Andy Blunden June 2005

Nancy Fraser’s Status model and
the Identity model of Recognition

Nancy Fraser’s approach to recognition is to shift from a culturalist interpretation of the Hegelian model based on the achievement of a positive self-image, to a Weberian model based on inclusion in an institutionalized status order. In what follows I am quoting from her May 2000 article in New Left Review, Rethinking Recognition. Here she contrasts the “identity model” of recognition underlying affirmative anti-sexism and anti-racism movements, for example, which aim to valorize group identity, to a “status model” whose aim is to remove institutional barriers to individual members of the group achieving participation as peers in the wider society.

This is how Nancy Fraser outlines the “identity model”:

The identity model

The usual approach to the politics of recognition — what I shall call the ‘identity model’ — starts from the Hegelian idea that identity is constructed dialogically, through a process of mutual recognition.”

Here it is wrongly assumed that the Hegelian idea was one of individualist identity-construction.This idea is close to the Fichtean model, but the Hegelian idea is in fact quite different.

“According to Hegel, recognition designates an ideal reciprocal relation between subjects, in which each sees the other both as its equal and also as separate from it. This relation is constitutive for subjectivity: one becomes an individual subject only by virtue of recognizing, and being recognized by, another subject. Recognition from others is thus essential to the development of a sense of self. To be denied recognition — or to be ‘misrecognized’ — is to suffer both a distortion of one’s relation to one’s self and an injury to one’s identity. Proponents of the identity model transpose the Hegelian recognition schema onto the cultural and political terrain. They contend that to belong to a group that is devalued by the dominant culture is to be misrecognized, to suffer a distortion in one’s relation to one’s self.

This is confusing, as it was on the cultural and political terrain that the Hegeian model of recognition began, and surely it is in just that form that it is found in the anti-colonial struggles of the post-war period. Nevertheless, it seems to be a legitimate criticism of “identity politics.”

“As a result of repeated encounters with the stigmatizing gaze of a culturally dominant other, the members of disesteemed groups internalize negative self-images and are prevented from developing a healthy cultural identity of their own. In this perspective, the politics of recognition aims to repair internal self-dislocation by contesting the dominant culture’s demeaning picture of the group. It proposes that members of misrecognized groups reject such images in favour of new self-representations of their own making, jettisoning internalized, negative identities and joining collectively to produce a self-affirming culture of their own — which, publicly asserted, will gain the respect and esteem of society at large. The result, when successful, is ‘recognition’: an undistorted relation to oneself.

“Without doubt, this identity model contains some genuine insights into the psychological effects of racism, sexism, colonization and cultural imperialism. Yet it is theoretically and politically problematic. By equating the politics of recognition with identity politics, it encourages both the reification of group identities and the displacement of redistribution.”

So, according to Fraser, (1) the Hegelian idea belongs to the process of development of the individual psyche, whereas proponents of the identity model transpose it to the cultural and political terrain where recognition is a relation between groups; rectification of misrecognition of group identity, however, is a means of repairing damage to individual psyche; (2) by conceptualising the relation of recognition in the cultural domain, it presumes that affirmation of the group identity will be sufficient to allow group members to become full and equal members of the wider society. It is assumed that any necessary changes to institutional arrangements will flow from rectification of the stigmatising image applied to the group. It is clear that such a conception of recognition has a very narrow scope of applicability.

Nancy Fraser then presents in contrast a model of Recognition relying instead on a Weberian concept of status order:

Misrecognition as status subordination

I shall consequently propose an alternative approach: that of treating recognition as a question of social status. From this perspective, what requires recognition is not group-specific identity but the status of individual group members as full partners in social interaction.”

Indeed recognition by the dominant subject, i.e., the wider society, means acceptance as a full and equal member of that dominant social formation. To be “re-co-gnised” means literally to be “made one of the family.”

“Misrecognition, accordingly, does not mean the depreciation and deformation of group identity, but social subordination — in the sense of being prevented from participating as a peer in social life. To redress this injustice still requires a politics of recognition, but in the ‘status model’ this is no longer reduced to a question of identity: rather, it means a politics aimed at overcoming subordination by establishing the misrecognized party as a full member of society, capable of participating on a par with the rest.”

By making recognition a matter of actual social relations and participation in forms of activity, rather than simply images, discourses and representations, the concept is restored to a genuinely meaningful place in understanding social life.

“ If and when such patterns constitute actors as peers, capable of participating on a par with one another in social life, then we can speak of reciprocal recognition and status equality. When, in contrast, they constitute some actors as inferior, excluded, wholly other, or simply invisible — in other words, as less than full partners in social interaction — then we can speak of misrecognition and status subordination. From this perspective, misrecognition is neither a psychic deformation nor a free-standing cultural harm but an institutionalized relation of social subordination.”

Thus the relevant identity exists not in and through relations of a person to others in their group, but rather is institutionalised in the wider society. Identity is thus something imposed from outside, not something achieved by a person.

“To be misrecognized, accordingly, is not simply to be thought ill of, looked down upon or devalued in others’ attitudes, beliefs or representations. It is rather to be denied the status of a full partner in social interaction, as a consequence of institutionalized patterns of cultural value that constitute one as comparatively unworthy of respect or esteem.

“On the status model, moreover, misrecognition is not relayed through free-floating cultural representations or discourses. It is perpetrated, as we have seen, through institutionalized patterns — in other words, through the workings of social institutions that regulate interaction according to parity-impeding cultural norms. ...

“On the status model, then, misrecognition constitutes a form of institutionalized subordination, and thus a serious violation of justice. Wherever and however it occurs, a claim for recognition is in order.”

To demonstrate that recognition is needed for personal self-realisation does not establish that any injustice has been suffered by someone who has failed to receive recognition. On the other hand, if withholding of recognition is nothing more than a form of institutionalised subordination, then this can be deemed to be an injustice.

“But note precisely what this means: aimed not at valorizing group identity but rather at overcoming subordination, in this approach claims for recognition seek to establish the subordinated party as a full partner in social life, able to interact with others as a peer. They aim, in other words, to de-institutionalize patterns of cultural value that impede parity of participation and to replace them with patterns that foster it. Redressing misrecognition now means changing social institutions — or, more specifically, changing the interaction-regulating values that impede parity of participation at all relevant institutional sites. Exactly how this should be done depends in each case on the mode in which misrecognition is institutionalized. ...

“In general, then, the status model does not accord an a priori privilege to approaches that valorize group specificity. Rather, it allows in principle for what we might call universalist recognition, and deconstructive recognition, as well as for the affirmative recognition of difference. The crucial point, once again, is that on the status model the politics of recognition does not stop at identity but seeks institutional remedies for institutionalized harms. Focused on culture in its socially grounded (as opposed to free-floating) forms, this politics seeks to overcome status subordination by changing the values that regulate interaction, entrenching new value patterns that will promote parity of participation in social life.”

This approach has immediate and dramatic productive effect. The objective of “identity claims” was always surely the full participation of the subject in wider society (separatism is either a necessary detour or a dead-end); for example, national liberation movements aimed for recognition for their nation as sovereign nations alongside the others in the society of nations, Blacks aimed for the possibility for individual Blacks to participate as equals in social life in the US. By defining recognition in this way, in terms of the objective that members actually achieve parity of participation in the wider community, more than one means opens up for its achievement, including means that by do not correspond to affirmation of group identity.

In particular, universalist recognition means the application of rights irrespective of identity (e.g. universal public health, as opposed to public hospitals as welfare institutions for the needy), and deconstructive recognition means blurring the particularity of the potentially stigmatizing group identity thus undermining potential for discriminating against members.

Further, it focuses attention on the social arrangements where the barriers to participation are located, rather than restricting attention to the domain of cultural representations.

The problem is this however. It is still taken for granted that if an individual faces no barriers to participating as a peer in social interaction in the wider community, then all relevant questions of justice have been dealt with. But what of the means for participation? What if a person has no capacity to participate in the wider society?

The most significant generator of poverty and exclusion today is the fact that so many people exist as individuals without social ties (or at least without social ties which can be helpful to them), marginalized from not only the dominant culture, but any culture or education, and are unable to earn a living or participate in social life. It may well be that this circumstance is the outcome of processes in the domain of political economy, but rectification of problems originating in political economy have always required subjective intervention, This is another aspect of the recognition relationship which was also ditched by identity politics.

A conception of justice in which “parity of participation” is cashed out in the removal of barriers to parity of participation of individuals, while marginalizing group identity, can lead to a neo-liberal dystopia of isolated individual consumers.

Further, what agents are going to fight for the rights of individuals to parity of participation? The more individuals become recipients of the right to participate in social life simply as persons, independently of all social ties, the harder it is for groups to mobilise the capacity to make changes in any social arrangements, and the more social arrangements become dominated by those individuals who wield social power in their own right.

Of course, if a person lacks the means for social participation they can be given it; but by whom? By the dominant social group of course. In other words, having been stripped of all independent means, subjects can be colonized.

Nancy Fraser makes a big step forward in substituting for an exclusive focus on image and representation, a focus on the patterns of social activity in which negative images are institutionalized. But at the same time, the social activity constituting the group, i.e., the activity of individuals in the group is marginalized by this theory, taken to be an contingent attribute of the individual, at least insofar as is relevant to their participation in the wider society.

If a group is to fight for parity of participation for its individual members, it must also fight for its own right, as a social subject, to participate alongside other subjects, in making and breaking social arrangements. Otherwise, there will be no group capable of defending the parity of participation of individuals.

Further, individual construct their capacity to act as a peer in the wider society by means of their active participation in groups. Removal of barriers to participation in the wider society which does not bring with it the necessary conditions for sustenance of the group life would render the right to participation inoperable because the individual will have no capacity to participate.

Hegel’s original notion of recognition was a mediated one: individuals found fulfillment through participation in social life (1) as property-owners, or members of a property-owning family and (2) as participants in a social estate representing their interests in the state. Hegel regarded with contempt the idea that individuals could achieve recognition by universal individual suffrage, and for that reason supported the property franchise as it was operated in England at the time, and/or forms of corporatism. Hegel certainly was not in a position to solve this problem, but the merits of his original model of recognition should not be lost sight of.

See Recognition and Subjectivity, Recognition and Objectification, in which I further develop the notion of Recognition in terms of subjectivity, and my review of Nancy Fraser’s book: Nancy Fraser on Recognition and Redistribution.