Young, Iris Marion ‘Responsibility For Justice’

Oxford University Press, Feb 3, 2011 – 224 pages

There are many books on structural violence and injustice that inform and guide this project. Iris Marion Young’s work is a crucial part of my explorations of this issue, and my interest in bringing it to a broader audience.

Iris Marion Young, who died in 2006, was Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. This work is her last book, published posthumously, and focuses explicitly on issues of structural violence and the political, economic and social structures that are central to any understanding of poverty and injustice. With a foreword by Martha Nussbaum, it is perhaps one of her best works.

Chapter 3 – ‘Structure as the Subject of Justice’ and chapter 4 – ‘A Social Connection Model’ offer us valuable starting points for developing a broader, more inclusive and humane idea of the goal of justice in society. I learned about Iris Marion Young while reading Maya Green’s wonderful work Fear As A Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala, another book that explore, though this time through anthropology, how structural violence cripples entire communities, inflicting terrible injustices that go largely unseen.

Coincidently, Iris Marion Young uses the garment industry as an example an economic, political and social structure riddled with inhumane and unjust practices. I say coincidently, because the garment industry was also where I have begun my work on exploration issues of structural injustice in Pakistan. My work with the victims of the Ali Enterprises garment factory fire raises questions about the lives of the workers, and the injustices they face as a result of specific social arrangements and priorities.

Though Young’s arguments against the practices of the industry repeat what we can find elsewhere, what is interesting is her analysis of the industry’s value chain which looks at an agent’s (retailer, buyer, producer, worker etc.) power, privilege, interest and possibility of collective action as starting points for understanding where the stress of resistance and change must lie. We can concretely map social, economic and political structures by seeing the agents within it, the role they play, and the priorities they focus on. This then becomes a starting point for challenging the structures, and identifying where the stress of the needed change should lie. Young however points out that it is not blame that is her focus, but responsibility. Though Nussbaum challenges this distinction in her Foreword to the book, it nevertheless offers a provocative and interesting way to think about questions of justice.