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Law, Social Justice & Global Development
(An Electronic Law Journal)

Nancy Fraser’s Integrated Theory of Justice: A ‘Sociologically Rich’ Model for a Global Capitalist Era?

Terry Lovell,

Emerita Professor,

Department of Sociology,

University of Warwick

This is a refereed article published on: 6 December 2007
Citation: Lovell, T, ‘Nancy Fraser’s Integrated Theory of Justice: A ‘Sociologically Rich’ Model for a Global Capitalist Era?’, 2007 (1) Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal (LGD).


Focusing on Nancy Fraser’s integrated theory of justice, the paper analyses the exchanges between Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, both of whom draw upon Bourdieu in articulating their rival socio-normative theories of justice. Beginning with a brief description of Nancy Fraser’s theory, the article analyses the same in relation to Honneth’s monist ‘thick, multilayered and historically developed recognition order’ and his critique of Fraser’s ‘perspectival dualism’ all the while referring back to Bourdieu as a point of reference. The paper develops this tension further by invoking Bourdieu’s notion of habitus in relation to the ‘subaltern speech of the dominated’ revealing and illuminating points of congruence and of departure between and amongst the three scholars, particularly as concerns the voices that compete for hearing in the public discursive sphere. The paper highlights these scholars’ approaches to the transnational effects of global capital and neoliberalism on full participation in the public sphere. It then suggests that Fraser’s concept of participatory parity, which draws upon a rich legacy of feminist counterhegemonic practice, is a plausible principle of justice for addressing a broad range of social conflicts, disputes and injustice claims in restructuring global capitalist order.


Bourdieu, Feminism, Fraser, Global Capitalism, Habitus, Honneth, Participation, Recognition, Social Justice, Subaltern.

Editors Note:

The substance of this contribution is contained in Lovell, T (2007) 'Nancy Fraser's Integrated Theory of Justice: A 'Sociologically Rich' Model for a Global Capitalist Era? in Lovell, T (ed) (Mis)recognition, Social Inequality and Social Justice: Nancy Fraser and Pierre Bourdieu,(London and New York: Routledge) and is published herein by the kind permission of Routledge

  1. Introduction

The aim of a series of exchanges between Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth was to delineate, in the spirit of critical social theory, ‘a sociologically rich interpretation of the normative claims implicit in the social conflicts of the present’ (Honneth, A, in Fraser, N, and Honneth, A, 2003, p 110) that draws therefore on sociology as well as normative theory. Honneth’s chief sociological recourse in this exchange is to the empirical study conducted by Pierre Bourdieu and a team of researchers on social suffering in contemporary society among marginalized working-class communities on the fringes of Paris and elsewhere (Bourdieu, P, et al. 1999), of the kind that witnessed the upsurge of angry, violent demonstrations across France in the autumn of 2005. Fraser had herself drawn upon aspects of Bourdieu’s conceptual frame in the early stages of the development of her integrated theory of justice, the central concern of this paper, which suggests that this point of reference lends itself to further consideration in assessing the exchange.

Although feminist issues are not at the centre of her exchange with Honneth, Fraser’s feminism marks all that she writes, as is clear in many of the vivid examples with which her theory is furnished. One prominent resource for feminist theory in the 1970s was the Marxism that circulated in sociology and many other disciplines. The famous cultural or linguistic turn that subsequently affected so many of the disciplines on which feminist scholarship had drawn, gave greater prominence to philosophy and to textual studies, even to the point of reducing ‘the social’ to ‘the textual’. The turn of the twenty-first century has witnessed a ‘return to the social’1, restoring attention to causal/structural sociological analysis, but this project is no simple turning back. The cultural turn was no cul-de-sac. ‘The cultural’ retains the place it has won in feminist theorising in which ‘the social’ had been temporarily eclipsed.2
The history of feminism in the second half of the twentieth century has been one of development, contestation and transformation. Fraser’s early contributions came from a socialist feminist perspective, and many who aligned themselves with this approach were hostile to ‘the cultural turn’ and to postmodernism. But Fraser holds together in critical synthesis the legacy of socialist feminism, aspects of postmodernism, and finally and perhaps most significantly, critical theory. Her approach is dialogical. Her characteristic strategy in response to those who would set these feminisms in opposition to one another has been ‘the finesse’. She seeks out, through critique, defensible versions of each that may then be reconciled.3 Her theory of justice is built in the context of ‘the post-socialist condition’ (Fraser, N, 1997), and it holds together another dichotomous opposition between ‘the politics of equality’ and ‘the politics of difference’. In characteristic fashion she accords privilege to neither one against the imperatives of the other, arguing the case that justice requires, and can integrate, valid forms of both.
Bourdieu’s is a complex sociology of domination. One of its principal lines of articulation distinguishes social structure from habitus, although these are intimately linked.4 Habitus is a powerful yet elusive concept, and is significant in the sociological underpinnings sought for Fraser’s and Honneth’s rival socio-normative theories of justice. It makes of Bourdieu a tacit third party to their exchange. All three have positioned themselves in relationship to Habermas over the manner in which the sphere of public debate, within which injustice claims circulate and are assessed, systematically disadvantages dominated social and reference groups.5 Honneth’s critique and Bourdieu’s sociology of domination provide two pressure points on Fraser’s theory. But the third and most urgent challenge lies in the project of interpreting and adapting the theory to the exigencies of global capitalism, a challenge which Fraser has addressed in her recent work. I shall begin with a brief account of her theory of justice.

  1. Fraser’s integrated theory of justice

Fraser’s early framing of her theory is concerned primarily with inequality and injustice in the context of global capitalism and the increase in cultural diversity in modern society that it carries in its train. She argues for a ‘dual perspectival’ approach that distinguishes two types of injustice, those of misrecognition and maldistribution, rooted respectively in the cultural domination that is perpetuated through the status order and the economic system of modern capitalism. She identifies three types of socio-economic injustice:

  1. Exploitation (appropriation of fruits of labour).

  2. Economic marginalization (restriction to undesirable or poorly paid work, or denial of access to incomes).

  3. Denial of an adequate material standard of living.

Her three types of ‘cultural or symbolic’ injustice rooted in ‘social patterns of representation etc.’ (Fraser 1997: 14) are:

  1. Cultural domination (subjection to alien standards of judgement).

  2. Non-recognition (subjection to cultural invisibility).

  3. Disrespect (routine subjection to malign stereotypes and disparagements).

Fraser is interested in systematic injustices that affect those occupying particular positions within the social relations of the class and status orders. To be sure, socio-cultural groups and categories are not mutually exclusive. But Fraser argues that they may be classified according to their primary roots and their attendant vulnerability to one or another type of injustice. She places them along a continuum; at one extreme are those groups that are rooted primarily in the economic order, most vulnerable to maldistribution; at the other end are clustered those that are defined within the matrix of status distinction and who are particularly vulnerable to misrecognition. If the subaltern social class – the working (but not always employed) class – provides the paradigm case with regard to economic injustice, Fraser’s examples of groups that suffer primarily from cultural injustice include those whose sexualities place them outside the hierarchies and values of the dominant culture, including homosexuals. At the centre point we find what Fraser terms ‘bivalent’ groups that are equally vulnerable to both types of injustice. The two examples she uses are those of gender and ‘race’, both identified as culturally rather than economically grounded, but she argues that these distinctions have become sufficiently deeply embedded in, and structuring of, the inequalities of the economic order to merit this bivalent status. Dalits in India would serve as a powerful example (Chigateri 2004). Their oppression is at one and the same time rooted in the (cultural) status order that defines caste (for Max Weber, castes were status groups) and deeply embedded in an economic order that perpetuates them.

Bivalent groups are presented as special cases, but it is not always easy to distinguish them from groups grounded more fully in the economic or status orders. The dominated, or subaltern class was never homogeneous; but in a variety of contexts and forms, it developed distinctive social and cultural institutions and practices, and a habitus that was marked in terms of class. Wherever subaltern groups are culturally distinct, they may attract disparagement, cultural misrecognition. On the other hand, pace Judith Butler (Butler, J, 1998), homosexuals, insofar as they are culturally visible, may pay severe economic penalties, and suffer physical as well as what Bourdieu terms symbolic violence (Bourdieu, P, 2000). But whether injustices are principally generated in the economic system or the cultural/status order, or whether they are fully bivalent, Fraser’s dual perspectival approach carries the imperative that analysis must always examine all cases and all proposed remedies in terms of both, and it is this that serves to protect against any given categories being seen as ‘merely cultural’ or exclusively ‘economic’.
Fraser is indeed concerned, alongside philosophical/political analysis, to offer guidelines for a more practical, pragmatic task: to identify modes of intervention that are, in a given conjuncture and a particular case, likely to have some success in remedying the injustice suffered, or at least reducing it, but above all, that will not exacerbate it (Fraser, N, 1997). Interventions that focus exclusively on remedying economic disadvantage (certain types of ameliorative redistribution for example) may deepen the injustices of misrecognition that these groups simultaneously suffer. There is a parallel risk in addressing the injustices of misrecognition solely by the politics of ‘difference’ or ‘recognition’. The example that Fraser uses is that of ‘cultural feminism’, in which culturally produced and structurally instituted gender characteristics are celebrated and affirmed, and thereby risk being reinforced, naturalized and reproduced. The key political task therefore always is to identify strategies and tactics that combine positively, without allowing one to, as it were, unpick or aggravate the other.
In the elaboration of her model of justice in her exchange with Honneth, Fraser brings to the foreground the more inclusive moral category of participatory parity – her defining criterion of justice. Injustice claims of whatever kind are to be validated only if the practices they target can be shown to diminish or obstruct the possibilities for equal participation in social life and in the discourses of the democratic public sphere.

  1. The Exchange with Honneth: Enter Bourdieu

The main thrust of Honneth’s critique of Fraser targets her dualism. He argues that while redistribution may be essential to remedy injustice, it can be subsumed under a suitably calibrated category of recognition. Thus the marginalized groups that are the subject of Bourdieu et al.’s research (Bourdieu, P, et al., 1999) manifestly suffer distributive injustice, and because their predicament is rooted in the dislocations of social class and the global economic order, presumably would be placed by Fraser towards the maldistribution end of her continuum. But Honneth, who draws attention to this research in mounting his disagreement with Fraser, identifies their suffering in terms of his broader, encompassing category of misrecognition. Bourdieu’s empirical example was chosen to provide something of a test case. Honneth aims to show that even at this end point of Fraser’s continuum, the felt injustice expressed in such communities is, above all, the injustice of disrespect – the violation of legitimate normative expectations promised by a complex societal recognition order. If we do not need a separate category of specifically economic injustice even in this extreme case, then Fraser’s dualism falls. Second, and drawing on the same example, Honneth accuses Fraser of over-reliance upon those recognition struggles that have been articulated through new social movements and that have therefore found a voice within the discourses of the public domain.6 He argues, drawing on the research interviews, that: ‘the overwhelming share of cases of everyday misery are still to be found beyond the perceptual threshold of the political public sphere’

(Honneth, A in Fraser, N and Honneth, A, 2003, p 118). Finally, it should be noted that Honneth is concerned with injustice in order to redress the ‘deeper’ levels of harm that misrecognition causes in terms of human flourishing, and the opportunity to develop ‘intact selves’, the primary condition for participating in the social world and pursuing ‘the good life’. Manifestly, the conditions under which the people of the communities studied in the research were placed do not lend themselves to human flourishing, however defined.
Fraser argues that what constitutes human flourishing and ‘the good life’, is a judgement that is not universally shared among competing but ‘reasonable’ visions of modern multicultural society (Fraser, N, in Fraser, N and Honneth, A, 2003, p 223). Fraser describes her position as one of ‘non-sectarian thick deontological liberalism’ (Fraser, N, in Fraser, N and Honneth, A, 2003, p 230). But her concern is to keep her model of justice general enough, ‘thin’ enough, to avoid sectarianism and thereby navigate the rapids of cultural relativism, yet ‘thick’ enough to offer substantive guidelines at a pragmatic level. This concern motivates her distinction between the binding moral imperatives of justice, and culturally relative ethical imperatives that bind only those that adhere to them. These ethical norms include (variable) conceptions of the good life, whereas for Honneth no adequate account of justice is possible that does not incorporate at the very least a ‘weak conception’ of the good life, such as he himself proposes (Honneth, A in Fraser, N and Honneth, A, 2003, p 114). In this paper I shall stay close to the particular example raised by Bourdieu’s research.

  1. Dualism and recognition

Dualist approaches that distinguish between ‘the economic/material’ and ‘the cultural’ have proved contentious within feminism in response to dual systems theory7, and within the form of cultural studies named by Raymond Williams as cultural materialism rather than the study of a separate realm of culture (Williams, R, 1977). Cognizant of both, Fraser yet offers an unashamedly dualist account of justice, and this aspect of her work came under criticism from Iris Marion Young (Young, I M, 1997) as well as Butler and Honneth. Fraser mounts a robust, unapologetic rejoinder; her dualism of the economic and the cultural is, first, an analytical rather than a substantive distinction, and she argues against identifying the economic per se with the economic system of modern society, the cultural with either its status order, or, in the manner of feminist dual systems theory, with institutions and practices defined as ‘ideological’, including sexuality and the family, as was clear in her exchange with Butler (Butler, J, 1998; Fraser, N, 1998); second, she names it a perspectival dualism and in this aspect it is political and strategic as well as analytical; third, Fraser shares Honneth’s wish to form a unitary account of justice, but argues that this goal is aided and not impeded by her analytical perspectival dualism. All claims, whether the injustice in question is grounded in the capitalist economic system or the dominant status order, must be brought before the bar of participatory parity.

For Honneth, by contrast, the unifying concept is that of a (thick, multilayered and historically developed) recognition order, one whose claims extend over social relations generally, including economic relations and practices. The ‘so-whatness’ of this claim lies in his identification of a deep (psychic) level of affect, ‘structurally directed against the unreasonable demands of society’ that permits us to speak of ‘the necessity of a practice of transgression’ (Honneth, A in Fraser, N and Honneth, A, 2003, p 243). For, like Fraser, his concern is with social transformation in the direction of social justice. Honneth disputes Fraser’s claim that her categories are analytical. Despite her disclaimers to the contrary, he argues that they designate two substantive areas of the socio-cultural world. This gives them some resemblance to the sociological opposition between ‘system integration’ and ‘social integration’ (Lockwood, D, 1964), towards which Honneth takes an ambivalent stance (Fraser, N and Honneth, A, 2003, p 156). He denies the very existence of a systemic, self-reproducing economic system that is outside the purview of, or may flout with impunity, even the ‘deep grammar’ of a normative order that demands respect across the whole of social space. The economic system, as well as all kinds of social relations and practices, is normatively bound. Honneth distances himself from Lockwood’s distinction, then, but with a hint of kettle logic, argues that were he to use it, it would be necessary to concede ‘a certain primacy to social integration’ (Fraser, N, in Fraser, N and Honneth, A, 2003, p 250), or in his own terms, to the broad normative recognition order that would have to be classified as ‘cultural’ (if we had to choose!). Economic injustices are experienced as breaches of the social recognition order: ‘the economic’ and ‘the cultural’ is, he claims, an opposition that ‘designates the respects in which disrespect is experienced’ (ibid., p 157). A separate category of specifically economic injustice is not required.
What light does Bourdieu’s approach throw on this dispute? Recognition and misrecognition are key concepts in his sociology of domination; the power to dominate is held by social actors by virtue of their location in a complex social space of positions that are relationally defined, and their (positional) holdings of two types of capital: cultural and economic (Bourdieu, P, 1984). Fraser’s opposition resembles, and may even have been influenced by Bourdieu’s frame. Bourdieu nowhere unequivocally reduces or subordinates one to the other.8 ‘Economic capital’ and ‘cultural capital’ are related through the concept of ‘capital composition’ (the particular mix that is characteristic of given positions in social space – see Bourdieu, P, 1984), and more importantly, as we shall see, through ‘symbolic capital’. He has been accused of quasi-Marxist economic reductionism – among others, interestingly, by Honneth (who levels the same charge against Fraser)9 – but some defences of Bourdieu against this recurrent charge might suggest that he should rather be read as attaching the greater significance to the symbolic violence of misrecognition (Wacquant, L, 2005, p 20), and this concept is critical to the present discussion.
For Bourdieu, misrecognition is pervasive and complex. Misrecognition of the dominated by the dominant takes the form of a (legitimated) refusal to grant any but inferior standing to the dominated or to recognize them other than on the terms of the dominant culture on which their own claims to distinction are based. The recognition and respect that the dominant require of their ‘inferiors’, in addition to that secured from their peers, may also yield them rich symbolic profits. But the misrecognition and disrespect inflicted on the dominated is deeply harmful to them and it constitutes symbolic violence in proportion to its legitimacy (Bourdieu, P, 2000, p 240 passim). Symbolic capital is not, Bourdieu argues, ‘a particular kind of capital but what every kind of capital becomes when it is misrecognized as capital, that is, as force, a power or capacity for (actual or potential) exploitation, and therefore recognized as legitimate’ (ibid., p 242). The emphasis on legitimacy is nowhere more evident than in his description of the state as ‘the central bank of symbolic capital’ (ibid., p 240). As the state claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, it is possession of this state-sanctioned symbolic capital through the offices of a ‘state nobility’ generated and reproduced through the educational system, that confers the power both to recognize others and to withhold recognition: ‘To be known and recognized also means possessing the power to recognize, to state, with success, what merits being known and recognized’ (ibid., p 242).
It is a sociological, and indeed a literary truism (hammered home, for example, in Jane Austen’s novels) that access to economic capital does not in and of itself command recognition. ‘New money’ may be discounted within traditional status orders; and on the other hand a lessening of inequality through measures of redistribution to individuals and communities may not on its own secure the ability among the dominated to command respect, but may provoke resentment and a deepening of misrecognition. However, this can be made to cut both ways, so far as Fraser and Honneth’s argument over dualism or monism is concerned, since each recognizes that redistribution alone rarely secures justice, especially where economic injustice is intercalated with misrecognition, as with Fraser’s bivalent groups, and as they are in the communities of Bourdieu’s research.
Fraser’s account of ‘cultural or symbolic injustice’ is very close to Bourdieu’s concepts of misrecognition and symbolic violence. But where there is a significant difference is, first, in her argument that the conditions of modern global capitalism bring a greater degree of cultural pluralism in their train that alters the cultural/status order of earlier periods of capitalism. The global capitalist economy disrupts the symbolic order that sanctioned traditional claims of status. As we shall see, Bourdieu agrees that this order has been radically affected, though not in the direction of multicultural pluralism but rather through the erosion of the autonomy of certain key fields of cultural and intellectual production that have been sources of opposition to dominant values. But modern multiculturalism means, for Fraser, that there no longer exists any single all-powerful and legitimate value system able to draw on the crushing symbolic authority that leads Bourdieu to declare that ‘one of the most unequal of all distributions, and probably, in any case, the most cruel, is the distribution of symbolic capital, that is, of social importance and of reasons for living, (Bourdieu, P, 2000, p 241, emphasis added). In other words, for Fraser there is no longer a central bank: cultural capital in modern society is held in diverse currencies.
Within Fraser’s perspectival dualism, subaltern social groupings in specific socio-historical circumstances may and usually do suffer from some admixture of economic and cultural injustice, and this is certainly true of those groups that are the points of reference in Bourdieu’s remarks in Pascalian Meditations (Bourdieu, P, 2000) and in The Weight of the World (Bourdieu, P et al., 1999). Most certainly their acute social suffering encompasses at least two, and for those in employment, all three of Fraser’s types of socio-economic injustice: economic marginalization and denial of an adequate material standard of living, and exploitation. They also suffer all three types of ‘cultural or symbolic injustice: cultural domination, non-recognition and disrespect’. In these circumstances and in others economic injustice may indeed be experienced as misrecognition, as Honneth claims. But little follows from this in terms of the superior purchase that is claimed by Honneth’s (complex) recognition monism or Fraser’s perspectival dualism. In analysing the social suffering in question, Honneth would be obliged to consider each of what he claims are ‘the respects in which disrespect is experienced’ – the economic and the cultural – while Fraser’s perspectival dualism requires no less, although at both the philosophical and pragmatic level, it is important for her to be free to distinguish the definition of injustice from any dependency upon the manner in which it is experienced.10 However the case has a bearing upon the social/system integration distinction. The economic injustice that the groups in these communities suffer are rooted in the history of the formation of modern global capitalism and its effects in particular places and points in time, causes that are not necessarily transparent to the sufferers, whose complaints often target more immediately visible and diverse fellow-sufferers. These communities lack ‘social integration’. And we may well wish, with Fraser, to distinguish between this level of social interaction, and a (more or less integrated) system that is economic, it is true, but whose transactions are nonetheless bound by systemspecific norms. Discourses and speakers do not command equal attention in the democratic public sphere. How do subaltern and counter-hegemonic discourses fare?

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