalitarianism). This strikes me as a point where much more would need to be said.

Note that (moreover) a strict application of the principle of parity does not imply strict egalitarianism. Rather, it suggests that the kind of inequalities that ought to be eliminated are those that inhibit members from participating equally in society. Although there are many clear cases, it is an open question which kind of inequalities fail this test, and there for how much (and what kinds) of inequalities Fraser’s view allows.

The parity principles is applied when evaluating both redistribution and recognition claims:

Redistribution claimants must show that existing economic arrangements deny them the necessary objective conditions for participatory parity. Recognition claimants must show that the institutionalized patterns of cultural value deny them the necessary intersubjective conditions.

Focusing on recognition, there are easy cases (same-sex marriage is one example). But cases involving cultural and religious practices are more complicated. Here, when evaluating whether a given practice ought to be recognized, Fraser suggests a dual application of the parity norm:

First, at the intergroup level, [the parity principle] supplies a standard for assessing the effects of institutionalized patterns of cultural value on the relative standing of minorities…Second, at the intragroup level, participatory parity also serves to assess the internal effects of minority practices for which recognition is claimed….Taken together, these two levels constitute a double requirement for claims for cultural recognition. Claimants must show, first, that the institutionalization of majority cultural norms denies them participatory parity and, second, that the practices whose recognition they seek do not themselves deny participatory parity [either to some group member or to anyone else] (40-1).

Fraser takes the case of the foulard ban in France. Here, the first condition is obviously met, and the difficult issue is whether permitting and recognizing the foulard in public schools would exacerbate female subordination (Fraser thinks the answer is probably no).

Fraser suggests such decisions should be made dialogically and discursively with the principle of parity serving as ‘the principle language for conducting democratic political argumentation’ on issues of recognition and redistribution (In short: Fraser defends a sort of public reason view combined with deliberative democracy).

Fraser then turns to the question of what recognition requires: does justice require we recognize an individual’s or group’s distinctiveness, or simply their common humanity? Fraser argues the answer cannot be answered a priori, opting instead for a pragmatic approach: what ought to be recognized depends on what is essential in the political contents to ensure parity.

Social Theory: Perspectival Dualism

Having outlined her normative theory, Fraser next addresses matters of social theory. Here, the task is “to understand the relations between maldistribution and miscreogniton in contemporary society” which entails “theorizing the relations between the class structure and the status order” in the contemporary world. She criticizes three views –economism (which reduces recognition conflicts to an epiphenomenon of distribution), culturalism (which does the opposite), and substantive dualism (similar to Michael Walzer’s view)—before outlining her own approach: perspectival dualism. According to this view, reconition and redistribution “constitute two analytical perspectives that can be assumed with respect to any domain” (again, she also proposes a possible third candidate – a ‘political’ dimension of oppression).

[I bracket this issue for now, and I will discuss social theory in more detail in an upcoming post on Axel Honneth’s Disrespect: The Normative Foundations of Social Theory].

Political Strategy: Nonreformist Reform

Fraser concludes by considering the political implications of her thought: stating some ‘rules of thumb’ for thinking about political strategy. Fraser distinguishes between two kinds of approaches to institutional reform: affirmative and transformative strategies. Affirmative strategies correct an inequitable outcome of a social arrangement without distributing the underlying social structures that generate them (e.g. the liberal welfare state’s way of dealing with inequality). Transfromative strategies correct unjust outcomes precisely by restructuring the underlying framework (e.g. a transition to socialism). The distinction applies to both recognition and redistribution, and Fraser suggests that, in principle, transformative strategies are superior, but more difficult to realize in practice.

Fraser then suggests  a way out of the dilemma: whether a strategy has transformative or affirmative consequences is contextual. Reforms that appear affirmative can, in some contexts, have transformative effects. Fraser suggests that the Unconditional Basic Income is one example. She calls such reforms ‘nonreformist reforms’. Such policies engage people’s real needs, but also ‘set in motion’ trajectories of change that make more radical reforms possible over time. Fraser concludes by suggesting that recognition and redistribution issues cannot be separated in practice, and suggesting ways that the two dimensions might be brought together (through what Fraser calls cross-redressing and boundary awareness).

That’s it for today’s post. In the near future, I’ll share a short summary of Honneth’s response.


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