Session 1

Nancy Fraser’s Theory of Justice

Theory Reading Group: 13.00 – 14.00 Wednesday 4th November, Unit 7 Meeting Room

Fraser is an American socialist feminist who has written extensively around issues of social justice and is well known for her theory of justice around what she terms the ‘redistribution–recognition dilemma’. Fraser’s work is of international significance yet it has seen surprisingly little real life application within educational contexts. Her work may therefore be of interest to anyone interested in areas of social justice/inequalities.

Readings for the session

Fraser, N. (1995). From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a ‘post-socialist’ age. New left review, 68-68. (Nancy Fraser (1995))

The ‘struggle for recognition’ is fast becoming the paradigmatic form of
political conflict in the late twentieth century. Demands for ‘recognition of
difference’ fuel struggles of groups mobilized under the banners of
nationality, ethnicity, ‘race’, gender, and sexuality. In these ‘post-socialist’
conflicts, group identity supplants class interest as the chief medium 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.

Morrison, A. (2015). Theorising Inequality: Two-Dimensional Participatory Justice and Higher Education Research. In Theory and Method in Higher Education Research (pp. 257-276). Emerald Group Publishing Limited. (Theorising Inequality)

This chapter discusses how Nancy Fraser’s theory of two-dimensional
participatory justice may be employed in research concerned with
inequalities within higher education. The main concepts of Fraser’s theory
are discussed and evaluated in the light of the critical attention they
have attracted. Following that, I demonstrate the empirical application
of Fraser’s ideas through discussion of extracts of data from a recent
small-scale investigation undertaken within a UK-based higher education
institution. Finally, I conclude by discussing the strengths of Fraser’s
concepts with some indications for future research.


The discussion on Nancy Fraser’s theory of two-dimensional participatory social justice was very lively and stimulating. We followed some of the discussion points (see attached Nancy Fraser Discussion Points) but in general the conversation ranged quite freely around three main issues. Firstly, we talked about Fraser’s conceptualisations of ‘race’, class and gender as ‘bivalent’ social categories and whether her use of bivalency had value as a heuristic device or whether it slipped into a form of reification of theory. Some of the participants argued that Fraser’s conceptualisations of these categories lapsed into a kind of essentialism in that they were taken as a ‘given’. Speaking personally, I think that while it is possible to interpret Fraser in this way, she herself is clear that her treatment of these social categories within her theory is as ideal types and that she is aware that none such exists in concrete circumstances. Her purpose in constructing such ideal types is to clarify thinking on the origins of social injustices by ‘abstracting’ causal factors, that is, by distinguishing factors which have a contingent relationship to injustices from those which have a necessary one. Fraser does not ally herself explicitly with critical realism but it is clear that the premises of her work are rooted in the same type of social ontology.

We also discussed Fraser’s arguments for distribution and recognition justice and whether it was useful analytically to distinguish the two. There was more agreement on this issue as it was felt that this part of Fraser’s theory did not necessarily depend on an acceptance of her conceptualisations of bivalency in relation to key social categories. Finally, we talked about Fraser’s proposed remedies for social injustices and the extent to which her ‘transformative’ remedies may be seen as viable and desirable solutions. Speaking personally, again, I believe that this is probably the weakest element of Fraser’s theory. Transformative remedies in relation to recognition justice seek to problematize, destabilise and, ultimately, to efface cultural distinctions that lead to cultural injustices. On the one hand this may sound laudable but, as I and some participants in the discussion observed, this runs the risk of treating culture as something inconsequential in relation to the economic-material dimensions of social life.

Further reading

Butler, J. (1998) Merely Cultural. New Left Review 227: 33-44.

Fraser, N. (1995) From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age. New Left Review 212: 68-93.

Fraser, N. (1999) Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition, and Participation. In: Ray L and Sayer A (eds) Culture and Economy After the Cultural Turn, Sage: London: Thousand Oaks: New Delhi, 25-52.

Fraser, N. (1998) Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism: A Response to Judith Butler, New Left Review 228: 140-150.

Fraser, N. (2003) Distorted Beyond All Recognition: A Rejoinder to Axel Honneth. In N. Fraser and A. Honneth,  Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, London: Verso, 198-236.

Honneth, A. (2003) ‘Redistribution as Recognition: A Response to Nancy Fraser’. In N. Fraser and A. Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, London: Verso, 110-197.

Lovell, T. (Ed) (2007) (Mis)recognition, Social Inequality and Social Justice: Nancy Fraser and Pierre Bourdieu, Abingdon: Routledge.

Phillips, A. (1997) From Inequality to Difference: A Severe Case of Displacement? New Left Review 224: 143-153.

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