Nancy Fraser, “Recognition without Ethics.”

Citation: Fraser, Nancy. “Recognition without Ethics.” Theory, Culture & Society 18 (2-3): 21-42.

Argument  Fraser argues that achieving equality and justice means moving away from ethics – or determining worth based on a normative “good” – and instead adjudicating recognition claims based on what they do for “parity for participation”, or what she terms the “status method.”

Scope/Organization/Main Points: Fraser notes a disassociation between camps working for social justice through redistribution versus recognition, and within recognition a split of “the politics of difference from the politics of equality” (21). She sees the polarization as false and aims to find ways of integrating the approaches, while maintaining their “emancipatory aspects” (22).  The politics of difference is restrictive in that it relies on “qualitative assessments of the relative worth of various cultural practices, traits and identities” and “depend on historically specific horizons of value, which cannot be universalized” (22).

Because the specific is also the local and not only not universalizable but not abstractable, I can see why recognition must be tied to redistribution.  Fraser links distribution to “morality” (justice), noting that recognition, as it is commonly conceived, draws on “ethics” to function, relying as it does on qualitative assessments to determine value (23).

Her model hinges on a “break with the standard ‘identity’ model of recognition” (23), in part because locating damage at the point of misrecognition mistakes “intrusive forms of consciousness engineering for social change,” in addition to intercepting and affirming culture as a fait accompli (fixed) (24). Instead, she proposes recognition of “social status” rather than inclusion based on cultural identity (24), which at once seems in danger of ignoring or subsuming important differences between peoples, especially vis-à-vis their relationship to place, something that this article misses in its wariness towards cultural essentialism (25).

The “status model” invites flexibility within systems because it sidesteps value judgements and might actualize systemic change by not relying on centralized notions of the “good” (25), or other “cultural normal that impede parity of participation” (24). Hence, the status model promotes “subjective freedom” and upholds a “deontological standard” (27), a valorization that I am really uncomfortable with. In terms of redistribution, “material resources” would have to support “parity of participation” (29).

She notes that adjudications of participation must match the form of misrecognition – or those forces that undermined participation in the first place (30). And recognition must be justified, based on the criteria of whether it achieves participation parity (33). This is where one of the big problems with recognition lies: it claims to respond to injustice and thus determines what the injustice is, which is always-already defined by those who have recognition to give. And Fraser’s theory doesn’t seem to address the persistence of recognition politics beneath our best intentions. She does acknowledge that working through parity has its limitations, so ethics will come into place, such as times when “people’s ethical visions” are directly and irreconcilably opposed (36), but she also claims that such cases are uncommon.  

Points of Importance/Interest:

  • Juxtaposing kinship with Fraser’s concept of the “peer” might be productive.
  • She shows what incorporating recognition and redistribution might do, and recommends that we “postpone the turn to ethics as long as possible” (37) in difficult cases, which I appreciate because of her attention to the relationship between recognition and power, but her patent failure to consider non-human subjectivities means that her argument can never escape the realm of ethics.
  • Her “deontological standard” (27) sounds distressingly abstract, disregarding the important of place.
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