Key Thinker: Iris Marion Young

Key thinker: Iris Marion Young (1949–2006)

Iris Marion Young (1949–2006)


Iris Marion Young was born in New York City, but her family soon moved to the suburbs of New Jersey. Her mother disliked this new suburban environment and passively resisted the gender roles that were ascribed to middle-class women in the 1950s. Following the sudden death of her father, Young’s mother was found guilty of child neglect and she and her siblings were placed in foster care (see 22.1. Introduction). Young later insisted that the only neglect her mother had been guilty of was not cleaning the house to a standard expected of a woman of her social class ( Young had initially hoped to become a poet, but her commitment to social justice instead led her to study philosophy (

After completing her BA in Philosophy at Queens College in 1970, Young enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received a PhD in Philosophy in 1974. Young taught philosophy at various universities including Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Miami University before joining the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh to teach Political Theory ( Young held several visiting fellowships at universities around the world, including the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, and the Australian National University. In 2000, she joined the University of Chicago as Professor of Political Science, where she taught for most of her career.

Outside of her academic work, Young was well known for her grassroots activism on social justice issues such as women’s or worker’s rights (see 22.1. Introduction). Young was a dedicated socialist feminist, whose commitment to socialist values went beyond academic interest. She often encouraged her students to remain committed to activism while pursuing their studies ( Iris Marion Young died in Chicago in 2006 after a long struggle with throat cancer ( She was 57 years old.


Young’s political thought ties together feminist theory, continental philosophy, and democratic theory. Her main influences were the feminist philosophers Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray (see Key thinker: Luce Irigaray in Chapter 14 on Friedrich Nietzsche). Young is perhaps best known for her theory of oppression (see 22.2. Oppression and Structural Inequality), which formed the basis for her 1990 book Justice and the Politics of Difference. In her book, Young takes aim at John Rawls’ (see Chapter 32 on John Rawls) distributive theory of justice, arguing that five distinct forms of oppression—exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence—cannot be addressed only through the redistribution of public goods to individuals. For Young, justice is not reducible to purely economic concerns; rather, we must also pay close attention to issues pertaining to the ‘recognition’ of certain marginalized or oppressed groups (see 22.4.3. Relations between representative and represented person). 

Young argues that individuals are ‘socially grounded’, since their position within society is determined by their belonging to a certain social group (see 22.2. Oppression and Structural Inequality). While liberal egalitarians like Rawls focused on individuals, Young’s structural conception of justice showed that inequalities (see Key Concept: Structural Inequality) are not targeted acts of individual discrimination but arise out of social processes that produce group subordination and consequently affect all individual members of that group (see 22.3. Equality, Justice, and Inclusion). Therefore, different forms of oppression are related to specific groups and social identities. Critics like Chantal Mouffe have accused Young of advancing an essentialist theory of group identity but this is not the case. In Inclusion and Democracy (2000), for example, Young draws on Jean-Paul Sartre’s account of seriality (see Key Thinker: Jean-Paul Sartre) to show that while the social and material circumstances of a group can significantly impact a person’s life chances, they do not ascribe a fixed identity to that individual.

For Young, individual agency is constrained by social structures that we have no influence over (see 22.2.1. Social Groups and Structural Inequalities). This idea is at the heart of her reconfigured theory of deliberative democracy. Young criticized the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (see Key Thinker: Jürgen Habermas in Chapter 29 on Immanuel Kant) for advancing a narrow idea of deliberation. Young argues that Habermas’ focus on rationality, reason, and impartiality ignores how important affects, emotions, or situated forms of communication (e.g., storytelling) are for political deliberation in the public sphere (see 22.4.2. Representation, deliberation, and inclusion). By denying the use of emotions in public deliberation, Habermas essentially denies the subjectivity of those who are marked as ‘different’ in the public sphere or who might have historically been excluded from the idea of rationality. According to Young’s politics of difference, however, this can be overcome by challenging unconscious forms of discrimination and promoting the inclusion of marginalized groups in political deliberation—only then can the public sphere be truly democratic (see 22.4. Citizenship and the ‘politics of difference’).

But Young’s model of social justice and democratic deliberation has not been entirely uncontroversial. Seyla Benhabib has questioned how feasible it is to bring together these different people in an inclusive democratic public sphere that acknowledges group difference. Moreover, Nancy Fraser (see Key Thinker: Nancy Fraser) has argued that ‘the recognition of difference’ retreats from political economy in favour of identity and culture, thereby neglecting important questions of class politics. Nonetheless, Young’s idea that difference within and between groups can produce certain forms of individual oppression has been influential in feminist theory, especially among intersectional and decolonial feminists (Crenshaw, 1989; Ahmed, 2006). Young’s political theory provides a framework in which to describe structural injustices not just as individual wrongs but as processes that produce and reproduce inequality. To address such structural oppression, however, we must not only recognize that past injustices have happened (e.g., by offering reparations) but examine how exactly these processes work to marginalize certain groups or individuals today.

Further Reading

Fraser, N. (1995) ‘From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a “Post-Socialist” Age’, New Left Review, (I/212) 68–93.

Ahmed, S. (2006) Queer phenomenology: orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press. 

Benhabib, S. (1996) ‘Toward a Deliberative Model of Democratic Legitimacy’, in Benhabib, S. (ed.) Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. Princeton University Press. 

Crenshaw, K. (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989: 139–168.

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