Struggle for recognition in the early 21st century
In the debates around social justice and social conflicts the category of “recognition” often plays a subordinate role. However, following Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, George Herbert Mead and Talcott Parsons, the establishment of modern societies can be described as a process of differentiation of various “spheres of reciprocal recognition”. By means of the notion of recognition, we want to clarify the nature of the incentives that motivate the members of society to take over social commitments: the individuals are mainly interested in maintaining a form of “self-esteem” that depends on the recognition through interaction partners, which are in turn recognized by them. Insofar, for a single individual it represents “one of the hardest blows to lose the esteem on the part of people from which one expects consideration” (Parsons 1964, pp. 146, 184 f.). In this perspective, we can assume that not only the individual members, but also the fundamental institutions of all societies are dependent on intersubjective recognition practices and regulations. For this reason, the spheres of the social can always be considered also as relationships based on recognition, and we cannot move or behave within them without implicitly going back to the respective institutionalized principle of recognition.
This view of the architecture of modern societies entails serious shifts of emphasis with respect to most approaches in the fields of sociology and political science. On the one hand, the notion of the peculiarity of social subsystems and institutions changes constantly – these have to be conceived as differentiated spheres of action, crystallised around rules of mutual respect, since their intrinsic duties and responsibilities are fulfilled, above all, out of the aspiration for social recognition. The rules and the values serving as sources of moral integration within these spheres must at the same time provide standards in whose light the participants can mutually recognize each other. On the other hand, the description of social conflicts gains a new shape: referring to a figure of thought by Hegel, these can be conceived as a “struggle for recognition”, as the fight for a revaluation, a reinterpretation and reformulation of the rules of recognition valid in the respective spheres. Theoretical attempts at understanding social struggles solely under the economic paradigm of redistribution fall short – they miss the subjacent layer of normative incentives, the “moral grammar of social conflicts” (Honneth 1994). In the following, after the clarification of central elements of a social analysis based on the theory of recognition, we will work out some of the social tendencies that in the last third of the 20th century resulted in a creeping undermining of substantial rules of recognition. The preliminary result of these signs of disintegration will be presented in the third step.
The proposition here is that we can talk about a “barbarization” of the social conflict. With it we intend a social condition, in which the aspirations for a social recognition escalate, because they cannot get a normatively justified satisfaction within the systemically designated spheres of action.
Excerpt from the catalogue Declining Democracy, published by Silvana Editoriale; soon available online the full text.