Notion of Otherness and the Politics of Difference

By | October 2, 2019
Notion of Otherness and the Politics of Difference

The notion of otherness and politics of difference is often used to explain the concept and nature of social justice. Various theories of justice have argued upon philosophical thoughts and ideas. Based on such theories, the states generally focus on ensuring that there is equality in distribution and access to its resources. This has led to the restriction of the idea of social justice to mere distributive justice. However, the idea of justice in the light of politics of difference proposes that social justice can simply be achieved by working upon areas where differences between social groups exist. This would reduce the oppression of one social group by the other, thereby, achieving the goal of social justice.

Young’s “Distributive Paradigm”

According to Karl Marx, “It was in general a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it. Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself.”

Today, the world is marked by a huge difference between the haves and the have-nots. In such a situation, it is but natural for the political philosophers to think that an equal distribution of material resources would ensure social justice. Thus, any program aimed at making the world more just would first ensure the provision of basic necessities to the severely deprived sections of the society.

According to Young, such distributive theories have restricted the scope of justice. Injustice prevails in the society in several other areas as well which are foreshadowed by the issue of unequal distribution of material resources. She does not deny the prevalence of such inequality and the need for distributive justice.

Her aim is to criticize the theories on the ground that they ignore the institutional framework within which such unequal distribution of resources takes place. For instance, political philosophers may question the unjust distribution of jobs. However, they do so by presupposing that the distinction between white-collar jobs and blue-collar jobs is just and fair. By striving to ensure distributive justice within an unequal and unjust institutional framework, the supporters of distributive theories are creating a mockery out of the idea of social justice. This is what Young refers to as “The Distributive Paradigm”.

Egalitarian Politics of Difference

In Ancient Societies, tradition justified inequality between different social groups. It recognized the difference between individuals and regarded some types of individuals as better than the others and considered it just to treat them differently.

The Age of Enlightenment challenged this particular notion and founded the idea of absolute equality. Based on these ideas, ideologies such as that of liberalism were born. An ideal of justice emerged which Young refers to as the ideal of assimilation. According to this ideal, by according equal treatment to each and every individual, group differences can be transcended. Young criticizes this particular ideal. She argues that group differences must be positively self-defined.

The traditionalist societies recognized that the nature of one social group differed from that of the other. They then went on to regard one nature as better than the other and started treating them differently. This is referred to as the traditional politics of difference. An egalitarian politics of difference, on the other hand, defines difference as a product of different social processes.

Young endorses an egalitarian politics of difference. Using her idea of politics of difference, she argues that sometimes equality requires different treatment for the oppressed and disadvantaged groups in the society. The goal of social justice sometimes calls for special treatment to be accorded to certain groups.

It remains undisputed that there are several deprived sections in the society which are continually facing oppression. It is due to this very reason that the concept of the modern welfare state has emerged. Here, the distributive paradigm comes into play. A welfare state would strive to ensure equal distribution of resources and would formulate welfare policies for the same. By striving to ensure equality in an unequal and unjust institutional framework, the modern welfare state is following the bourgeoisie ideology based on traditional politics of difference.

An ideal welfare state needs to transcend the distributive paradigm, recognize the principles of egalitarian politics of difference and work upon areas where differences between social groups exist. Only then would it be able to achieve its primary goal of social justice.


  1. Iris Marion Young, “Justice and the Politics of Difference”, Princeton University Press (2011).

  2. Role of State in Maintaining Freedom

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