Recognition, Justice and Critical Urban Theory today

Thinking of conflict, justice and freedom in modern capitalist cities does not only require a critique of neoliberalism but a critical urban theory that can explain social recognition or disrespect of desirable values at historical moments and places. Deepening our understanding of conflict and the limits of protest/ resistance mobilizations follows critical theory’s interest to embrace the subjective dimension of social struggle and relation-to-self. The relation-to-self crucially informs our understanding of self-confident or self-limited urban movements: restoring self-confidence through protest and resistance. Such a perspective has stimulated rather contrasting research agendas, that is, the early, negativist focus on the theory-practice relationship and later idealism of communication and recognition. It has also sparked the controversy „What’s critical about critical theory“ (Fraser 2003)? Searching for a critical theory of justice in their seminal debate „redistribution or recognition“ (Fraser and Honneth 2003), Nancy Fraser advocates a Marxist framework that emphasizes re-distribution, while Axel Honneth (1995, 2003, 2014) draws from Hegel to develop the moral grammar of social conflict and social freedom. While the early Frankfurt School has rather described the sphere of social suffering Honneth has now conceptualized it (Deranty 2009, 2013, Heins 2008, 2011, 2012, 2016). Adequate attention to the inter-subjective moment of recognition relations – or disrespect – is complemented by D.M. Smith’s (1994, 1998, 2000) work, who aimed at a closer connection of philosophy and geography, and whose work has been overshadowed by the dominant Lefebvre and Harvey reception of the last two decades. While recognition theory has stimulated a lively debate for social theory and philosophy (Brink and Owen 2007, Schmidt am Busch and Zurn 2010, Petherbridge 2011, Ranciere and Honneth 2016), however, it hardly plays any role for critical urban theory (Brenner 2012, Buchholz 2016, Rossi 2017). Hence, we invite papers that make sense of critical theory’s achievements for a critical and urban theory of justice. Questions:

  • What are fruitful links for critical urban theory today: rather negativist or idealist?
  • How can we conceptualize a spatial concept of justice/ solidarity that is critical of self/ community formation, territorial traps and un/freedom of movement?
  • How can we better understand the limits of movements’ mobilizations, the role of resignation, alienation, subversion, humor, drugs, media and technology to reproduce capitalist social relations without open conflict?


Dr. Tino Buchholz, University of Groningen

Prof. Dr. Volker Heins, Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities