Categorical Injustice

Ásta. “Categorical Injustice”. The Journal of Social Philosophy 50th Anniversary Special Issue, 50: 392-406. Winter 2019.

This essay discusses how the social construction of categories (from race and gender to single mothers and refugees) can create metaphysical injustices. Categorical injustice occurs when individuals are systematically constrained and enabled in certain ways due to these categories. A feature has social significance once people begin to treat someone differently for perceiving them to have that feature, whether the person even has that feature or not. This causes certain actions to be available to them and others not.

Insitutional and Communal Contexts

The author distinguishes between two contexts: insitutions and communal.

Insitutional Contexts

Insitutional contexts are governed by rules or laws. The entity that bestows a social status must have some sort of institutional authority to do so (e.g., the DMV granting a driver's license). Conferring in this context means "classifying." They outline the properties of an insitutional context:

  • Who: a person, entity, group with institutional authority
  • What: "their explicit conferral by means of a speech act or other public act"
  • When: "under the appropriate circumstances (in the presence of witnesses, at a particular place, etc)"
  • Base property: "the property the authorities are attempting to track in the conferral. The individual need not have the property; they just need to be taken to have it."

Communal Contexts

Communal contexts are governed by social contexts. An entity classifies a person relevant to the feature it sees as socially salient in context. Rather than constraints/enablements associated with institutional contexts (rights, privileges, obligations), communal constraints/enablements involve things like power and sway.

  • Who: a person, entity, group with standing
  • What: "their conferral, explicit or implicit, by means of attitudes and behavior"
  • When: "in a particular context"
  • Base property: " the property the conferrers are attempting to track in the conferral, consciously or unconsciously. The individual need not have the property; they just need to be taken to have it."

Social Maps

Constraints and enablements stem from ideology, which consists of stories, narratives, and assumptions for making sense of the world. Generalizations about people are part of ideology, including stereotypes and prejudice. Stereotypes in this essay refers to a set of features being associated with a group, and assigning those features to somone believed to be a member of that group. This can be conscious or unconscious, but the author is focused on unconscious stereotyping.

Stereotypes are relational. Stereotypes contribute to how we constrain and enable our own and others' actions in various contexts. In turn, social categories defined by those constraints and enablements inform stereotypes.

The "social map" of a context involves what roles there are to play, who plays what role, and what the expectations of each role are. Expectations for each role are guided by norms people use to guide their own actions and also to police each other's expected behavior for a role. The author outlines two sets of rules for a role: constitutive norms and regulative norms.

Constitutive norms: Outline what behaviors count as enacting a role at all.

Regulative norms: The standards for acting well in a role.

The author provides an example: "The relationship between the constraints and enablements and the associated norms is akin to the relationship between the constitutive rules for a game such as chess and the norms for playing well. If you flout the constitutive rules, you are not playing at all; if you flout the norms, you are simply playing badly."

When playing multiple roles, some roles may be more salient given the context. For example, gender may trump role expectations more than the role of driver. Where social maps derive is contextual; we bring different social maps into different contexts from other contexts we have once been in. The status of a person in a context makes some actions either impossible or entirely unintelligible/confusing.

Categorical Injustice

"To perform an action successfully, having some specific features is needed. While some person is entitled to perform the action, they are thwarted in their effort to perform it because they are placed in a category and the assumption about members of that category is that they lack one of the requisite features. Because the intented interpretation of the action is required for the action to be successful this assumption blocks the intended interpretation and the person cannot perform the action successfully ... he injustice lies in the fact that the agent is entitled to perform the action but is thwarted in their effort because of how they are classified or placed. It is a distinct sort of injustice perpetrated against a person through socially constructing them as a member of a social group where that social construction undercuts their ability to perform the action they are entitled to. There is thus a mismatch between what a person is institutionally entitled to do and what they are able to do, given how they are socially constructed."