Contemporary Political Theory

, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 227–247 | Cite as

Reason and power: Difference, structural implication, and political transformation

  • James TraffordEmail author


One of the central issues facing contemporary political theory is the problem of difference. This problem is perhaps clearest in disagreements regarding the role of pluralism between advocates of deliberative, and agonistic, approaches to democracy. According to agonists, deliberative democracy has only paid lip-service to pluralism, emphasising agreement, consensus, and universalism. Instead, agonists argue that we should accommodate incommensurable difference as central to political organisation. But this shift threatens to emphasise particularity at the expense of commonality, so preventing the transformation of social positions. These debates turn largely around the ways in which power is conceived in relation to democratic interaction, with deliberativists emphasising ideals of free and equal discourse, and agonists, the irreducible role of power. I begin by outlining a structural approach to social power, to show how we are all structurally implicated in power relationships. I go on to show how emphasising structural implication shifts us beyond debates that revolve around difference, drawing attention to the more foundational problem of how agents may come to understand these structures and each other, in ways that surpass or transcend the specific constraints acting upon them. Considering this, I develop a complex account of structural implication that emphasises the relationships between social norms, reasoning, and objective power relationships. This approach illuminates lacunae in similar approaches, particularly regarding the way in which structural power disenables us from often seeing structural imbalances of power, and clarifies the ways in which collective political transformation is possible.


structural power difference reasoning freedom deliberative democracy agonism 



Versions of this article were presented at the Dutch Arts Institute, the University of York, and London Conference in Critical Thought. I thank participants at these events for their helpful comments, as well as to Tom Trevatt and the reviewers for their incisive suggestions on previous drafts.


  1. Ahmed, S. (2010) Killing Joy: Feminism and the history of happiness. Signs 35(3): 571–594.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Benhabib, S. (1992) Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  3. Boucher, G. (2009) The Charmed Circle of Ideology: A Critique of Laclau and Mouffe, Butler and Zizek. Melbourne: re.Press.Google Scholar
  4. Brandom, R. (1994) Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Brandom, R. (2000) Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Brown, W. (2003) Neo-liberalism and the end of Liberal Democracy. Theory and Event. Scholar
  7. Collins, P.H. (2002) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Taylor & Francis.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cordova, T.L. and Wilson, M.D. (2016) Lost: The Crisis of Jobless and Out of School Teens and Young Adults in Chicago,, accessed 30 December 17.
  9. Dryzek, J.S. (2000) Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Elder-Vass, D. (2010) The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Elder-Vass, D. (2012) Towards a Realist Social Constructionism. Sociologia, Problemas e Práticas 70: 5–24.Google Scholar
  12. Erman, E. (2009) What is Wrong with Agonistic Pluralism?: Reflections on Conflict in Democratic Theory. Philosophy of Social Criticism 35: 1039–1062.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Finlayson, L. (2015) With Radicals Like These, Who Needs Conservatives? Doom, Gloom, and Realism in Political Theory. European Journal of Political Theory 16(3): 264–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fischer, C. (2012) Pragmatists, Deliberativists, and Democracy: The Quest for Inclusion. Journal of Speculative Philosophy 26: 497–515.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fraser, N. (2008) Social justice in the age of identity politics. In: G. Henderson and M. Waterstone (eds.) Geographic Thought: A Praxis Perspective. London: Routledge, pp. 72–91.Google Scholar
  16. Frye, M. (1983) The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Berkeley: Crossing Press.Google Scholar
  17. Gallagher, S. and Miyahara, K. (2012) Neo-pragmatism and enactive intentionality. In: J. Schulkin (ed.) New Directions in Philosophy and Cognitive Science: Adaptation and Cephalic Expression. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 117–146.Google Scholar
  18. Giddens, A. (1984) The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  19. Gregoromichelaki, E., Cann, R. and Kempson, R. (2013a) On co-ordination in dialogue: Sub-sentential talk and its implications. In: L. Goldstein (ed.) Brevity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 53–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gregoromichelaki, E., Kempson, R., Howes, C. and Eshghi, A. (2013b) On making syntax dynamic: The challenge of compound utterances and the architecture of the grammar. In: I. Wachsmuth, J. de Ruiter, P. Jaecks and S. Kopp (eds.) Alignment in Communication: Towards a New Theory of Communication. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 57–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gregoromichelaki, E. and Kempson, R. (2013c) Grammars as processes for interactive language use: Incrementality and the emergence of joint intentionality. In: A. Capone, F. Lo Piparo, and M. Carapezza (eds.) Perspectives on Linguistic Pragmatics. New York: Springer, pp. 185–216.Google Scholar
  22. Habermas, J. (1975) Legitimation Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  23. Habermas, J. (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action: Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalisation of Society. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  24. Habermas, J. (1996) Between Facts and Norms. Cambridge: Polity Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hacking, I. (1999) The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Healy, P. (2011) Rethinking Deliberative Democracy: From Deliberative Discourse to Transformative Dialogue. Philosophy of Social Criticism 37: 295–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Johnson, J. (1998) Arguing for deliberation: some skeptical considerations. In: J. Elster (ed.) Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 161–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Joseph, J., 2000. A realist theory of hegemony. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 30: 179-202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kiesselbach, M. (2012) Constructing Commitment: Brandom’s Pragmatist Take on Rule-Following. Philosophical Investigations 35: 101–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  31. Laden, A.S. (2001) Reasonably Radical: Deliberative Liberalism and the Politics of Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Laden, A.S. (2012) Reasoning: A Social Picture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Mouffe, C. (1999) Deliberative democracy or agonistic pluralism? Social Research 66(3): 745–758.Google Scholar
  34. Mouffe, C. (2000) The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  35. Nyroos, L. (2012) The Social Organisation of Institutional Norms: Interactional Management of Knowledge,, accessed 30 December 17.
  36. Owen, D. and Tully, J. (2007) Redistribution and recognition: Two approaches. In: A. Laden and D. Owen (eds.) Multiculturalism and Political Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 265–291.Google Scholar
  37. Rawls, J. (1993) Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Rienstra, B. and Hook, D. (2006) Weakening Habermas: The undoing of communicative rationality. Politikon 33: 313–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Scharp, K. (2003) Communication and Content: Circumstances and Consequences of the Habermas-Brandom Debate. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 11: 43–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Sewell, W.H., Jr. (1992) A theory of structure: Duality, agency, and transformation. American Journal of Sociology 98: 1–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Simpson, L.C. (2001) The Unfinished Project: Towards a Postmetaphysical Humanism. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  42. Stavrakakis, Y. (2002) Lacan and the Political. London: Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  43. Talisse, R.B. (2005) Deliberativist Responses to Activist Challenges: A Continuation of Young’s Dialectic. Philosophy of Social Criticism 31: 423–444.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Trafford, J. (2017) Reconstructing Intersubjective Norms. Phenomenology and Mind 13: 176–182.Google Scholar
  45. Tully, J. (1995) Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Tully, J. (2008) Public Philosophy in a New Key v.1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Wenman, M. (2013) Agonistic Democracy: Constituent Power in the Era of Globalisation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Young, I.M. (1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Young, I.M. (2006) Responsibility and global justice: A social connection model. Social Philosophy and Policy 23: 102–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Young, I.M. (2013) Responsibility for Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  51. Zerilli, L. (2005) Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Contextual and Theoretical StudiesUniversity for the Creative ArtsEpsomUK

Personalised recommendations