iris marion young, “political responsibility and structural injustice”

Iris Marion Young was a brilliant feminist political theorist. I had the pleasure of reading a couple of her essays in graduate school, and they were formative. Today, I came across a lecture she gave in 2003 on “Political Responsibility and Structure Justice” (pdf link). In this post, I summarize the essay with a few key quotes, but it’s fairly short so I recommend just reading the whole thing.

Young opens with a vignette that introduces the complicated and confused concept of “structure” through an incredibly clear example of a working mother searching for, and failing to find affordable housing. Who is responsible for this injustice? How do we think about responsibility and justice in the context of structural harms?

Following this vignette about the housing market, Young offers a tight exposition of some of the major theoretical approaches to thinking about what structure means. This exposition alone is worth the price of admission, and would be a useful inclusion in a theory class, or maybe even an intro sociology or intro to social problems. She summarizes:

structures refer to the relation of social positions that condition the opportunities and life prospects of the persons located in those positions. This positioning occurs because of the way that actions and interactions reinforce the rules and resources avail- able for other actions and interactions involving people in other structural positions. The unintended consequences of the confluence of many actions often produce and reinforce opportunities and constraints, and these often make their mark on the physical conditions of future actions, as well as on the habits and expectations of actors. This mutually reinforcing process means that the positional relations and the way they condition individual lives are difficult to change. (Young 2003: 6)

This definition then lets her cleanly define structural injustice:

Structural injustices are harms that come to people as a result of structural processes in which many people participate. (Young 2003: 7)

Part of the reason why I found Young’s discussion of structure so much clearer than most is because the payoff is not about some vague sense of providing better explanations of the social world, but a clear concept of a distinct class of structural injustices. Young needs a concept of structure because she wants to find a way to talk about your responsibility to fix problems that you did not, in a classic sense, cause.

Young argues that structural injustices are difficult to talk about in the main language we have available for discussing responsibility and blame, which basically mirrors legal understandings of liability. These discourses emphasize personal agency and tight causal linkages – in the housing example, it’s relatively easy to assign blame if a particular landlord turned down the woman because he refused to rent to people with young children, and such a landlord could be sued, etc. But Young’s example involves no single blamable actor in this fashion. Instead, the problem is more diffuse. Many people’s actions constitute the housing market (and the policy context for that market), and none of them need to do anything particularly reprehensible to cause a particular person to be unable to find affordable housing. Young argues this class of problems extends to some of our most pressing issues:

Many of the problems we collectively face are large scale structural problems, some of which cross national boundaries – global warming, volatility of financial systems, unemployment, and countless other issues. Yet the concepts of responsibility we operate with derive from and are most suited to issues of smaller scale interaction. We continue to rely on a phenomenology of agency that gives primacy to near effects over remote effects, to individual effects over group effects, and to people’s positive actions more than what they have failed to do. This traditional notion of agency and the concept of responsibility derived from it, however, is not well suited to understanding and taking responsibility for the large scale social structural processes that are sources of many social and natural problems. (Young 2003: 8)

As such, Young argues, we need new concepts of political rather than legal responsibility which can address structural injustices:

A concept of political responsibility says that we who are part of these processes should be held responsible for the structural injustice, as members of the collective that produces it, even though we cannot trace the outcome we regret to our own particular actions in a direct causal chain. A concept of political responsibility fills this role without attributing blame. (Young 2003: 11)

The essay then delineates various features of this concept, including that it is forward looking rather than backward, and that it focuses on harms that are seen as “normal” outcomes rather than those that are deviations from the normal (as in legal responsibility), and that it focuses on improving future outcomes rather than identifying particular causes of past wrongs. Our responsibility to work collectively to prevent future harms is rooted not in some generic morality, but “on the more specific grounds that we are connected by our own actions to the processes that cause injustice for others” (Young 2003: 17), along with our relative power and privilege (which are conceptualized separately, as many of those who are privileged by a given structure may have relatively little power to change it). Young ends with the payoff of this approach, foregrounding our individual responsibility to work collectively to solve problems for which we are politically responsible, even if we are not legally liable or individually worth of blame:

Political responsibility is a shared responsibility, which can best be discharged through collective action. It is nevertheless individually distributed: transformation in structures that produce or perpetuate injustice can occur only when many individuals take responsibility for making such transformation. (Young 2003: 19)

I’m still thinking through the implications of the piece, but as a starter, it strikes me as an incredibly productive launching point for thinking about feminist, anti-racist, and environmentalist organizing. Individuals may benefit from sexist, racist, and environmentally damaging structures without doing anything abnormal or especially meriting blame. Many of those who benefit the most (e.g. White men in developed, dirty energy-using countries) may have little individual power to change those structures, and yet enjoy great privileges from them. Those privileges obligates those who benefit to action, not because they are necessarily especially blameworthy, but because their actions are connected to the maintenance of those structures and because they are the most likely to be able to weather the challenges brought about  by challenging the structures. Our political responsibility to address structural injustices is not a function of the badness of our individual actions.

All this to say, give the essay a read!

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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