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a journal of modern society & culture

Equality, Identity and Social Justice

by Nancy Fraser
Recognition has become a keyword of our time. Hegels old figure of the struggle for recognition
finds new purchase as a rapidly globalizing capitalism accelerates transcultural contacts, fracturing
interpretative schemata, pluralizing value horizons, and politicizing identities and differences. Demands
for recognition of difference fuel struggles of groups mobilized under the banners of nationality, raceethnicity, gender, and sexuality. In these post-socialist conflicts, group identity supplants class interest as
the chief vehicle of political mobilization. Cultural domination supplants exploitation as the fundamental
injustice. And cultural recognition displaces socioeconomic redistribution as the remedy for injustice and
the goal of political struggle.

How should we evaluate this shift from redistribution to recognition? Is the focus on recognition a
counterproductive diversion from the real economic issues, one that balkanizes groups and rejects
universalist moral norms? Or does it represent a salutary corrective to the culture-blindness of a
materialist paradigm that reinforced domination by falsely universalizing the value horizons of dominant
At first sight, we seem to be confronted here with two incompatible views of injustice. One view
highlights socioeconomic inequities, rooted in the political-economic structure of society. Injustices like
these, such as exploitation and poverty, arise when economic arrangements deprive some members of
society of the material resources they need to participate fully, on a par with others, in social life. The
other view stresses cultural or symbolic injustices, rooted in social patterns of representation,
interpretation, and communication. These inequities, such as cultural domination, non-recognition, and
disrespect, arise when institutionalized patterns of cultural value stigmatize subordinated groups,
depriving them of standing as full partners in social interaction.

Properly understood, the redistribution/recognition contrast is not an incompatibility, but an analytical

distinction. Conceptually distinct and mutually irreducible, economic and cultural injustices are entwined
with one another in social reality. Cultural norms that are unfairly biased against some are
institutionalized in the state and the economy, thereby skewing distribution of material resources. At the
same time, economic disadvantage impedes equal participation in the making of culture, in public spheres
and in everyday life. In actuality, therefore, the two types of injusticemaldistribution and
misrecognitionreinforce one another dialectically.
Analytically, however, the two paradigms diverge in important respects. According to the redistribution
paradigm, the remedy for injustice is political-economic restructuringwhether by redistributing income,
reorganizing the division of labor, subjecting investment to democratic decision-making, or transforming
other basic economic structures. Although these remedies differ from one another, they can be grouped
together under the generic term redistribution. For the recognition paradigm, in contrast, redressing
injustice requires cultural or symbolic changewhether by upwardly revaluing disrespected identities and
the cultural products of maligned groups, or by recognizing and positively valorizing cultural diversity, or
more radically, by transforming institutionalized patterns of cultural value in ways that would change
everyones self-understanding. Although these remedies, too, diverge from one another, they can be
grouped together under the rubric of recognition in contrast to that of redistribution.
The two paradigms also differ in their respective views of the groups that suffer injustice. In the
redistribution framework, the collective subjects of injustice are classes or class-like collectivities, which
are defined economically by a distinctive relation to the market or the means of production. The classic
case in the Marxian paradigm is the exploited working class, but the conception can cover other cases as
well, such as racialized groups of immigrants or ethnic minorities. From the recognition perspective, in
contrast, the victims of injustice resemble Weberian status groups, defined not by the relations of
production, but rather by the relations of recognition. Associated chiefly with low-status ethnic groups,
this conception too can apply more broadlyfor example, to homosexuals and to women, whose
contributions and ascribed traits are devalued by dominant patterns of cultural value.
These conceptual differences between redistribution and recognition often find expression in political
tensions. Typically, recognition claims call attention to, if they do not performatively create, the putative
specificity of some group, whose value they proceed to affirm. Thus, they tend to promote group
differentiation. Redistribution claims, in contrast, often aim to abolish economic arrangements that
underpin group specificitywitness socialist demands to abolish classes and feminist demands to
dismantle the gender division of labor. Thus, they are likely to promote group de-differentiation. The
upshot is that the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution appear to have mutually
contradictory aims. If the first tends to promote group differentiation, and the second tends to undermine
it, then the two kinds of claim stand in tension with each other. They can interfere with, or work against,
one another.
In light of these tensions, how can we best understand social justice in the current conjuncture? Should we
favor redistribution, rejecting minoritarian claims, demanding assimilation to majority norms, and
prioritizing class strugglein the name of secularism, universalism or republicanism? Or should we
prefer recognition, jettisoning distributive politics as outmoded, difference-blind, and incapable of
assuring justice for minorities and women?
If neither of those options is defensible, we might try to develop a third approach: allying what remains
unsurpassable in the socialist vision with the best, post-socialist, insights of multiculturalism. To
advance such a both/and strategy, I suggest we distinguish between affirmative and transformative
strategies. Affirmative approaches aim to correct inequitable outcomes of social arrangements without
disturbing the fundamental structures that generate them. Transformative strategies, in contrast, would
redress injustice precisely by restructuring the deep generative framework. Whereas the first approach
attacks surface symptoms, the second targets root causes.

Affirmative remedies for distributive injustice have been associated historically with the liberal welfare
state. Seeking to redress end-state maldistribution, they would increase the consumption share of
economically disadvantaged groups, without disturbing the deep structures of the political economy.
Transformative remedies, in contrast, have been historically associated with socialism. Seeking to prevent
maldistribution from the get-go, they would transform the relations of production, altering the division of
labor and conditions of existence for everyone.
An example can clarify this distinction. In the United States, efforts to combat racialized poverty have
typically taken the form of public assistance and affirmative action, both of which count as affirmative
forms of redistribution. The first provides paltry material aid without addressing the root causes of
deprivation, while the second aims to assure fair access to existing jobs and educational places without
macroeconomic change. Because both policies fail to attack the deep sources of disadvantage, they ensure
that surface reallocations must be made again and again. The result is to mark the most disadvantaged
class as inherently deficient and insatiable, as always needing more and more. In time, such a class can
even come to appear privileged, the recipient of special treatment and undeserved largesse. Thus, an
approach aimed at redressing injustices of distribution can end up creating or exacerbating injustices of
This problem can be avoided by switching from affirmation to transformation. Transformative efforts to
remedy economic injustice typically combine universalist social programs, steeply progressive taxation,
macroeconomic policies aimed at creating full employment, a large non-market public sector, significant
public and/or collective ownership, and democratic decision-making about basic socioeconomic priorities.
Aiming to provide jobs for all, while de-linking basic consumption shares from employment, these
strategies reduce social inequality without creating stigmatized classes of vulnerable people perceived as
beneficiaries of special largesse. Effectively undermining class differentiation, they tend to generate social
solidarity. Thus, an approach that begins by targeting injustices of distribution can also help to remedy
certain injustices of recognition.
Officially, of course, both affirmative redistribution and transformative redistribution presuppose
universalist views of recognition, centered on the equal moral worth of persons. But in practice they
generate different logics of group differentiation. Whereas the first undermines its professed universalism,
the second tends rather to realize it.
If transformation is best for redistribution, is it also preferable for recognition? Affirmative remedies for
cultural injustices are currently associated with mainstream multiculturalism. This approach proposes to
redress disrespect by revaluing unjustly devalued group identities, while leaving intact both the contents
of those identities and the group differentiations that underlie them. Transformative remedies, by contrast,
are currently associated with deconstruction. They would overcome misrecognition by transforming
underlying patterns of cultural value. By destabilizing existing group identities and differentiations, these
remedies would not only raise the self-esteem of members of currently disrespected groups. Beyond that,
they would change everyones sense of belonging, affiliation, and self.
The case of despised sexualities illustrates the point. Affirmative remedies for homophobia and
heterosexism are currently associated with gay identity politics, which aims to revalue LGBT identities.
Transformative remedies, in contrast, are exemplified by queer politics, which would deconstruct the
homo-hetero dichotomy. Assuming an identitarian view of recognition, the first approach politics treats
gay identity as a culture, endowed with particular contents, much like ethnicity. Dismantling false
heterosexist self-images, it aims to build, publically display, and eventually win widespread respect for a
genuine homosexual culture. Reinforcing an authentic gay identity, this approach assimilates the
politics of recognition to identity politics. As a result, it tends to naturalize, even essentialize, group
Here, too, the trouble can be avoided by shifting from affirmation to transformation. Queer politics treats
homosexuality, not as a positive identity, but as the constructed and devalued correlate of heterosexuality.

In its view, both orientations are reifications of sexual ambiguity, co-defined only in virtue of one
another. The transformative objective is, accordingly, not to solidify a gay identity, but to dissolve all
fixed sexual identities into a fluid field of multiple, ever-shifting differences.
In general, then, the affirmative approach of gay identity politics tends to enhance existing sexual group
differentiation, much like the liberal welfare states affirmative politics of redistribution. In contrast, the
transformative approach of queer politics tends to destabilize group divisions, just as socialisms
transformative politics of redistribution seeks to dismantle social classes. For both recognition and
redistribution, then, transformation is preferable to affirmation.
Transformation has yet another advantage: far better than affirmation, it promotes efforts to link struggles
for recognition with struggles for redistribution in a broader overarching political project. Recall that the
identity approach treats misrecognition as a matter of free-floating prejudice, thereby occulting its
structural-institutional underpinnings and its entwinement with maldistribution. Many of its proponents
ignore distributive injustice altogether and focus exclusively on efforts to change culture. Slighting
structural considerations, they miss the links between, say, heterosexist norms institutionalized within
social-welfare systems, on the one hand, and the denial of resources and benefits to homosexuals, on the
other. Obfuscating such connections, they strip misrecognition of its institutional underpinnings and
equate it with distorted identity. For them, economic inequalities are simple expressions of cultural
hierarchiesthus, class oppression is a superstructural effect of the cultural devaluation of proletarian
identity. In this way, culturalist proponents of identity politics simply reverse the claims of an earlier form
of vulgar Marxist economism: they allow the politics of recognition to displace the politics of
For these reasons, one should reject the identity model of recognition in favor of what I call the status
model. In the status model, misrecognition is neither a psychic deformation nor a free-standing cultural
harm but an institutionalized relation of social subordination. What requires recognition, therefore, is not
group-specific identity but rather the status of individual group members as full partners in social
interaction. Status equality, not authentic identity, is the political objective. This focus on overcoming
institutionalized subordination makes it possible to connect transformative struggles for recognition with
transformative struggles for redistribution.
Here, in sum, is a framework that overcomes the redistribution/recognition divide. Linking those two
dimensions of justice, the approach I propose would combine socialism in the economy with
deconstruction in the culture. The result would be a politics of redistribution-cum-recognition, aimed at
overcoming class inequality and status hierarchy simultaneously. Centered on removing both types of
obstacles to participatory parity, it avoids not only old-fashioned vulgar economism but also new-fangled
reductive culturalism. Defining the terrain of social justice as at once economic and cultural, the approach
I propose offers a coherent political project encompassing both. Minimizing the tensions between
redistribution and recognition, it can help us overcome their separation.

Nancy Fraser is Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics, New School for Social Research as well
as Einstein Visiting Fellow, Freie Universitt-Berlin, and also holds the Global Justice Chair, Collge
dtudes mondiales, Paris.

1 comment

1 BITFU { 08.28.12 at 3:49 pm }

I dont understand this essay. I think its because of your words and sentence structure. They are
very sophisticated, you know.
Im not going to lie to you, Nancyafter moving my eyes over words, Im kinda feelin
disrespected. Seriously, how can you expect us to be full partners in a social interaction?
So lets just call this essay what it really is: An Injustice.
Your words, Nancythey are really just an unjust manifestation of institutionalized cultural
domination resulting in social inequity, non-recognition and profound disrespect.
So what do we do about this?
Perhaps LogosJournal might see it fit to redistribute its essays without such a complicated structure,
thereby affirming the universal construct of my inherent moral and intellectual worth? I for one call
for a STEEP taxation on syllables.
What about you guys undertaking an upward revaluation my disrespected identity as an
undereducated reader of LogosJournal? Perhaps we could accomplish this by giving me a special
LogosJournal Section, like BITFUs Thoughts for the Month? I like the sound of that!
Oh, boyI just had ANOTHER idea: How about we just change me? You know, take a
transformative approach to my ignorance.
And we could do this by combining the redistributive, progressively taxed essays with my own
Section at LogosJournal.
In this way, together, as an intellectual-moral collective, we would effectively undermine our class
differentiation and generate, true and lasting social solidarity.
Oh BOY, Nancydo I like the sound of this!!!
Id get dignity and respectand youd get to be even MORE moral.
Heywhats the opposite of amoral? Cuz youd be it.
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