Theme Panel: Theorizing Structural Injustice and Responses to It

Theorizing Structural Injustice and Responses to It

Co-sponsored by Division 3: Normative Theory
Full Paper Panel

(Chair) Juliet Hooker, Brown University; (Discussant) Catherine Lu, McGill University

Session Description:
In recent years, it has become increasingly common for problems to be described as “structural.” Academics, journalists, politicians, and activists alike speak of “structural racism,” “structural inequality,” “structural violence,” and “structural injustice.” In 2020, the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which laid bare so many underlying disparities, and the large-scale protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd, which called attention to the pervasiveness of state violence against Black people in the US, forced many—some for the first time—to confront the structural nature of problems they may have previously seen as isolated misfortunes. This recent trend, made possible by the work of activists and existing scholarship, provides political theory with a unique opportunity to contribute to the conceptualization of both the problem of structural injustice in its current instantiations and possible responses.

This panel attempts to take up this opportunity by addressing a number of interrelated questions. What makes a particular injustice structural? What understandings of action and power underlie theories of structural injustice? Is agency possible according to a structural model? What is the relationship between individuals and the structures they inhabit? What would it mean to take responsibility for structural injustice? What obstacles exist to addressing structural injustice? What strategies do activists use to overcome those obstacles? Is structural transformation possible?
Building upon the work of feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial thought, the papers in this panel, contributed by both senior and junior scholars, demonstrate the possibilities for political theory to combine rigorous theorization of highly abstract concepts with discussions of concrete contemporary problems. Clarissa Hayward’s paper “Power: A Structural View” examines structural power relations and the challenges involved in attempting to change them, using race relations in the United States as an emblematic case. Mara Marin, in her paper “How to Think of Action as Structural,” considers the “socially structured” character of political action and the centrality of publicity and uncertainty to an account of structural change. Anjali Mohan’s paper “Structural Proximity” asks how conceiving of individuals’ relations to injustice in terms of what she calls “structural proximity” may affect how we respond to it, using examples such as the global COVID-19 pandemic, police killings in the United States, and human rights abuse in Burma/Myanmar. Jennifer Rubenstein, in her paper “Emergency Politics as a Strategy for Addressing Historic and Structural Injustice Against African-Americans,” explores how anti-racist activists, including Ida B. Wells, William Lloyd Garrison, Martin Luther King, and the Movement for Black Lives, have deployed, to varying extents, both emergency politics and structural understandings of racism in their advocacy. Together, these papers, and contributions from the panel’s chair Juliet Hooker and discussant Catherine Lu, will undoubtedly generate a lively and productive discussion regarding the profound structural dimensions of injustice and the challenges and tensions that arise in attempts to respond to it.


Power: A Structural View
Clarissa Rile Hayward, Washington University in St. Louis

In this paper, I use the case of racial relations of power in the contemporary United States to show how attending to the mutual constitution of social structure and social action helps us understand both why power relations can be exceedingly difficult to challenge and to change, and also how people sometimes succeed in transforming them. I begin by considering the logic and the limits of what I characterize as a classic, agent-centric approach to conceptualizing power. I then turn to three characteristics of social power, understood in more structural terms. First, power has no mastermind; it does not wear the face of a powerful agent, who controls and directs it. Second, power shapes action, not only by prohibiting and constraining human actors, but also by habituating them. Third, power has a protean quality; social structures intersect with and reinforce one another in ways that shift and mutate over time. In the paper’s final sections I take up the questions of how people change structural power relations and how a structural view of power can enrich political accounts of responsibility.

How to Think of Action as Structural
Mara Marin, University of Victoria

In spite of theorizing injustice as structural, theorists of structural injustice tend to rely on an individualist social ontology when raising normative questions about the actions that could be taken to dismantle structures of injustice or when theorizing resistance. I make this argument through a discussion of Cudd’s (2006) view of resistance and Young’s (2011) view of responsibility and the mechanisms of denial of responsibility. For both of these authors, social change originates in (the right) individual actions and represents the fulfilment of the intentions with which these actions are carried out. I argue that this tendency can be traced to a picture of action that is both empirically inaccurate and politically limiting. It is empirically inaccurate because it assumes the social world to be predictable and ignores the “socially structured” character of political action. In doing so, it makes invisible precisely those features of political action that enable agents to bring about social change, which in turn limits our political imagination. Political action is socially structured in the sense that it is constituted by the available cultural meanings, practices and material things that jointly constitute a society’s social structure. This feature of action, I argue, is central to the ability of action to create social change. I theorize this feature of action by drawing on Sewell’s (1992) conception of structure as the duality of schemas and resources and his view of agency as enabled, not only constrained, by the structure. On Sewell’s view, social change is made possible by the acts of interpretation – of both schemas and resources – that are part of the normal functioning of structures, as these acts of interpretation can introduce new and unpredictable organizations of power. I make two modifications to Sewell’s view. First, I argue that the interpretation of schemas or resources takes place in and depends on a public. The public of one’s actions determines whether one’s action is an enactment of a pre-existing cultural meaning that preserves the structure or a new, transformative action. Consequently, the meaning of one’s action, and thus the action’s ability (or inability) to transform the prevailing organization of power, depends on one’s public, not primarily on the agent or her intentions. Therefore, secondly, agency should not be understood as a type of control. Rather, agency, especially the aspect of agency that relates to social change, should be understood as a function of the contingency and unpredictability that action can introduce into the social reality. Given that the meanings of one’s actions depend on their (potentially multiple) publics, publics that confer them one set of meanings rather than another, agents are not in control of the effects of their actions. However, this lack of control is not a failure or absence of agency. On the contrary, it is precisely in virtue of this lack of control, in virtue of the unpredictability that it can introduce that action is able to introduce social change.

Structural Proximity
Anjali Mohan

In this paper, I argue that the contemporary move to think structurally about injustice has had several advantages. It has allowed us to identify patterns that were previously under-appreciated, take note of the explicitly human sources of many problems, and move away from a myopic focus on the culpability and intent of those allegedly producing harms toward an appreciation for the impacts they have on others. At the same time, I show how structural discourse can sometimes work at cross-purposes with its goals, giving rise to what I call the cog problem. The notion of structure and particular structures can themselves become reified, reducing people to their positions, portraying them as unthinking cogs in a machine they did not design and cannot change, while at the same time implying that some people, often the “impartial” academic, can escape their positionality, observing the functioning of the whole machine. What these tensions help to reveal, I argue, is the need for new ways of conceptualizing the relationship between the individual and structures, one that can incorporate the insights of existing theories of structural injustice, without denying the possibility of human action to address the harms it seeks to alleviate. To meet this need, I propose structural proximity, a term I coin to capture the connection between individuals and those that they impact through structures. Using lessons from the “structural turn,” structural proximity is not a measure of culpability and is unconcerned with the intentions of the actors. Structural proximity accommodates varying types and degrees of connection, eschewing overly restrictive unidirectional, linear notions of temporality and causality. Furthermore, understanding oneself as structurally proximate to a harm is more than just an intellectual exercise, it is an embodied, material, and affective relationship. While our position within structures limits what we individually can understand about them, collectively we can map out the structures we are imbricated in, and in doing so, learn how to better take responsibility for the harms we are structurally proximate to and identify other actors who are especially structurally proximate to harms we and others are experiencing. In doing so, we may open up new possibilities for holding ourselves and others accountable.

Using Emergency Politics to Fight Structural Racism in the U.S.
Jennifer C. Rubenstein, University of Virginia

Whether one’s paradigm example of emergency is the contagious pathogen, the drowning toddler, or the ticking bomb, emergency politics typically focuses on finding and implementing immediate solutions to urgent threats: the pathogen must be contained, the toddler rescued, the bomb disarmed. Emergency politics as we usually conceive of it directs attention to the present and immediate future, not the past; it alleviates symptoms rather than identifying and fixing underling structural problems. Nonetheless, progressive political movements working to address longstanding structural injustices, such as structural racism, regularly utilize emergency politics to achieve their aims. For example, they use emergency rhetoric, demand that governments and other official bodies recognize structural issues as emergencies, and they demand that exceptional means be used to address structural issues. In this paper, which is part of a larger book project about progressive social movement emergency politics, I ask: how, why, and to what extent do activists fighting structural racism against Black people in the United States weave together (1) emergency politics and (2) attention to historic and structural injustice? More specifically, I ask: what is so compelling or useful about emergency politics that anti-racist activists deploy it, despite its seemingly poor fit for their purposes? When and how do anti-racist activists stretch, mold, reconfigure—and find functional alternatives to— emergency politics? To answer these questions, I analyze the intense emergency and emergency-adjacent rhetoric of Ida B. Wells in The Red Record and William Lloyd Garrison in The Liberator (as well as the latter’s explicit defense of this rhetoric); Martin Luther King’s discussion of well-timed surgery in Why We Can’t Wait, which I read as an alternative to emergency rhetoric, and the dozens of declarations stating that racism is a public health crisis issued by cities, towns, and states in the wake of the George Floyd protests and Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. (Perhaps surprisingly, these declarations often mention historic injustice and structural issues, but only rarely reference acute emergencies such as hate crimes [Mendez et al 2021]). Finally, I examine the Movement for Black Lives, which emphasizes historic and structural injustice and draws on some elements of emergency politics but incorporates little or no explicit emergency language or framing. In examining these deployments, reconfigurations, and complete or partial rejections of emergency politics, I find that emergency politics can be combined with attention to historic and structural injustice far more than familiar paradigms of emergency politics (e.g., the pathogen, drowning toddler, and ticking bomb) suggest. However, emergency politics is not the only way that progressive political movements enjoin others to urgent and exceptional action and forbearance.

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