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Among the few things I took in during my stint in the Philosophy Department at Humboldt was the idea – I forgot whose – that the underlying motive for all human action is the desire for recognition – recognition of one’s worth and dignity as a human being, without which one was a nonperson; a slave. The concept had articulated very precisely the obscure cravings of my soul, and it had lodged itself in my imagination. It had felt incontrovertible. (Lasdun, 2007, p 133)

Like the central character in James Lasdun’s (2007) novel Seven lies, a number of writers located within the field of social work appear to have become fixated with the ethics and politics of recognition. Many have made thoughtful contributions stressing the relevance of this theorisation for practitioners’ day-to-day encounters with the users of social services.

Within philosophy, ‘recognition designates an ideal reciprocal relation between subjects in which each sees the other as its equal … one becomes an individual only in virtue of recognizing, and being recognized by, another subject’ (Fraser, 2003, p 10). The German philosopher Hegel (1770–1831) coined the phrase the ‘struggle for recognition’ (‘Kampf um Anerkennung’), but it was the early 1990s that marked a resurgence of academic interest in this theme. According to Charles Taylor (1992, p 26), ‘recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people’, it is a ‘vital human need’.

The ‘two most prominent main contemporary theorists of recognition’ are the neo-Hegelian philosophers Taylor and Honneth (Fraser, 2003, p 28). Published in 1992, the former’s The politics of recognition, variously referred to as a ‘catalytic essay’ (Markell, 2003, p 2) or ‘signal essay’ (McNay, 2008, p 2), probably remains the single most influential work on the theme in contemporary political theory.

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Remaining within the European context, with which Social theory and social work has largely been concerned, the contributions of Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri and the Autonomist Marxists, and Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello present, at times, thematic continuity with other theorists examined in the book. For example, from a different angle than the recognition theorists, Badiou examines questions relating to ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’. Negri and Autonomist Marxist theorists dwell on issues connected to work in contemporary capitalist societies. This is also the case with Boltanski and Chiapello, who, although not operating within a specifically Gramscian perspective, ‘offer a classic analysis of the mechanics by which hegemony is exercised’ (Couldry et al, 2010, p 110). Importantly, despite the fact that all these writers remain largely unknown within the field, the range of their theoretical interests is of great relevance to key concerns in social work (see Table 11.1).

Badiou’s major books are Being and event (Badiou, 2005a) and, what is sometimes referred to as ‘Being and Event 2’, The logic of the worlds (Badiou, 2009; see also Hallward, 2008). These represent his ‘defiant riposte to the post-modern condition, a condition which claims that philosophy has exhausted its universal history’ (Barker, 2002, p 4). Badiou’s perspective is entirely antithetical to postmodernist theorising, which, as mentioned in Chapter Two, had an impact within the academic literature of social work in the 1990s. His own philosophy hinges on the concept of ‘the “event” as a form of momentous change … in the realms of science, art, love, and emancipatory politics’.

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For a theory to be ‘critical, it must be connected to the hope for some significantly better – more just, or at least less oppressive – society’ (Allen, 2016, p 12). This perception resonates with the view that theoretically critical approaches express a similar yearning for a ‘better way of being’ (Levitas, 2007, p 290). A core assumption of Social work and social theory is that a better social work can exist within an economic and social system that puts people before profit. Such a ‘utopian’ inclination or impulse – what Ruth Levitas (2007) calls ‘looking for the blue’ – is inseparable from an emancipatory politics whose steadfast commitment is to ‘destroy the appearance of a “natural order” … reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be mere contingency’ and make what was previously ‘deemed to be impossible seem attainable’ (Fisher, 2009, p 17).

Currently, however, for some within the field of social work, critical social theory and the longing for something different constitutes an unwarranted challenge to what we might term unthinking neoliberalism (see also Schram and Pavlovskaya, 2018). In this sense, ‘looking for the blue’ is a threat that troubles many within the mainstream domains of social work and associated fields. This is not to argue that this ‘mainstream’ tends to be unequivocally defensive, arid and conservative. Rather, it perhaps shares some of the characteristics of ‘progressive neoliberalism’ referred to by Nancy Fraser (see Chapter Five). Here, one finds a heightened moralism and gestural celebration of ‘diversity’, but little meaningful interest in combating the hurt and hardships promoted and sustained by the ravages wrought by neoliberal economics.

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