The logic of recognition?

Neera Chandhoke

back to issue

If someone were to carry out a random survey of contemporary political theory, much in the mode of fashion designers, to discover what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’, she would probably find the following. Whereas socialism is out, market friendliness is in, planning is out and liberalisation is in, national self-sufficiency is out and globalisation is in, class is out and social stratification is in, revolution is definitely out and social movements are in, the state is out and civil society is in, heterosexuality is out and gay and lesbian rights are in, and modernity has been out for some time and postmodernity is in, though it too seems to be rapidly on its way out.

Further, homogeneity is definitely out and pluralism definitely in, the politics of ideas is out and the politics of identity is in, the nation state is most certainly out and sub-nationalism is in. Correspondingly, commonality is unconditionally out and difference and diversity is unconditionally in, ethnicity is of course out and culture unequivocally in. Above all national integration and the image of the melting pot is out, and multiculturalism and recognition is absolutely in. In fact, most of what is ‘in’ – culture, diversity, pluralism and the politics of identity among others – is best captured by the concept of multiculturalism.

Of all the concepts that have caught and sparked off new notions of the politically permissible, multiculturalism as an umbrella concept occupies the pride of place. It is the latest spin industry to capture the imagination of sociologists, political theorists, policy planners and anthropologists. Economists are, of course, left untouched, trapped as they are in the positivist chains of their discipline.

To reduce multiculturalism to only the latest fad on the horizon of political fashions would, however, be a mistake. For unlike fashion designers, political theorists cannot but address the problems of their historical situation, because political theory is necessarily a historical product. Therefore, if multiculturalism, whose presupposition is cultural diversity and the valuing of this diversity, looms large in the preoccupations of political theorists, something must have happened in polities across the world to catapult the concept onto the centre-stage of political theory.

What has happened is simply this. Multiculturalism is the ‘unintentional’ by-product of the collapse of a grand vision – that of a culturally homogenous nation state. The logic of the vision is best summed up in the by now famous words of Massimo d’ Azeglio when, on the eve of the unification of Italy he said: ‘We have made Italy, all that remains is to make Italians.’ And this model dominated the imaginaries of the leaders of the postcolonial world, even as they sought to weld diverse and disparate populations subscribing to different and possibly incommensurable belief systems into something called the nation.



It is not as if the leaders did not recognise the fact of deep cultural diversities within their societies. But they hoped that people would leave behind their particular identities, hinged onto the hat stand along with their umbrellas as it were, whenever they ventured out into the public sphere on a rainless day. In the public sphere they would assume the identity of a somewhat faceless, abstract citizen bearing no marker of class, caste, gender, religion or ethnicity. The public sphere of society correspondingly would represent no class, no gender, no ethnic or cultural referral; instead it would be defined by rights, by the rule of law, by citizenship, and by civic ties.

History, however, was to take its own revenge. During the 1980s, as movements and discourses centring on identity erupted across the globe with considerable force, issues of religious, ethnic and linguistic identities came to command the theatre of politics. Nation states, it came to be recognised, had in the name of national identity either suppressed distinctive minority cultures or devalued them. Minorities, in time, rightfully and sometimes aggressively resisted the denial or the devaluation of their own cultures – look at Rwanda and Burundi, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq, Quebec in Canada, the Afro-Americans in the U.S.A., and parts of India.

In this global ‘ethnic explosion’, minority groups asserted that their distinctiveness and common comprehensive cultures were not only viable, but that they should be recognised in the sense of being valued by the body politic. They further highlighted the fact that the vision of a strong and centralised nation state, which ostensibly was free of any particular cultural referent point, had turned out to be a project for the legitimisation of dominant understandings and the devaluation of minority identities.



In India, it took the Dalit movement in the 1970s to accentuate the fact that the Indian nation state was not empty of any referent point; that it was uncomfortably Brahmanical and uncomfortably oppressive, despite promises of economic and social redistribution. The social status (or rather its lack) of the Dalits, had not changed a whit; it may even have worsened under the domination of a system whose caste basis had been rendered opaque because it had been prettified by shibboleths such as progress and economic transformation.

‘No! No! No! A triple rejection

To your economic, social, political, mental, religious, moral and cultural


You ever-living, ever-luminous suns!

Your very touch brings a contagious disease.’

So wrote V.L. Karlekar, rejecting the promises made by an empty public sphere.

What had gone wrong, we should ask, with the national vision – a vision that at one time had made imaginations soar to new heights of what was politically permissible? Indian elites had built a national culture that was based on the invisibility and marginalisation of minority groups. Entrepreneurs who were working over time to create a national culture which could recognisably be called Indian, had also built into it the denial of recognition to marginal groups – caste and religious groups, but also tribals, women and linguistic groups. Our national culture inevitably came to reflect the presuppositions and the values, if not the explicit world-views, of the dominant community. Resultantly, the minorities had been both devalued as well as marginalised, their world-views either sidelined or downgraded, even as they were asked to join something that we euphemistically called the mainstream.



The struggle for identity has provided interesting insights into the concepts of oppression and resistance. It made us realise that though people needed access to the means of social reproduction, they also needed ‘recognition’ as people who matter and who matter equally. And recognition happens to be the core concept of multiculturalism.

The concept of recognition is, of course, not new to political theory. Hegel had in The Phenomenology of the Spirit conceptualised recognition as the distinctive need of human beings. In recent theory, philosophers Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth have hinged their political theories around recognition. The concept of recognition at one basic level indicates that we become conscious of ourselves when we see that others have become conscious of us. In other words, we recognise ourselves through and in the eyes of others.

There is, however, a deeper meaning attached to recognition. The term indicates that people need the approval and respect of others in order to develop self-esteem, self confidence and self-respect. The recognition of the self through being ‘seen’ or recognised by others, therefore, enters the constitution of self-identity in a fundamental sense. ‘Human integrity’, argues Honneth, ‘owes its existence, at a deep level, to the patterns of approval and recognition.’1 Charles Taylor’s influential essay on ‘The Politics of Recognition’ extends the concept of recognition from individuals to cultures, even as he provides a persuasive philosophical argument that all cultures possess equal worth. ‘[T]he further demand we are looking at here is that we all recognize the equal value of different cultures; that we not only let them survive, but acknowledge their worth.’2



The political location of this argument is the realisation, elegantly argued by Will Kymlicka, that the political and the cultural community are not coextensive, and that the political community consists of a plurality of cultures, some of which will necessarily be marginal to the constitution of the polity.3 What is more important, Kymlicka suggested, is that the norms and the understandings of the dominant community, excluding thereby the cultures of the minority groups, more often than not define the political community. But this, he was to argue, had been ignored by most political theorists.

It is true that political theorists since the days of Plato have tended to assume that the political community whose problems they address is united by a shared culture. The presence of minority communities, which may be, as Kymlicka put it, outmanoeuvred and outbid on issues that really matter to them, has been largely overlooked in the preoccupation with national cultures that would provide homogeneity to the body politic. All this amounts to what can be called cultural injustice, for if minority cultures are either devalued in the public sphere, or marginalised, they suffer from a denial of self-respect.



If this is so, then we need to institute protection for these communities exactly in the way political theory had recognised the indispensability of protecting the economically marginalised groups through redistributive justice. This and other related arguments made such an impact upon political thinking that cultural rights for minorities have been put onto the agenda since the late 1980s.4 Multiculturalism simply brought about the realisation that plural cultures need to be respected and validated through explicit acts of recognition. That, cultures which have been marginalised should be revalued and revalidated in the public sphere through, for example, group representation. Second, if minority cultures are either decaying because of what has been termed ‘benevolent neglect’ or if they are subjected to virulent attacks, they should be protected through special measures such as minority rights, which incidentally have been on the formal agenda of Indian politics since the Motilal Nehru constitution of 1928.



Underlying such and related recommendations is a wider theme which has overtaken philosophising in the political mode. With an expansion of our understanding of what is meant by the term human, has grown the realisation that the existence of viable and flourishing cultural communities is a precondition for intelligible understanding and action. Our cultural community provides us with the evaluative resources which enable us to both make sense of the world and to appraise phenomenon as valuable and valueless, worthwhile and worthless, moral, immoral and amoral. In this sense, culture gives us the wherewithal or the cultural capital to think with. Culture then becomes a resource in enhancing or deepening our personal faculties of reflection and judgement as we appropriate the world in the sense of making it comprehensible.

Note that the imperative to render the world intelligible, to map it into comprehensible categories, is perhaps the first, even a primary requirement of human beings. Without access to the resources that help us to interpret and evaluate the world – for interpretation is also at the same time an act of evaluation – we are clueless. Therefore, communities I suggest are important, because they provide their members with structures of meaning, or what I call evaluative resources to render the world intelligible. (I employ the term resource not in the sense of an instrument, but in the sense of historically constituted stocks of assets that we can draw upon to render the world meaningful.)



Certainly, our use of the categories provided by our community for understanding may be so unguarded and reflexive, so unthinking and imperceptible, that we may not even realise that we are seeing the world through the lens provided by these evaluative systems. All that this means is that culture is subterranean, pervading deep structures of cognition. This is evinced in the fact that individuals do not for most of the time think consciously about what they are doing or thinking. However, if we were to ask them why they do think or act in a particular way, they will probably be able to give good reasons for doing so. We, therefore, identify deeply with our culture, howsoever imperceptible that identification may be. What is important is that without access to the resources of our culture, we are rendered defenceless.

If this is so, then the marginalisation of a minority culture will leave its members bewildered and lost because their identity is bound up with that of their culture. Correspondingly, the denigration of a culture, through for example perverse stereotyping, will harm the self-esteem of the individual incalculably, because to deny a culture recognition is to deny recognition to the members of the culture. The damage this wreaks on individual and collective psyches is incalculable. ‘Slighting my culture,’ writes Joseph Raz, ‘holding it up for ridicule, denying its value, and so on, hurts me and offends my dignity. It is particularly offensive if the slight bears the imprimatur of my state or of the majority or official culture of my country.’5

The only remedy is to revalue cultures that have been either marginalised from the public arena or devalued, through extending them recognition. Recognition takes two forms: one, that minority cultures be represented in all forms whether it be legislative and deliberative assemblies, decision-making bodies or the school curricula. Second, that stereotypes which type cultures in perverse forms be dispensed with, a strategy that has led to what is called political correctness. Multiculturalism has replaced a host of strategies – from the melting pot in the U.S.A., to tolerance and national integration in India. The model for multiculturalism, of course, remains Canada which has attempted with some success to negotiate the relationship of the state to an ethnically plural society.



Not that multiculturalism has had an easy progress in politics or in political theory. Debates on the subject have come to be ensnared in some insuperable dilemmas. For instance, do we value a culture because it is vital and life-giving for its members? Or do we value a culture as distinct from its members? Whereas liberals are quite happy with extending respect to a culture because it enhances the worth of its individual members, they are understandably reluctant to emphasise the worth of group identities. Groups may well demand the extension of respect in the body politic and yet be reluctant to give that respect to their own members, such as women. What answer does multiculturalism give to this conundrum? Does the formulation even permit such questions? In any case, what does it mean to respect cultures?

Thomas Sowell for instance, scornfully dismisses Taylor’s suggestion that we extend equal respect to cultures. ‘History cannot be prettified in the interests of promoting "acceptance" or "mutual respect" among people or cultures. There is much in the history of every people that does not deserve respect. Whether with individuals or with groups, respect is something earned, not a door prize handed out to all. It cannot be prescribed by third parties. "Equal respect" is an internally contradictory evasion. If everything is respected equally, then the term respect has lost its meaning.’6



Two problems can be identified with this and other first-cousin formulations. One, the critics of multiculturalism forget that imperial histories have directly privileged some cultures as worthy of respect and downgraded others as unworthy. Nathan Glazer, who is a reluctant multiculturalist, for instance, attacks the inclusion of African histories in school curricula on the ground that whereas western history is history, other ‘Third World’ histories are myths.7 He completely ignores the fact that imperialism drafted this distinction in the first place. In any case the western tradition of history writing has been notoriously suffused with myths – witness the legitimisation of imperialism in the name of the civilising mission.

The second problem is that culture in the perspective of the critics is treated either as structure or as a set of exotic practices such as rituals and food habits. But culture, as I have argued above, is a set of meaning systems. This does not mean that individuals armed with these meaning systems will make the same sense of the world. What is important is that they have a referent point. So when one individual, say p, makes a proposition that x means y, everyone in the cultural community should be able to understand the meaning of the proposition. This does not imply that all of them will agree, they can put forth different interpretation of the proposition. But before they do so, they should be able to understand what p means when he says that x means y. Cultures are not shackles that bind understanding, they allow understanding, and sometimes that understanding can both transgress as well as modify the culture. Cultures are never static, because they are subjected to reworking even subversions through differing individual understandings.



The second set of criticisms of multiculturalism have to do with the assertion that scholars have shifted attention from structures of economic marginalisation to that of cultural marginalisation. Nancy Fraser, for instance, attacks Taylor for his emphasis on cultural injustice, as if we no longer have reason to be concerned with economic injustice, or as if cultural injustice is more important than economic injustice, or as if cultural injustice provides us with the means to attack economic injustice.8 Her complaint against all multiculturalists is that they have supplanted concern for material injustice with concern for cultural injustice. The problem is that whereas Taylor drops all engagement with economic injustice, Fraser goes too far in the opposite direction and drops the idea that the struggle for recognition may be relatively independent of economic inequality and that it may be a distinct human good in its own right.



Whereas it is not enough to respect communities without extending material and political advantages to them, it is also not enough to extend political and material advantages without extending them respect. Certainly struggles over redistribution and recognition do not belong to two absolutely, separate genres. Within economically or politically powerless groups, some segments of the group can suffer cultural deprivation – women, Dalits, or religious minorities. Therefore, we cannot neatly divide groups into the economically, politically and culturally deprived. Each of these factors may overlap, or they may be relatively autonomous of the other, depending on the historical situation.

On the other hand, cultural marginalisation may be all-pervasive. It may have permeated the body politic to such an extent that groups tend to trace their lack of economic and political resources to the fact that they are culturally marginalised or that they occupy an inferior place in the cultural codes of a society. In this case, it is not enough that we empower a group economically or politically; it may need to be culturally empowered as well. Or in many cases, economic, political and cultural marginalisation overlaps, so that in order to economically and politically empower a group, we will need to culturally empower it as well.

Alternatively, an economically and politically well-off group may still not secure recognition. Cultural non-recognition may actually prove to be a hindrance in the effective exercise of economic or political power, or in being respected for things other than say caste. In this case, cultural marginalisation is autonomous of economic and political marginalisation. Therefore, we will have to concentrate on revaluing group identity. All these factors operate sometimes in tandem with each other, sometimes autonomously of each other. I prefer to believe from the Indian historical experience at least, that cultural marginalisation can operate autonomously of, or in tandem with other forms of exclusion and deprivation. And it is here that multiculturalism can be of help to emancipate the human condition.



Let me elaborate on this. In India and perhaps all over the world, we can discern two kinds of discrete/over-lapping moral conflicts. One form of conflict takes the shape of struggles over material resources, political gains, and against deprivation. We can deal with this by the redistribution of material and political resources. The other kind of moral conflict that has come to dominate the body politic is the struggle for recognition. Extension of respect becomes absolutely essential, for when perverse and demeaning stereotypes come to govern the way a particular community is perceived – as ‘invisible’, ‘inferior’, ‘polluting’, or as ‘threatening’ – we have a potentially incendiary situation on our hands. This leads to the consolidation of distrust and suspicion, the closing of otherwise fuzzy boundaries between communities, and resistance.

We need, therefore, to pitch our attempts at two levels to remedy the situation. Economic and political marginalisation will require the redistribution of tangible resources. Cultural deprivation will require the erasure of demeaning images, the revaluation of devalued identities, and treatment of all people and groups with the dignity they deserve. It will require recognition.



1. Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, translated by Joel Anderson, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 131.

2. Charles Taylor, ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in Multiculturalism and the ‘Politics of Recognition’, edited and with a commentary by Amy Gutmann, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1993, p. 64.

3. This is not the precise terminology used by Kymlicka, but the general sense of his argument is represented by the terms I have used here. See Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, Clarendon, Oxford, 1995.

4. I suggest that a cultural group can be regarded as marginalised when its values and its worldviews are either not represented at all or inadequately represented in the public sphere. Let me elaborate on this. Every human community organises itself symbolically in the shape of national anthems, flags, rituals, and ceremonies, and if we look at these systems of representation carefully, we will normally find that they belong to the repertoire of the majority/dominant community. Minorities not only find themselves left out of this symbolic definition of society, they are forced to conform to meaning systems which these symbols codify that are not their own. Even as minority identities are submerged in the plethora of meaning systems that characterise a society, the adherents of these identities experience anomie and alienation.

5. Joseph Raz, ‘Multiculturalism: A Liberal Perspective’, Dissent, Winter 1994, p. 72.

6. Thomas Sowell, Migrations and Cultures: A World View, Basic Books, New York, 1996, pp. 9-10.

7. Nathan Glazer, We Are All Multiculturalists Now, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997.

8. Nancy Fraser, ‘From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a "Post-Socialist Age"’, New Left Review 212, July-August 1995, pp. 68-93.