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Timo Jütten

Recognition can be understood as a positive acknowledgment or affirmation of a person’s existence, identity, rights, or achievement. It is sometimes said to be a necessary condition for self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem. Although the concept has origins in Hobbes, Rousseau, Fichte, and Hegel, it has come to renewed prominence since the early 1990s, when philosophers such as Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth developed theories of recognition. These showed that the need for social recognition underlies many social and political movements from struggles for civil and labor rights to modern multiculturalism. In social and political philosophy, Honneth has argued that three forms of social recognition—affective care, equal respect, and social esteem—are preconditions of individual autonomy and that the principles governing these three forms of recognition should be the core of a conception of social justice. According to the theory of recognition, modern capitalist society can be evaluated as a recognition order that institutionalizes the distribution of respect and social esteem according to people’s individual achievements in their contributions to socially shared goals. Methodologically, Honneth uses an approach of normative reconstruction. Rather than constructing principles of justice on the basis of hypothetical agreement, he reconstructs the normative principles that are immanent in our social practices and institutions and sometimes contain a “normative surplus” that points beyond the status quo. This approach has been very productive in elucidating the importance of social recognition in the sphere of work, but critics have suggested that it limits the scope of radical social criticism. Honneth has proposed the concept of ideological recognition, where there is a chasm between the evaluative promise entailed by a form of recognition and its material fulfilment, in order to address this problem. More generally, critics have questioned whether recognition must be understood as positive rather than ambivalent, because this limits the scope of misrecognition and means that phenomena such as interpellation or objectification cannot easily be analyzed as forms of misrecognition.


Since the 1980s, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) social movements worldwide have put significant energy into securing relationship rights. In the 1970s, however, the general sentiment in such movements in the Occident had been anti-marriage and anti-nuclear family. This changed in the 1980s due to three factors: the impact of HIV/AIDS, which emphasized how vulnerable same-sex families are; the rise of families headed by same-sex parents who did not have the same protections as their different-sex counterparts; and globalization, which transferred the ideas about same-sex relationships among movements and created energy and useful policy connections. During the 1990s, a wave of marriage alternatives spread around the world, sometimes extended by legislatures and other times by courts. The rise of alternatives has raised these questions: are they a temporary compromise on the path to marriage equality; are they a replacement for marriage that is free of its historical discriminatory heritage; or are they proposing an additional legal institution alongside marriage? In the 2000s and since, marriage equality became realistic and more common as two dozen countries gradually extended marriage rights to same-sex couples, initially in Europe and North America, but later also in Australasia, in the entire Americas, and even—in fewer countries—in Asia and Africa. Incrementalism is the generally accepted theory for why progress occurs in some countries and delays in others. However, scholars have criticized the theory as descriptively inaccurate and, normatively, as portraying marriage as the final frontier for LGBTQ equality—thus contributing to that community’s emphasis on marriage equality to the neglect of other possible advocacy avenues. Further, the incrementalistic account should take into consideration that the path toward recognition is not linear and is international as well as national. Supranational courts have played an important role in the progress toward recognizing same-sex relationships; at the same time, the globalization of LGBTQ relationship rights has also resulted in a strong backlash and in regression in some countries.