Where Categorizations of Self and Others Meet. Some Remarks on Erik Allardt’s Theory of Struggles for Recognition between Ethnic Groups

The title of my paper is meant to express what recognition is all about from an Allardtian point of view.[1] In his 1979 book on Implications of the Ethnic Revival in Modern, Industrialized Society, the sociologist Erik Allardt understands recognition as the process, in which self-categorizations and categorization delivered by relevant others are reconciled (or at least coincide) (Allardt 1979). The subtitle in turn claims two things: firstly, that Allardt indeed does have a theory about struggles for recognition between ethnic groups – a fact that few if any scholars working on recognition have noted. Secondly, that I will deliver some remarks on this circumstance. Allardt has not presented this theory anywhere in great detail, and I will be able to present here a theory about Allardt’s theory to an even lesser degree.  My paper will therefore have the character of some remarks on what I see as the key points underlying Allardt’s approach to recognition as he has presented it in the afore mentioned book on ethnicity.

In a first step, I present the outlines of the Allardtian conception by highlighting five central aspects to it. I argue that Allardt proposes a dialogical, processual, classificatory and maybe even hermeneutical conception of recognition, which furthermore foresees some of the critique that has been directed against contemporary accounts of recognition. Secondly, I very briefly sketch out his typology of different ethnic conflicts of recognition as well as his analysis of the ethnic conflicts of post-1968 Europe in order to underscore the diagnostic power of the Allardtian recognition-theoretical vocabulary. Finally, I will briefly note how Allardt tries to justify his conception of ethnicity recognition-theoretically and developmentally.


Before I dwell more systematically into his use of the concept of recognition, I wish to point out a couple peculiarities about Allardt’s book. It is namely important to note that Allardt is a sociologist in a classical Nordic sense: He is not mainly a grand social theorist with a fine taste for abstract philosophical disputes, but an empirically oriented social researcher setting out pragmatically to work out some problems of social science. This concerns Allardt’s approach to recognition as well, and it prepares two difficulties for the contemporary philosophical reader:

Firstly, this empirical approach to recognition, although it at a first glance might seem attractive due to the very theoretical nature of the contemporary recognition discourse in philosophy, makes it hard to see from where Allardt derives his conception of recognition. Allardt himself does not give any clue at all about the sources for his use of the concept. In his book, there is not a single reference to any work, in which the concept of recognition would be elaborated systematically. It seems farfetched to assume a direct Hegelian origin here. Rather, one might speculate about Mead, Parsons or Bourdieu as social-theoretical sources, although Allardt’s conception does not really resemble any of those options.

Secondly, with an overly empirical approach there necessarily arises the question about the theoretical and conceptual validity of the empirical work done. The empirical data as well as the analysis in Allardt’s book are restricted to the linguistic, territorial minorities in Western Europe. Nevertheless, Allardt hopes that “the results and the theoretical discussion will… throw some light on the impact of ethnicity generally and on the political mobilization in terms of ethnic characteristics other than language such as race, culture, and perhaps even religion” (Allardt 1979, p. 9). In today’s Western Europe this restriction to linguistic minorities would obviously be highly problematic, since many parties of significant ethnic conflicts do not constitute linguistic groups and many linguistic groups do not regard themselves as ethnic groups. Allardt, himself a Finland Swede, treats the Swedish speaking Finns as an ethnic group, even if, according to Svenska Finlands Folkting (2005), a vast majority of the Finland Swedes do not regard themselves as an ethnic group, but as a cultural and linguistic minority among the Finns. This treatment seems even stranger considering that according to the conception of ethnicity Allardt wishes to defend in his book, it is constitutive for an ethnic group that “some significant part of it desires to be categorized… as a distinct ethnic entity” (Allardt 1979, p. 10).

These two circumstances make it somewhat difficult to reconstruct the Allardtian theory of recognition philosophically. Accordingly my reconstruction will not consist in a close reading of what is manifest in Allardt’s book. Instead, much of what I will be saying in this paper is to be understood as a conceptual explication of what is philosophically implicit in Allardt’s very empirical approach to the study of struggles for recognition. The shady side of such a procedure is, of course, the distance it creates between the interpretation and the text. The advantage, however, is that the outlines of a not yet considered account may appear before our interpreting eyes and enrich our understanding.

Allardt distinguishes first of all between two different kinds of recognitive relations that may be of relevance for the sociology of ethnicity. First, there is what Allardt calls relations of recognition within ethnic groups: Persons are recognized as members of an ethnic group by other members of the same ethnic group. To Allardt this kind of ethnic recognition is relevant for theories of processes of ethnic identity formation. Allardt’s book, however, does not claim to contain any such theory. Therefore Allardt turns his interest to the second kind of recognitive relation relevant for the sociology of ethnicity: The subject matter of a theory of ethnic conflicts is according to Allardt reducible to the study of recognitive relations between ethnic groups. Allardt’s study is concerned with asymmetrical relations between dominant and dominated ethnic groups (paradigmatically between majorities and minorities). This is the dimension in Allardt, which is of utmost interest and will be exposed further in this paper.

In the following I present in five steps the Allardtian conception of recognition by highlighting five important aspects of his use of it:

1. Allardt’s conception of recognition is, first of all, dialogical. It has become a common place in political theory to refer to any political action concerned with difference or identity as struggle for recognition. In these accounts, recognition is often regarded as a “monological” act directed at persons or groups. Recognition is in such theories conceived monologically since the attitudes, values etc. of the recognizee do not have any effect on the recognitive act of the recognizer.

According to Allardt, by contrast, ethnicity becomes politically salient and sociologically relevant in the moment when ethnic self-categorizations and external categorizations conflict (Allardt 1979, p. 32). This is a case of ethnic misrecognition. At this point, it is for us important to note merely the fact that in Allardtian ethnic conflicts both the dominated and the dominant group claim recognition. Allardt seems to conceive relations of recognition in a manner anticipating what Ikäheimo and Laitinen later have called a “two way complex of recognitive attitudes” (Ikäheimo & Laitinen 2007, 38), meaning that a mere recognitive attitude of one person or group towards another does not suffice to constitute a relation of recognition. On the contrary, according to a dialogical conception of recognition, it takes the attitudes of both parties to constitute a relation of recognition. In other words, in order for a recognitive relation to exist between two groups, one group’s recognitive attitude towards the other group must be recognized by this other group as relevant. The basic structure of recognition in Allardt can thus, at this point of argument, be said to be dialogical: Group A recognizes group B as X, whereas group B recognizes group A as an authoritative recognizer of X’s.

This shows that Allardt, albeit lacking any direct reference to Hegel or Hegelian literature on recognition and preceding recognition theorists such as Axel Honneth and Charles Taylor by more than a decade, may be on this point placed in the same Hegelian tradition of theorizing recognition as these.

It is important to note, however, that this dialogical and mutual character of recognition does not necessarily imply that the relation is symmetrical. One might imagine several constellations, in which a dominated group under some constraint might be in need of recognition by a dominant group and recognizes it as its superior, whereas the latter recognizes the subservient group merely as a competent recognizer of its superiority. If such asymmetrical relations are deemed to fail, is another question of dispute. (This kind of recognitive relation is paradigmatically exposed in Hegel’s story about Master and Bondsman in his Phenomenology.) 

To sum it up: According to the dialogical aspect of the Allardtian conception, recognition is a complex of mutual acts and attitudes.

2. A second aspect of Allardt’s approach – namely, its processuality – also separates it from most non-Hegelian, everyday political jargon accounts of a politics of recognition. Allardt does not describe recognition essentially as an act or a condition. Rather, in Allardt’s story recognition seems to be rendered as a series of mutual acts, or even better, as a complex process of mutual acts and attitudes. Recognition is something that happens in time, has a number of phases, has a certain “logic” or “grammar,” constitutes a sort of achievement and induces change in the shared life-world of both parties.

As a preliminary Allardtian definition of recognition at this point we may thus suggest that recognition is a processually conceived complex of mutual acts and attitudes happening under constraint of time.

3. But what kind of process is recognition? To Allardt it is first of all a classificatory process, and that brings us to the third aspect I wish to emphasize. Allardt describes misrecognition in ethnic conflicts as a qualitative mismatch between the self-categorizations of an ethnic group on the one hand and the external categorization of it by a more dominant group on the other. It often seems that Allardt understands recognition as not much more than a process of intersubjective categorization between groups of persons. It is indeed difficult to find Allardt saying explicitly much more about what recognition is than this:

A classifies B as X, whereas B classifies A as an authoritative classifier of X’s.

At this point, I think, it is relevant to ask: What exactly is recognized here? Classifications of groups?

According to Allardt ethnic conflicts begin in general by some hegemonic group claiming acknowledgment of some standards of public life that involve such categorizations of a dominated ethnic group that the group cannot endorse; in contrast to this, the dominated group claims recognition of its right to self-categorization. On the one hand, the object of recognition seems to be rights, standards, categorizations and classifications. On the other, we have the mutual recognition of groups as authoritative categorizers, classifiers and bearers of rights and duties.

It seems, however, that what is to be recognized in Allardt is the ethnic group as an authoritative classifier/categorizer. To recognize an ethnic group as an authoritative classifier/categorizer would then imply some kind of an acknowledgement of the rights, standards, categorizations and classifications it endorses.

Now, in saying this, it also becomes clear that Allardt is committed to an unusually thick conception of recognition. Because the recognizee is constituted by two different species of classifiers/categorizers (self-categorizers and external categorizers), the “two-way complex” is expanded to a “high-way complex,” in which A does not merely recognize B as a X, whereas B recognizes A as an authoritative recognizer X’s – but also vice versa! Recognition in Allardt seems namely to be constituted by the following complex of attitudes, in which A stands for a dominant group and B for a dominated group:

A recognizes B as an authoritative self-categorizer,

whereas B recognizes A as an authoritative categorizer of self-categorizers;

this, however, commits B to recognize A as an authoritative external categorizer,

whereas A recognizes B as an authoritative categorizer of external categorizers.

However, it remains unclear, whether Allardt conceives this complex of attitudes as a series with a fixed sequence, or simply as those relations, which, in whatever way, constitute the necessary conditions of a recognitive complex.

It might also be worth noting, that to Allardt, the majority group does not stand in need of recognition of it as an authoritative self-categorizer, nor does the minority have any anticipation of recognizing it as such.

To summarize this third point, Allardt understands recognition as a processually conceived complex of classifying mutual acts and attitudes happening under constraint of time.

4. Furthermore Allardt appears to comprehend recognition as a hermeneutical process. The way in which he treats ethnic conflicts seem to open for the interpretation that to him struggles for recognition are interpretive struggles, although the concept of an interpretive struggle does not come up in his book (cf. Allardt 1979, p. 31). To Allardt, in struggles for recognition the issue is not directly about recognition or misrecognition of identity as something external to the process of recognition itself. Following this processual, classificatory and hermeneutical account, the struggle for recognition could therefore be understood as an interpretive process, in which the classifications of ethnicity brought about in external and self-categorizations constitute better or worse interpretations of identity (and Allardt sees these categorizations as at least partly constitutive of identities). Recognition in Allardt would, accordingly, be a processually conceived complex of mutual classifying acts and attitudes happening under constraint of time in a social context of a shared, diverse and (at least partly) interpretation-dependent value horizon.

5. Following the lead of this hermeneutical and processual conception of recognition, Allardt does not have to suppose that legitimate recognition is dependent on some external standard of an authentic identity that should be recognized. To recognize an ethnic group would then not (necessarily) involve recognizing some “true” or “authentic” identity. On the contrary, the normatively important point for Allardt’s recognition policy recommendations seems to be to recognize the dominated group’s right to self-categorization and the duty of the majority or the otherwise dominant group to take such self-categorization into account when dealing with issues that affect the group in question. It is thus important to note that the process of recognition, according to this account, does not, to begin with, necessarily involve regarding the self-categorization of the dominated group as true or as even the best possible categorization. By contrast, it is in the process of recognition itself that the standards are sought for and found.

In this manner, Allardt manages to avoid the standard objection to theories of recognition that recognition in identity politics reifies identities. On the contrary, his theory is internally opposed to such stigmatization and conceives it as the mode of misrecognition, whereby groups are imposed such (external) categorizations that the members cannot endorse. This form of reification of identities is in his theory already internally conceived as a form of misrecognition that is to be overcome by open and fallible conceptions, categorizations and interpretations brought about in the dialogically, processually and hermeneutically comprehended complex sequence of recognition.

Nevertheless, this conception of recognition remains open to the normative relevance of authenticity. That is, authenticity is something that may be rendered relevant in the process of recognition, but it is, however, not a self-evident object of recognition.

Finally, we arrive at the standpoint that recognition is a processually conceived complex of mutual acts and attitudes oriented towards matching self- and external categorizations, happening under constraint of time in a social context of a shared and (at least partly) interpretation-dependent value horizon.



As we have seen, Allardt regards ethnic misrecognition as the mismatch between self- and external categorizations and recognition as the process, in which such categorizations are brought to reconciliation. On the basis of this conception of ethnic recognition, Allardt now works out a typology of ethnic conflicts. Following what has been said about recognition so far, two kinds of ethnic conflicts can be distinguished: namely, conflicts, in which a dominant group imposes external categorizations on an inferior group, on the one hand, and conflicts, in which the self-categorizations of an inferior group are rejected by the dominant group, on the other (Allardt 1979, p. 43-52).

a) Conflicts of imposing external categorizations: In this first case, we have a hegemonic (paradigmatically majority) group imposing on an inferior (paradigmatically minority) group a categorization that this group cannot endorse (and that may be implicit in some policy, cultural scheme or whatever). Paradigmatic cases for Allardt here include Nazi policy toward Jews and hegemonic North American cultural schemes in their relation to African Americans). This kind of ethnic domination typically is played out as stigmatization and material exclusion of the inferiors to the advantage of safeguarding the material privileges of the hegemonic group. It is as a rule based on a strong hierarchical ethnic division of labor.

b) Conflicts of rejecting self-categorizations: In this second case, we have a hegemonic (paradigmatically majority) group rejecting the self-categorization of a dominated (paradigmatically minority) group. Here the hegemonic group does not dominate the inferiors by imposing external categorizations, but by not taking its self-categorization into account. Domination takes the form not of material exclusion, but of coerced cultural assimilation. Paradigmatic cases for Allardt here include the Basque-Castilian conflict in Spain and Friulian activism in Northern Italy. This kind of ethnic domination typically is played out as hegemonic monopolization of “neutral” standards of public life. Such domination is possible, even expected, in societies with weaker ethnic division of labor.

In a next step, Allardt turns this distinction into what he calls “a historical pattern of majority-minority relations” (Allardt 1979, p. 43). In a vain that anticipates Taylor’s later distinction between a politics of universalism and a politics of recognition (cf. Taylor 1992), Allardt distinguishes between the politics of discrimination and the politics of recognition. These two political schemes are founded on the two types of ethnic conflicts just mentioned. Whereas ethnic conflicts before the Second World War were based on hegemonic nationalist imposition of external categorizations on minority groups, the ethnic conflicts of Allardt’s coeval post 1968 era follow the grammar of struggles for recognition, in which anti-hegemonic nationalist minority groups claim acknowledgement of their self-categorizations. Furthermore, Allardt takes the politics of discrimination to be based on a more “primitive” kind of majority-minority relation, where the criteria of ethnicity were the categorizations performed by the majority; the politics of recognition, by contrast, constitutes a more “refined” majority-minority relation, in which the categorizations and criteria of ethnicity themselves have become a subject-matter of conflict (Allardt 1979, pp. 43-44). Allardt is convinced that the central problems of a politics of discrimination (material exclusion, strong ethnic division of labor, stigmatization etc.) should be solved, in order for the problems of a politics of recognition to appear on the scene at all (Allardt 1979, p. 45).

By the distinction between a politics of discrimination and a politics of recognition it is not meant that the former would be based on a non-recognitive conflict. On the contrary the politics of discrimination is based on stigmatizing misrecognition of minority groups, and in this respect also it represents a kind of politics of recognition. The point that Allardt seems to make, is rather that there are two different grammars of recognitive conflicts, that these are typical of two different phases in the history of majority-minority relations, and finally that they demand distinct policies.



Politics of discrimination 


Politics of recognition 






Post 1968


Form of conflict 


Conflicts of imposing external categorization


Conflicts of rejecting self-categorization


Form of domination 


Material exclusion


Cultural assimilation


Motivational ground of domination 


Safeguarding material privileges, persecution


Monopolizing standards of public life


Form of resistance 


Fight against discrimination


Fight for recognition


Form of emancipation 


Emancipation from coercive determinacy to indeterminacy


Emancipation from indeterminacy to non-coerced determinacy




Inclusion (basic material needs)


Well-being (needs of belonging, esteem, self-realization)


Cultural division of labor 






Paradigmatic cases 


Civil rights movement of African-Americans


Basque activism




Allardt further argues, that this historical development, or more precisely the transition from a politics of discrimination to a politics of recognition, comes with a transformation of the nature ethnicity itself: On the basis of the recognitive conflict constituting the politics of recognition also the socially shared understanding of what ethnicity is changes. In the transition from conflicts of imposing external categorizations with their politics of discrimination to conflicts of rejecting self-categorizations with their politics of recognition, primordial elements in the socially effective conception of ethnicity give way for what Allardt calls “subjective” elements.

Whereas in societies, in which the conflicts of imposing external categorizations and the politics of discrimination constitute ethnic policy, distinctive cultural patterns and common ancestry are seen as criteria of ethnicity, the “subjective” conception of ethnicity, by contrast, is recognition- and self-categorization-based. The only constitutive criteria for ethnicity in the post 1968 era are, according to Allardt, collective self-categorization and the existence of some formal social organization, by means of which the group might seek external recognition.

Conception of ethnicity 






Criteria of ethnicity 


Distinctive cultural patterns


Common descent or ancestry


Self-categorization & identification


(Formal) Social organization


Dominating categorization 


Coercive external categorization (politics of discrimination)


Collective self-categorization (politics of recognition)


This development is, to Allardt, to be understood as progress and emancipation since the new “subjective” conception of ethnicity allows many more options for cultural action than the earlier one. The self-categorization-based ethnicity is “functional in modern society as it provides a (more flexible) social bond where old ascriptive structures have eroded. Ethnicity is less divise than integrating in many respects” (Allardt 1979, p. 67). It also pacifies ethnic conflict since it “clearly lessens the importance of ascriptive demands and increases the options open to individuals” (Allardt 1979, p. 67).

In this, Allardt also justifies his own conception of ethnicity recognition-theoretically and developmentally: Struggles for recognition between dominant and dominated ethnic groups, ranging from conflicts of imposing external categorization to conflicts of rejecting self-categorization, have brought about a conception of ethnicity that is more reflexive and aware of its own social foundations than the earlier one, which originated in the coercive external categorization practices of a politics of discrimination. The “subjective” conception of ethnicity has a kind of developmental validity, since not endorsing it would mean returning to some kind of a primordial conception of forcing external standards on dominated groups and therefore falling behind the struggles and learning processes separating the post 1968 generations from pre WW II Europe.


Allardt, Erik (1979), Implications of the Ethnic Revival in Modern, Industrialized Society. A Comparative Study of the Linguistic Minorities in Western Europe, Helsinki: Societas Scientarium Fennica.

Svenska Finlands Folkting (2005), “Folktingets undersökning om finlandssvenskarnas identitet – Identitet och framtid”, Helsinki: Folktinget.

Ikäheimo, Heikki & Laitinen, Arto (2007), „Analyzing Recognition. Identification, Acknowledgement, and Recognitive Attitudes towards Persons,” in: van den Brink und Owen (eds), Recognition and Power: Axel Honneth and the Tradition of Critical Social Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press.

Taylor, Charles (1992), “The Politics of Recognition,” in: Amy Gutman (ed.), Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”, Princeton: Princeton University Press.



[1] I am grateful to the participators at the Winter Session of NSU Study Group in Turku and at the philosophical seminar at University of Jyväskylä both in February 2012 as well as to Federica Gregoratto for challenging and illuminating comments and questions, most of which have found no sufficient further elaboration in the paper. I thank professor Peter Kraus for making me aware of the existence of an Allardtian approach to recognition.