Structural change of recognition in the 21st century

Prof. Dr. Axel Honneth, Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Sozialforschung

Prof. Dr. Klaus Günther, Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Kriminalwissenschaften und Rechtsphilosophie

Prof. Dr. Werner Plumpe, Universität Frankfurt am Main, Historisches Seminar

Dr. Stephan Voswinkel, Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Sozialforschung

Prof. Dr. Thomas Welskopp, Universität Bielefeld, Fakultät für Geschichtswissenschaft, Philosophie und Theologie, Abteilung Geschichtswissenschaft

On the dawn of the 21st century, the institutional relations of recognition in our societies are subject to structural changes. These changes firstly reflect the necessary dynamics of all demands of recognition in modern societies which always transcend and endanger given institutions. Secondly, there is empirical evidence for growing insecurity of recognition relations in the areas of work, legal rights and the media. This insecurity potentially undercuts the public acceptance of these institutions. Thus, the normative evaluation of the changes of recognition relations depends on whether they are able to bring about new, stable normative principles that can be understood as forms of moral progress.

Recognition is a key concept of our times. Social conflicts are increasingly redescribed by the involved parties as conflicts about recognition. At the same time, however, the criteria and norms that decide about which forms of recognition are desirable and how they can be socially instituted, become more and more vague. In the research project "structural changes of recognition in the 21st century" conducted at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt and the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research from 2007 to 2010, these problematic developments were examined by using an interdisciplinary approach.

A first task was to develop a diagnostic framework capable of integrating the insights from history, sociology, legal studies and media research. As soon as one understands the contemporary conflicts about recognition not as isolated incidents but as part of a process that runs through the whole of modernity, one can see that in post-traditional societies recognition is not only incidentally, but always structurally unstable and paradoxical. This is because each step of inclusion and differentiation produces new demands, new processes of exclusion and new forms of insecurity.

Secondly, the project conducted a series of empirical studies concerning the processes of recognition in companies, legal recognition of victim rights in criminal proceedings and the recognition of crime victims in media discourse. In each case, it can be shown that the contemporary changes include both processes of individualization and inclusion as well as phenomena of insecurity, leading to a paradoxical structure: The more individualistic and inclusionary certain forms of recognition become, the harder it becomes for social agents to develop stable criteria for desirable forms of social esteem.

Based on this insight, the project finally developed in a third step a normative perspective in connection with contemporary philosophical debates about social justice. The basic idea is that the demand for social recognition reflects a certain claim which is basic for the participation of modern subjects in normative orders: the claim for having the social environment reflect and affirm their freedom and freely chosen identity. This claim is intrinsically dynamic, because it must necessarily call for ever further extension and differentiation of social recognition. Thus, it always oversteps the boundaries of a historically given semantics of esteem. Every normative order of recognition consequently needs both a given set of criteria of just recognition and at the same time must always question and undermine these criteria and call for their improvement.

From this perspective, it is an open question to what degree the structural changes of recognition in our times are morally acceptable. The answer to this question depends on whether new forms of recognition can be developed out of new modes of production and life that are capable of being transformed in a stable system of social norms and at the same time can be understood as contributing to social progress regarding individualization and social inclusion.