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Becoming a teacher - Struggling for recognition

Hannu L. T. Heikkinen
Open University, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Email:

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Hamburg, 17-20 September 2003


Mentors of teacher education should be aware of the processes taking place among student teachers as they struggle to gain recognition as fully-fledged teachers. In this paper, I will discuss the struggle for recognition in teacher education by applying Axel Honneth's theory of recognition (Anerkennung) To illustrate the processes of recognition, I will introduce an autobiographical anecdote of the days of my own teaching practice in pre-service teacher education

Recognition, despite being an old philosophical issue, is a fresh view on teachers' professional growth. To recognise is used here in two separate but closely related meanings. Firstly, the word is used to refer to perception and identification; we simply recognise something as something. Secondly, the word is used in the sense of acknowledging and honouring the status of the other; in other words, we recognise something worth something. In the context of teacher education, this means that you need to be recognised as a teacher and as a worthy teacher.

We can see the whole human life as a long struggle to be recognised as somebody and worth something. Recognition could even be called a vital human need. At the basic level, you need the feeling that you are taken care of and accepted as you are. You also need to be recognised as a free and autonomous citizen, which is called the second level of recognition. This kind of recognition means that one is recognised as a mature person with a mind of her own and a right to make legal contracts. In teacher education, this level is articulated in the diploma which gives the graduate a right to work as a recognised teacher in a certain society. The diploma is the most official authorisation to work as a teacher, the ultimate epitome of the second-level recognition of a person as an autonomous professional. There is still one more level of recognition, which is relevant in the context of professional education; you also need to be recognised based on the work that you have done, which shows your abilities and achievements. In teacher education, this level is achieved as the mentors and colleagues recognise your successful achievements at work.

Any professional education can be regarded as a fundamental struggle for recognition. To be recognised as somebody and worth something as a teacher is not an easy challenge. I suggest that teacher educators often focus on the second and third levels of recognition, whereas the primary level is often neglected. Teacher education, however, should practise what it preaches: the primary level of recognition should be taken into account in the everyday practices if and when it is regarded as a fundamental element of teachers' work.

What is recognition?

Lately, there has been a growing interest in the theory of recognition among philosophers. To a large measure, this philosophical discussion has been inspired by Axel Honneth's work, which has been perhaps the most ambitious attempt ever to put Hegel's philosophy of recognition into practice. Known as the successor of Jurgen Habermas as the head of Social Institute of Frankfurt, Honneth made a remarkable contribution to the philosophical discussion by his book "The Struggle of Recognition" (1995; originally published as "Kampf um Anerkennung 1992).

Despite the fact that recognition lies at the core of the educational process, this topic has not been taken up widely by educational scientists. My colleague Rauno Huttunen and I have adapted the theory of recognition to educational practices from a general point of view (Huttunen & Heikkinen 2002). In this paper, I will focus on teacher education, especially on teaching practice. I suggest that the theory of recognition is useful to all teacher educators and helps them to understand what is happening to the young student teachers as they struggle to acquire the status of a professional teacher.

To start with, however, I take a closer look at the concept of recognition. In everyday speech, we may distinguish three separate meanings of the concept, and these three meanings can be found in many languages in slightly different variations. 1. Firstly, the word "recognition" has a meaning of acknowledging, which, depending on the context, means realising, admitting or confessing. "What we acknowledge - that is, realize, admit or confess - is our commitments, obligations or responsibilities, and our flaws, mistakes, sins or guilt in failing to meet these (Ikäheimo 2002b, 142)." In this meaning, we use the word so as to express that someone has made a mistake and admits it. In this paper, this is not the meaning discussed. This is also perhaps the most diffuse meaning in many languages.

There are two meanings of the word "recognition" that are relevant here. Firstly, we can use the word to refer to detection and identification; we simply recognise something as something. Secondly, we use the word to express "acknowledging and honouring the status of the other ", as Avishai Margalit (2001, 128) has put it (according to Ikäheimo 2002, 449). In this sense, we recognise something worth something.

These two meanings are closely interrelated; to recognise something as something is half-way towards recognising something worth something, and vice versa. These two meanings and their interconnectedness constitute the issue that has lately been discussed by philosophers, and this is also my point. This does not, however, require us to delve deeply into Hegel's or any other remarkable philosophers' work here, no matter how inspiring that would be. Instead, my purpose is to illustrate the processes of recognition in the everyday practices of teacher education through an autobiographical narrative and to use the philosophy of recognition as a framework for interpreting my experience.

In the latter sense, to become recognised means that you are to be respected, acknowledged and appreciated by other people. That kind of recognition is often reduced to mere polite behaviour, part of the etiquette of speeches given on special days. Another interpretation of recognition, behaviouristically speaking, is what is called "positive feedback", which is often intentionally used for educational purposes so as to encourage the person towards better achievements. Recognition is, however, something essentially more than mere polite words or manipulation by way of a positive response. Recognition is an essential element in the formation of a person's identity. In Charles Taylor's words, to be recognised is "a vital human need" (Taylor 1992, 26; Anderson 1996, i). Everyone needs to be perceived, to be taken into account and to be appreciated by one's significant others.

Recognitory processes are important elements of social interaction. You do not receive recognition for free, but must struggle for it among other people. Sometimes this struggle is a productive endeavour in a friendly environment, such as one's family, positive publicity, an encouraging workplace or learning community, etc. If recognition is not achieved through positive human interaction, some people may seek it in negative ways. Even behind the most offensive and destructive actions, you might hear a desperate voice saying "Recognise me!", "Love me!", "Respect me as a human being!" The struggle for recognition can even become literally a bloody battle. Honneth (2001) used the terrorist attack of 11th September 2001 as an extreme example of negative struggle for recognition. Thus, the struggle for recognition may take place in any of the social situations ranging between a loving family and violent battle.

If somebody appreciates your work and cares for you, it is natural to take a recognitory attitude in return. In the best case, the reciprocal giving and getting of recognition leads to a sense of solidarity, which dialectically proceeds to a higher qualitative level. We call this a "positive circle of recognition" (Huttunen & Heikkinen 2002). The other way round, a lack of reciprocal recognition may lead to an atmosphere of indifference and disregard. In the worst instance, one may take mostly this negative side of recognition into use. A negative cycle of recognition of this kind often leads to a demoralising atmosphere at the workplace, which often results in exhaustion and burnout. This is why it is very important to understand the logics that create and sustain positive and negative cycles of recognition. As teacher educators, we should be aware or the mechanisms that lead to negative or positive cycles, so as to promote a supportive atmosphere in teacher education and at schools. The ideas of negative and positive circles of recognition are illustrated in figure 1.

Figure 1. Negative and positive circles of recognition (Huttunen & Heikkinen 2002).

One of the fundamental claims in Axel Honneth's theory is that we achieve recognition at three hierarchical levels. According to him, the needs for friendship, care and love constitute the primary level of recognition. At this basic level, you need the feeling that you are taken care of and accepted as you are, "as such". The first level of recognition is fundamental to children's growth, but it is of importance to everyone, regardless of age. At this level, one seeks recognition of one's existence in social interaction. Recognition at this level actually means that one has a right to exist as the kind of person one is. At this level, the individual achieves self-confidence (Selbstvertrauen).

We also need to be recognised as free and autonomous citizens, which is the second level of recognition. An individual needs to be recognised as a mature person who has a mind of her own and a right to make legal contracts, in other words, to be recognised as a legally and morally mature person. At this level, the individual achieves self-respect (Selbstachtung). This level of recognition in teacher education is articulated in the diploma, which gives the graduate a right to work as a recognised teacher in a certain society. The diploma is the most official authorisation to work as a teacher, the ultimate epitome of the second level recognition as an autonomous professional. Teacher education, from that viewpoint, sometimes becomes a struggle for better marks in the diploma. Too often, this view dominates the everyday life of both the students and the teacher trainers. What would be teacher education turned into competition?

You also need to be recognised for the work that you have done, your abilities and achievements. Honneth calls this third level of recognition self-esteem (Selbstschätzung). Self-esteem means that you see your work being acknowledged and recognised. Self-esteem is built up by others respecting your accomplishments. In teacher education, this level is achieved when the mentors and colleagues recognise your successful achievements at work. It is only through self-directed and autonomous work that one can exercise one's freedom of will and autonomy in practice.

This struggle for recognition through one's achievements is always part of the daily work of teachers as well as any other professionals. At its best, sharing recognition reciprocally becomes a positive flow experience. Sometimes, however, it also becomes an exhausting battle, which may even lead to burnout and frustration.

At the third level of recognition, the issue is the extent to which the value community appreciates the individual's contributions; the value community could be the school, the political state or even the European Union. One of the most effective and widely used ways to indicate the third level of recognition is to give public acknowledgements. There are also some other forms of signalling such recognition of achievements, such as pension benefits, a company car, medals, a university auditorium named after you, etc. Through the recognition that you gain from your work, you are seen as "counting for something".

This three-level model of recognition is presented in figure 2. The corresponding forms of disrespect are illustrated, too. Insult against your physical integrity constitutes the first level of disrespect. Its most extreme form is physical abuse. Violation of physical integrity may lead to some permanent psychological damage, which interferes with the development of other practical self-relations. At the second level, the issue is the denial of social integrity, which means that you are not considered a mature personality. You are not treated as a person with freedom of will, as an end of itself. You are not considered as responsible for your actions, but merely a being that causally reacts to some stimuli. At the third level, disrespect means that your work and achievements are not recognised. We may see all of these processes of recognition and disrespect at work at schools and in teacher education.

Dimension of personality

needs and emotions

moral responsibility

traits and abilities

Forms of recognition

primary relationships
love, friendship

legal relations

community of value

Practical relation to self

basic self-confidence



Forms of disrespect

abuse and rape

denial of rights, exclusion

denigration, insult

Threatened component of personality

physical integrity

social integrity

honour dignity

Figure 2. Intersubjective relations of recognition (modified from Honneth 1992, 211 and 1995, 129)

Education as a struggle for recognition

To put it briefly, the teacher's basic task is to recognise. Teaching is connected with all the three levels of recognition mentioned above. Firstly, teachers care for the pupils more or less; secondly, they recognise their students as free and autonomous persons or not; and thirdly, their professional duty is to evaluate the pupil's work on a given dimension. These phenomena are at the core of teacher education as well: teacher educators care for the student teachers more or less, they regard them as adults or not, and they recognise their work as teachers at some level.

Let us start from the interconnectedness of recognition and teachers' work in general. Educational work involves many different processes of recognition. Think about some of your own educators: your parents, grandparents, nannies, teachers or any other "significant others", the people who brought you up in childhood. In the first sense of recognition, these people have remarkably contributed to your identity formation and your personal need to recognise yourself as something and somebody, such as a child of God, a link in the chain of generations, a citizen of the nation-state or something else.

In this sense of recognition, the educator is the one whose task is to help children to build up their identities in interaction with them and society, to ask, together with them, who they really are and what their place and task in this world are, and to give some more or less tentative instructions on how to seek for answers to these endless questions. The recognitory processes, from this point of view, help you to achieve your personal and collective identity. This is how you grasp the understanding of yourself and your social world. In other words, the first meaning of recognition is that you recognise yourself as somebody in the social interaction with your educators.

In the second sense of recognition, your teachers have assessed and evaluated your work and behaviour. In other words, your teachers have recognised you worth something. In this sense, the teacher is a representative of society and the nation-state, a political actor and a member of the community. The teacher is expected to represent the common values that constitute the moral code of the community.

Let us view teacher education from the perspective of recognition more closely. To be recognised as a teacher is not an easy challenge. Teacher education can be regarded as a fundamental struggle for recognition. The main aim of the young student teacher is to achieve recognition as a professional teacher. In other words, you struggle on so as to be recognised as a teacher and as a worthy teacher. There are many alternative ways to become recognised as a worthy teacher, and the struggle for being recognised as such is a long, sometimes endless journey. In the following autobiographical anecdote, I relate some memories of teacher education about twenty years ago. 2.

Life is like a running race. School is the start line.

I knew well that you had to earn good marks so as to enter university and to get a good job. You did your best. The entrance exam into the teacher education programme was essentially the same; you had to make an ultimate effort again. In the test interview, you had to charm the interviewees within fifteen minutes and to make an impression. And teacher education itself, that was the same again. You had to prove you would become a good teacher for this country.

I could have become anything else except a teacher. I could have become something my father and mother would have been more proud of. But I chose teaching for the very reason that I was so tired of achieving and competing. I looked forward to something else than the hard world, some human warmth and taking care of other people - and being cared for.

But I could not escape the world even in teacher education. It turned out to be the same again: being effective, showing up your skills, running and competing. And I almost gave up and thought: this world just happens to work like that. You have to show what you are capable of. You have to compete.

After all, is there a difference between being something and being worth something? To become a teacher is to become a worthy teacher? To become any professional is to prove oneself worth one's job title. The need to be recognised as something and worth something is built up in our everyday life.

Thus, I had to resume my bloody battle again. The hardest battle to become recognised as a teacher was the final teaching practice at the university's teacher training school, where one's mark for teaching skills was to be definitively established. No wonder there was a fierce fight for the best marks. We all knew that the mark for teaching skills would open or close any doors for us in the future. Naturally, everybody tried to get a good mark, and some people used any means available to them. The competition for good marks revealed some very unexpected and unpleasant features in my classmates - and myself.

Before the final practice period, I had built up an illusion about myself being outside any competition. My guiding star was the idea that I was an adult person who would produce a professional piece of work regardless of the other people present: my mentors and classmates. I thought it was not the real me to be evaluated and ranked as a teacher, but only a kind of shell. I told myself the institution called teacher education department was not capable of distinguishing the best teachers. I thought the most relevant judges to say how good or poor teacher I was would be my future pupils and their parents. I told myself I was completely outside competition. But I was wrong. I was not outside, but running all the time, in my own way. Part of my competing was to deny the fact that I was competing.

For me, the final teaching practice period was actually a battle for recognition. It became a really hard battle on two frontiers: I competed both with my classmates and with myself. The most exhausting part of the battle was my inner struggle, as I wanted to prove to myself that I could play fairly and only think about my job with the children. However, I very much envied some of my classmates, whom I considered to be much better teachers than I was. My inner battle was not to give any space to negative thoughts but just to do my own job.

Only afterwards did I realise when the final battle was fought. I was observing one of my colleagues' lessons. Her teaching was brilliant, and the pupils gave her good feedback . I felt myself to be far behind. The feeling of envy clouded my eyes. I found myself trying to find ways to elegantly devalue her performance in the final feedback discussion, where the other student teachers and examiners would collectively evaluate the lesson. I knew I really was capable of speaking nasty words in a perfectly sophisticated and rational way, so as to grind her down.

There was a refined formula for these discourses. I had learnt that the sessions often started with some encouraging comments from the university teachers and mentors. Then the student teachers tried to find some relevant aspects of the lesson. For myself, that was a very important opportunity to make an impression. I had planned to pronounce my final sentence, but something happened in my mind. I actually did not make the critical speech I had planned, but instead I started simply by presenting my recognition to my colleague for her good work.

I had planned to gradually turn to more critical comments, which would finally tear her into pieces. But as I started with my positive words, I realised the she was relieved and happy about what I had said. After that, I could no longer turn myself back into the savage bloodhound I had envisioned, but went on to say that the best possible achievement in the teaching practice was to concentrate on the pupils and to forget the spectators, and that she had really succeeded in that. I expressed my admiration of her way of interacting with the pupils and said that this is the most important thing after all.

To be able to say this was a real relief. My feelings of envy were gone. At that moment, I realised that I gain nothing by trying to overshadow my classmates. Quite the contrary, if I could give my honest recognition to my most prominent competitor, I felt I could finally rise above the competition. It was as if I could take off and fly.

This unexpected experience was a new start for me, and after that, it was easy to concentrate on my own work only and to stop thinking about the others. Another surprise was that I felt that my classmates appreciated me even more than before. Paradoxically, I perhaps won the competition for the marks just because I stopped competing. My mentors and classmates considered me a person with a strong professional self-esteem because I openly and honestly gave my authentic recognition. When we got the diplomas in the graduation ceremony, I could hardly believe my ears and eyes: I was the one to get the highest possible marks for teaching skills.

I was naturally happy about the recognition, despite the fact that I had seriously doubted whether the institution could judge us justly. But I also received more important recognition: some of my classmates said that they were happy about my success. After the graduation ceremony, one of my classmates came to me and said he had thought me to be the only one who would deserve the highest mark for teaching skills, and he was happy that I was the one who got it. For me, that was the best possible recognition. Tears came into my eyes. That was the kind of recognition I needed more than anything else: I was accepted as myself and cared for. We gave each other the ultimate teaching skills mark by telling each other that the future will show our worth as teachers.

The history proved the truth of our understanding in peculiar ways. My career as a teacher lasted for no more than ten year. After that I started as a teacher educator and teacher education researcher. One of my classmates, who got only an average mark for her teaching skills, was chosen the class teacher of the year 2003 after 18 years of service. I had known all these years that she was a good teacher, much better than me. And there are still others, working as teachers every day, who have not achieved such recognition despite the fact that they would have deserved it.

An interesting framework for studying the above narrative is provided by the formal scheme introduced by Heikki Ikäheimo. Following his ideas, we could view the processes from an analytical point of view, which simplifies the phenomena, but also gives us a helpful starting point for elaboration. According to him, "recognition is always a case of A taking B as C on the dimension of D, and B taking A as a relevant judge. (...) we may call A the recognizer, B the recognizee, C the attribute attributed to B in A's attitude or 'taking', and D the dimension of B's personhood in issue. (...) In everyday and theoretical discourses on recognition, three possibilities seem to be available: individual persons, collectives, and institutions." (Ikäheimo 2002, 450 - 451).

Let us examine teacher education in the light of this analytical scheme. I will start my analysis at the third level of recognition illustrated above. At this stage, the question is about recognising your abilities and professional skills as a teacher. From that point of view, the aim of teacher education is to achieve recognition as a professional teacher: you struggle on to be recognised as a worthy teacher. In my autobiographical narrative, the institution called teacher education department of the university (A) finally gave me (B) the highest possible mark (D) for teaching skills despite the fact that I (B) strongly doubted the department's (A) ability to serve as a relevant judge. Together with my classmates, I had considered the collective consisting of our future pupils and their parents to be the most relevant judge (A).

Figure 3. Teacher education institution as a recognizer.

As the story shows, one of my classmates found an alternative judge after her 18 years of service: the class teachers' union. In this case, the recognizer was the union, the recognizee was her, the attribute could be again called being a good teacher, and the dimension was something like doing the teacher's work skilfully and developing her teaching persistently.

Figure 4. Teacher's union as a recognizer.

Maybe some other of our fellow students (B) have found different kinds of recognition (D) on some other fields (A/C). - Actually, one of them became a famous sport commentator in TV, and thus became recognised very highly, but as a very different kind of specialist than a teacher.

But, as Heikki Ikäheimo puts it, "if A esteems B highly, and B understands this but does not accept A's judgment on the matter with any credibility, (...) no recognition takes place. Hence, B has no attribute to some credibility to A's judgment, or take A as relevant judge on the matter in question". The other way round, the fact that I appreciated the recognition I was given by the teacher education department actually means that, if truth be told, I actually regarded it as a more or less relevant judge.

But what would have happened if I had been given an average mark? In all likelihood, I would have kept my original opinion so as to protect my dignity by telling myself and other people that it is impossible for any institution to distinguish good teachers from the rest, and I would have willingly added that it is almost criminal to try to do so to some young people who are at an early phase of achieving their professional identities.

And actually, that is still my claim, despite the fact I was lucky enough to get the highest mark. At the time I re-entered the same department as a teacher educator, there was a fierce discussion going on about leaving out the mark for teaching skills from the diploma. I strongly supported the motion, and the practice of giving marks for teaching skills was actually stopped in the year 1993.

Thereafter, the teacher education department concentrated more on the second level of recognition, as it no longer evaluated teaching skills by giving marks. Nowadays, teaching practice is graded as having been passed or not. The student teachers are given a diploma that gives them a right to work as professional teachers in Finnish society. The diploma is the most official authorisation to work as a teacher, the ultimate epitome of the second-level recognition as an autonomous professional. Since the mark for teaching skills was dropped, the discourse on teaching has been much more focused on this level.

But one more question remains to be asked about what we call the first or the primary level of recognition. What is the role of that in teacher education? In my opinion, this issue should be approached from the point of view of education in general. Teaching is something more than merely teaching content matter and supplying knowledge. Human relationships are of crucial importance in teacher education.

The ultimate aim of an educator is to promote the good of his or her pupils, whatever that might be. This means that teachers try to communicate and to interact with their pupils and to share their lives. In other words, teaching is essentially based on the primary relationships, such as care, love and friendship, which constitute the primary level of education. Based on my experiences as a student teacher and a teacher educator, I claim that the second and third levels of recognition are often emphasised, whereas the primary level is easily neglected. I suggest that teacher education should practise what it preaches: the primary level of recognition should be taken into account more consciously in its everyday practices if it is to be regarded as a fundamental element of teachers' work. The neo-liberal ideas of promoting competition at all levels of education do not fit in well with these ideas.


1. In everyday speech, the three meanings of the word recognition can be found in many languages in slightly different variations. In German, these three meanings can be detected as well, and the word varies interestingly. In the first meaning, to recognise is erkennen ("Seine Sünde erkennen"). The second meaning is the same erkennen („Etwas als etwas erkennen") and the third meaning is anerkennen („Etwas als wert voll anerkennen"). In Finnish, the first meaning is tunnustaa (tunnustaa synnit), the second meaning is slightly different, tunnistaa (tunnistaa jokin joksikin), and the third meaning takes again the same form than the first one, tunnustaa (tunnustaa jokin jonkin arvoiseksi). - Thus, this example reminds us once again of the problems of translation, and the complicated relationship of language and thought.

2. The narrative method I have chosen here deserves some attention. The growing interest in biographical and narrative approaches has been considered so remarkable that it has been described as "a change in knowledge culture", and even "a paradigm change" (Chamberlayne, Bornat, & Wengraf 2000). This work could be called a narrative one, but in a certain sense. Narrative research seems to be a multifaceted creature. It appears as though it has a number of goals and purposes for researchers.

At the general level, the narrative mode of presenting educational knowledge is usually based on what Jerome Bruner (1986 and 1987) has called narrative cognition. For Bruner, the narrative mode of understanding is totally different and even contradictory to what he calls paradigmatic or logico-scientific knowing. In my view, these two ways of knowing can be combined, and even in the same text, and this is my method here as well. My method is not an analysis of empirical data in the traditional meaning but an autobiographical narrative which has been produced by myself mostly for this purpose.

I have found Donald Polkinghorne's (1995, 6-8) way of dividing narrative research as a way of analysing material into two separate categories to be useful. Polkinghorne distinguishes the analysis of narratives from narrative analysis. According to him, these two are categorically completely distinct ways of doing narrative research. The analysis of narratives places emphasis on the categorisation of the narrative into different classes with the help of, for example, case type, metaphors or categories. In narrative analysis the main point of focus is the production of a new narrative on the basis of the narratives of the material. Thus, narrative analysis does not pay attention to the categorisation of material, but, rather, it configures a new narrative on the basis of this material.

In this paper, I have consciously written this story from the perspective of struggle for recognition. In other words, there has been a theory of a philosophy of recognition in my mind, and in my presentation, I show how the theory works in practical life. This method, following the aforementioned Polkinghorne's distinction, could be called a deductive form of narrative analysis, as the concepts used in the narratives are derived from a previous theory. It can be regarded as an opposite of the inductive forms of analysis, such as Grounded theory or others. In my view, both forms of analysis are useful and give us new perspectives to the realm of education (Heikkinen 2002). The "truth" cannot be found by a single method, but through multiple ways of doing research (Heikkinen, Huttunen & Kakkori 2002).


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 15 January 2004