What are the means each individual has to pursue his or her valued ends of life? How could the need for belonging and community be reconciled with individual freedom? To which extent can people contest, act upon and change the structure of institutions and social relations in which they find themselves?

The current historical conjuncture is characterized by deep-set feelings of insecurity and in certain ways it is reminiscent of the environment created by the global dynamics of market expansion in the nineteenth century discussed by Karl Polanyi. Our societies are faced with a series of economic, social, environmental and political challenges, and there is little confidence in the ability of the nation state to effectively respond to these challenges.  What is somewhat paradoxical- but also understandable in the light of the anxieties generated in an environment of mounting insecurity surrounding the livelihood of people- is the coincidence of what could be called the crisis of the nation state with the very salient cultural nationalism of populist politics. In this tense and polarized environment where the incorporation of minority perspectives on the existing institutions and practices in political dialogue is increasingly difficult, framing of justice in terms of belonging and participation in society becomes particularly important and it calls for special attention to representation as a claim to justice along with redistribution and recognition.

As Nancy Fraser has argued, master frames of redistribution and recognition need to be complemented with representation to come up with a three dimensional theory of justice, where these dimensions are not to be considered separately but in the way they influence each other in defining the economic, cultural and political dynamics of social inclusion and exclusion.[1]  Institutions and practices that affect the distribution of material means and the respect for cultural differences determine an individual’s position in society by mutually reinforcing ways. They also determine the resources individuals in different positions have to question, challenge and contest these institutions and practices through different channels of representation. At the same time, mechanisms of just representation enable the articulation of the claims for redistribution and recognition, thus opening to debate and modifying the existing character of social relations to the benefit of the disadvantaged.

The mutually reinforcing character of different types of injustice related to redistribution, recognition and representation calls for an awareness of the limitations of binary thinking in matters of justice. The problems of binary thinking were explicitly addressed by R. Lister in a forceful argument against positing difference as the opposite of equality. In her words, “The opposite of equality is inequality. To posit it as difference disguises the relations of subordination, hierarchy and consequent disadvantage and injustice, which underlie the dichotomy, and serves to distort the political choices open to us”. [2] In a different vein, we find A. Phillips drawing attention to an important limitation of binary thinking associated with the tendency to posit overlapping injustices related to maldistribution and misrecognition as different policy concerns and prioritizing one over the other.[3] Binary thinking could also be a problem in the context of the current reappraisals of the existing norms and practices of citizenship where they involve the positing of subnational and supranational spaces for democratic attachment and agency as substitutes rather than complements to existing polities. It is important to acknowledge, however, that the present conjuncture calls for new inquiries into the questions of belonging and participation, attachment and solidarity for a reconfiguration of citizenship, rather than insisting on the decline of citizenship.[4]

The questions that emerge in an inquiry into different conceptualizations of justice cut across the problems of redistribution, recognition and representation include the following: What are the means each individual has to pursue his or her valued ends of life? How could the need for belonging and community be reconciled with individual freedom? To which extent can people contest, act upon and change the structure of institutions and social relations in which they find themselves? To meaningfully pursue these questions, it would be necessary to recognize the multiplicity of approaches that highlight the complexity of the issues concerning justice in its different dimensions. In different conceptualizations of justice, freedom to pursue one’s valued ends of life remains an important concern. However, the meaning of freedom differs in different approaches and each of these different meanings gives rise to important questions concerning the proper setting of socioeconomic and political relations where people could be considered to be equally free. An institutional structure with a “fair” distribution of resources available to people to pursue their valued ends such as the one discussed by Rawls[5] is important; however, as Sen insists, it is also important to take into account the differences in the ability to use these resources in a way to have different types of instrumental freedoms which contribute to the general capability of a person to live more freely.[6] In a different vein, Pettit’s approach to freedom as non-domination leads us to ask whether a fair distribution of resources is sufficient to enable people to pass the “eyeball test” and “to look one another in the eye without reason for fear or deference”.[7] Forms of discrimination such as racism or sexism expose people to domination by others as members of vulnerable groups and need to be addressed as such. Even in the absence of discriminatory practices or discourses, there emerge questions concerning the grievances and claims that are heard and regarded to be legitimate and those that are not.

Critical approaches challenging the universalist principles of the liberal paradigm insist on group differences which inform different experiences and shape different aspirations and demands concerning participation in society. Notwithstanding the justified concerns voiced by such critical perspectives, the problem of non-homogeneity of group identity as discussed around the concept of intersectionality or the questions surrounding the reconciliation of group difference with the common good of the society remain to be resolved. The questions pertaining to individual non-conformity and dissidence remain important. The tension between politics of identity and politics of ideas cannot be ignored and the second should not be dominated by the first in the articulations and conceptualizations of justice. In a parallel vein, attempts to define the common good of the society cannot ignore the different definitions of good life rooted in culturally different value universes. Hence, the fairness of the basic structure of society could not be taken as given, but should be open to question in public debates that bring together different perspectives on what the just institutions and social relations should be. At the same time, non-homogenous character of groups and the non-static nature of social relations within them could not be ignored. While it is important that the grievances and claims of minority groups should not be overlooked, it is also important that the minority voices are heard without an essentialist understanding of group identity. The question of just representation is to be addressed by recognizing the differences within the society as well as within the groups demanding the recognition of their difference.

In the polarizing and conflictual environment marked by the rise of populism which often appears as “an exclusionary identity politics”, it is not surprising that many of the contemporary debates among political scientists concern challenges faced by the institutional context of representative democracy. The discussions on electoral systems, political party formations or the use of referendums closely reflect the justice-related problems that emerge in contemporary European societies. While it might not be possible to reach a consensus either on the meaning of just representation or the nature of the institutional structure of a just society, the discussions around these subjects form the basis for an attempt to understand the justice claims of vulnerable groups and to explore the problems around  the drawing and re-drawing of the insider-outsider boundaries in response to the economic, social and political challenges faced by complex modern societies in the current historical conjuncture.


[1] Nancy Fraser, Reframing Justice in a Globalizing World, New Left Review 36, (2005): 69-88 and Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World (Columbia University Press, 2009). See also Nancy Fraser, Rethinking Recognition, New Left Review 3, 2000: 107-120.

[2] Ruth Lister, Citizenship: Feminist Perspectives (Palgrave MacMillan, 2nd edition 2003), 98.

[3]  Anne Phillips, Which Inequalities Matter? (Polity Press, 1999).

[4] Seyla Benhabib, The Right of Others: Aliens, residents and citizens (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 219.

[5] See, in particular, John Rawls, Theory of Justice (Harvard university press, 2009) and  “Justice as Fairmess: Political not Metaphysical”, Philosophy and Public Affairs 14, no.3 (1985).

[6] Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009).

[7] Philip Pettit, “Just freedom: Philip Pettit and the republican idea of liberty” interview by Jonathan Derbyshire, Prospect, April 23, 2014, http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/blogs/jonathan-derbyshire/just-freedom-philip-pettit-and-the-republican-idea-of-liberty.


By Ayşe Buğra Kavala
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D4.1
Find the full publication at: https://ethos-europe.eu/publications