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Theory, Method and Axel Honneth

Published in Frankfurt School, Latest Posts by Mark Murphy on June 11, 2015

recognitionRecognition theory as social research: investigating the dynamics of social conflict is an edited collection devoted to the discussion and application of Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition. Full of strong papers, it speaks to the core concerns of Social Theory Applied around theory as method. It also provides, in the words of Nicholas Smith, a concise summary of the point of social theory when it comes to social research. According to Smith (2012: 87), one of the key functions of social theory is to provide a ‘framework’ for undertaking empirical social research. It does this by ‘equipping the researcher with a vocabulary for describing social phenomena, together with a related set of assumptions about how to go about explaining them’:

 …wherever it aspires to interpretive insight or explanatory power, social research relies on a theoretical framework, including assumptions about the ends and purposes served by human action (Smith, 87-88)

Smith goes on to do an excellent job of also explaining recognition theory in summary form and helping us understand how it differs from so many other social theories. By honing in on the importance of conflict as a concept for understanding society, Smith is able to contrast recognition with popular understandings of social conflict as either determined by the imperatives of self-preservation or the need to maximise competitive advantage. Instead, recognition theory emphasises the interpersonal, relational world (through a Hegelian lens) as a core source of conflict in modern societies. The lack of such a conception of conflict, is, according to Smith, the ‘most egregious defect’ of other theories (p. 89). This is because they ‘lack all sensitivity to a crucial dimension of social reproduction and historical change: namely the recognition relations that must be in place to secure a healthy self-identity’ (p. 89).

Relations of recognition are thus a

causal variable relevant for explaining specifically social change, one which is potentially more determinate and satisfactory from a socio-scientific point of view than the drive for self-preservation and the pursuit of advantage in the competition for resources.

Smith takes this variable and puts it to work in the recognitional playground that is the world of work. This for me is a strong fit – I’ve written about this before (see here) as have others such as Elin Thunman. Workplace recognition is a highly-charged test case for such an explanatory approach – one that values the challenges of horizontalised work relationships as much as it does the more traditional focus on vertical axes of power and domination.

Other contributions to the volume see recognition theory applied in areas such as marriage, religion, crime and immigration. Also included is Shane O’Neill’s chapter on a more overt source of conflict – that of ethno-nationalism in Northern Ireland. One research field that is missing, however, is the educational field. It would have been illuminating to see this field of relations side-by-side with the others – schools for example are a hotbed of struggles over recognition, whether it be among staff, students or between these groups. I’ve written in the past about education and recognition in various capacities (see my articles Learning as relational and On recognition and respect for examples). A small but growing band of education academics have taken to Honneth in the past decade and it will be interesting to see in the future how much his work penetrates the theoretical apparatus of educational ideas.

In general there is much to be excited about a research programme dedicated to recognition theory, however loose it is: whatever else it has achieved it has helped clear a path through the overgrown structure/agency dichotomy. That can only be a good thing. But there also dangers lurking around the corner, chief among them a concern that recognition ends up going down the same twisted and ruinous path of ‘culture’ – i.e., as a once promising mediating variable in social conflict research now sidelined to the margins or used to prop up dubious theories of deprivation.

Only time will tell if this reconstituted Hegelianism has what it takes to have a lasting impact on research.


Mark MurphyMark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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