Recognition, Reification, and Practices of Forgetting: Ethical Implications of Human Resource Management

Recognition, Reification, and Practices of Forgetting: Ethical Implications of Human Resource Management

Gazi Islam

Received: 3 June 2011 / Accepted: 28 July 2012 / Published online: 17 August 2012

� Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Abstract This article examines the ethical framing of

employment in contemporary human resource management

(HRM). Using Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition and

classical critical notions of reification, I contrast recogni-

tion and reifying stances on labor. The recognition

approach embeds work in its emotive and social particu-

larity, positively affirming the basic dignity of social

actors. Reifying views, by contrast, exhibit a forgetfulness

of recognition, removing action from its existential and

social moorings, and imagining workers as bundles of

discrete resources or capacities. After discussing why

reification is a problem, I stress that recognition and reifi-

cation embody different ethical standpoints with regards to

organizational practices. Thus, I argue paradoxically that

many current HRM best practices can be maintained while

cultivating an attitude of recognition. If reification is a type

of forgetting, cultivating a recognition attitude involves

processes of ‘‘remembering’’ to foster work relations that

reinforce employee dignity.

Keywords Human resources � Recognition � Dignity � Frankfurt School � Critical theory � Reification


The rapid growth of Human Resource Management (HRM)

has involved attempts to frame HRM’s role in under-

standing the human consequences of the contemporary

world of work (Heery 2008). Such attempts have generated

discussions around the ethics of HRM (Pinnington et al.

2007), varying from principled and ‘‘purist’’ perspectives

drawn from moral theory and philosophy (Rowan 2000) to

more ‘‘user-friendly’’ approaches that mix ethical-theoret-

ical foundations and formulate managerial guidelines for

practice (Winstanley and Woodall 2000; Heery 2008).

More recent approaches to HRM have begun to emerge

from critical theory, focusing on ideological and exploit-

ative aspects of HRM, and challenging mainstream

approaches to ethics by combining a practice-based

approach with a critical lens (Greenwood 2002).

The growing importance of critical ethical approaches

brings with it an increased focus on ‘‘macro’’ critiques of

HRM (Townley 1993; Islam and Zyphur 2008), calling into

question the ethical grounding of the field in general

(Greenwood 2002). While traditional views frame human

resources as costs to be minimized or resources to be

deployed strategically, critical ethical views highlight the

potentially problematic idea of ‘‘using’’ people (Green-

wood 2002), inherent in such framings. In Simon’s (1951)

seminal work, the employee is defined as one who ‘‘permits

his behavior to be guided by a decision reached by another,

irrespective of his own judgment as to the merits of that

decision’’ (p. 21), a characterization that seems to deprive

humans of basic freedoms of conscience. While such

authors do not discuss this aspect of employment relations

as inherently problematic, some ethics scholars questioned

the ethicality of contemporary workplace relationships

(Nussbaum 2006) as well as HRM (e.g., Pless and Maak

G. Islam (&) Grenoble Ecole de Management, 12 Rue Pierre Semard,

38000 Grenoble, France


G. Islam

Insper Institute for Education and Research, 300 Rua Quatá,

Vila Olimpia, São Paulo, SP 04546-042, Brazil


J Bus Ethics (2012) 111:37–48

DOI 10.1007/s10551-012-1433-0

2004), as reducing human beings to material or financial

resources and thus depriving them of their relational or

other essential aspects.

To be sure, HRM focuses on ‘‘human capital’’ within

organizations (Foss 2008; van Marrewijk and Timmers

2003) to enhance organizational productivity, framing

individuals as means to organizational ends. Selection

processes focus on job-specific individual and team

knowledge, skills, and abilities (grouped together in the

general ‘‘knowledge, skills, and abilities’’ or ‘‘KSAs’’;

Guion 1998), training and development practices focus on

firm-specific competencies and relational habits that are

difficult to copy (van Marrewijk and Timmers 2003), and

psychological contracts in firms tend to be increasingly

transactional, focusing on short-term market exchanges

(Rousseau 1995). That human agency is treated in an

‘‘instrumental’’ fashion by such features of HRM could

have implications for the basic dignity of workers (Sayer

2007). It would be problematic if all instrumentality con-

stituted a breach of dignity; however, because such a strict

ethical criterion might invalidate any goal-directed

behavior. We thus need to explore the conditions under

which treating work instrumentally diminishes human

dignity, and in what ways instrumentality might be con-

sistent with dignity. Ideally, such an examination would

attempt to outline how instrumental action can be best

reconciled with views that recognize the full social worth

of human beings.

This article uses a recognition-theoretic view (Honneth

1995a) to provide a conceptual undergirding for a critical

ethical examination of HRM, employing Honneth’s (2008a)

reformulation of the notion of reification to explore how

reifying views of work can undermine workers’ ability to

grasp the moral weight of their actions. Following Honneth

(2008a), reifying work is not immoral in terms of an external

moral standard, but rather as a misrecognition of those forms

of sociality that make organized work possible in the first

place. As a proponent of the fundamental value of work

within a well-lived life, Honneth provides an ideal basis for a

critical ethics perspective in HRM. Building on earlier dis-

cussions of reification (Lukacs 1971), contemporary HRM

can be critiqued, not for valuing the wrong things, but for

misrepresenting the value bases underlying work systems, a

distinction that will carry practical implications.

The remainder of this article unfolds as follows: after

briefly summarizing a recognition-theoretic view of work,

I overview the notion of reification, discussing how

employees become reified through HRM practices. I then

discuss reification as a problem of recognition, using rec-

ognition theory as a normative compass with which to

critique work practices that reflect a ‘‘forgetfulness of

recognition.’’ Next, I discuss the possibility of a non-

reifying HRM approach, engaging in instrumental action

while avoiding reification. Finally, I respond to limitations

of the recognition-theoretic view, outlining areas for future


Recognition and the Ethics of Work

The recognition-theoretic perspective begins with the idea

that human self-esteem and dignity are constituted inter-

subjectively through participation in forms of social life,

including working life and political and social participation

(Honneth 1995a). Participation, in recognition theory,

always involves an implicit, basic positive or affirmative

social gesture, a standpoint of interpersonal recognition. By

recognition, Honneth (2008a; Honneth and Margalit 2001)

suggests a pre-cognitive affirmation of the social-affective

bond between members of a society. In other words, before

‘‘cognizing’’ the identities, traits and preferences of a

person, we have to ‘‘recognize’’ their status as autonomous

and agentic. Recognition, according to Honneth (2008a)

underlies all forms of sociality, even those that, as we will

see, he terms reifying. The latter, he claims, are pathologies

of misrecognition, and involve ‘‘forgotten’’ or repressed


The notion of intersubjective recognition, key to Hon-

neth’s theory, developed from an elaboration and extension

of Hegel’s early Jena writings (Honneth 1995a, b), which

explored the philosophical roots of Hobbes’ social contract

theory. To Hegel, social relations could not be solely based

on contractual/legal forms of sociability, because the

mutual recognition of legal rights already presupposed a

more primitive form of recognition, namely, the acknowl-

edgement that others are similar to oneself in having needs

and vulnerabilities. The universalization and articulation of

this notion of the ‘‘concrete’’ individual gives rise to an

‘‘institutionalized recognition order’’ (Fraser and Honneth

2003) establishing the idea of a formalized legal person

with rights (Honneth 1995a, b). This general right-bearing

person, further, strives to become an ‘‘I’’ or subject,

standing against the community from which his/her per-

sonhood arose to critically evaluate and seek esteem as a

productive individual (Honneth 1995a, b). In a dialectic

progression between different ‘‘recognition orders,’’ the

affective concrete individual thus becomes a formal legal

entity, then attempts to express his/her individuality and

gain esteem through forms of work. Work therefore rep-

resents an advanced stage of identity consolidation that,

following upon a foundation of universal rights and inter-

subjective care, is a key aspect of an ethical (i.e., well-

lived, flourishing) life.

Without pursuing the Hegelian roots of recognition

theory further, we see that formalized contractual relations

(such as an employment contract) presume a conception of

38 G. Islam


individuals as worthy of concern and acknowledgment. In

turn, these relations lay the foundation for individuals’

attempts to seek esteem and merit from within a commu-

nity of civic relations. Thus, recognition takes the varied

forms of concern, rights, and esteem, with each form

tending toward the next.

For Honneth (2008a), these different forms of recogni-

tion all involve positive affirmations of one’s fellow human

beings. ‘‘Positive,’’ however, does not refer to positive

emotions toward the person or support for their behavior

(Honneth 2008a). It is rather an acknowledgment that

peoples’ agency must be reckoned with as participants in

society, that individuals be seen first and foremost as

beings with subjectivity and a point of view (for a critique,

see Butler 2008). Conversely, failing to acknowledge or

recognize individuals leads to a state of invisibility or

social alienation (Honneth and Margalit 2001). Applied to

employee relations, recognition is thus different from

attitudes like organizational identification, value alignment,

or person-organization fit, and provides for a basis of sol-

idarity while allowing for value conflicts. Rather than

identification, Honneth and Margalit (2001) describe rec-

ognition as a kind of ‘‘motivational readiness’’ to engage

others as moral actors whose states are worthy of articu-

lation, irrespective of differences in values or identities.

Honneth views recognition as basic to social organiza-

tion, as grounding personal autonomy and self-realization.

However, he resists charges of instrumentalism or ‘‘func-

tionalism,’’ arguing that, rather than a cause of healthy

social relations, recognition constitutes social relations per

se. Recognition is not desirable because of its instrumental

outcomes but because it grounds instrumental social rela-

tions themselves (Honneth 2002). This distinction is useful

because, unlike utilitarian views of ethics, it does not frame

ethics in terms of instrumental outcomes. More impor-

tantly, however, it does not preclude instrumental or

functional social behavior (which would make it difficult to

apply to most contemporary organizations), but affirms that

instrumental behavior finds its ultimate ground in the self-

realization of social actors made possible through recog-

nition. This second aspect makes it ideal for studying work

relations, by reconciling instrumentalist, interest-based and

principled justice views (e.g., Greenwood 2002).

In addition, beyond its critical potential, recognition theory

also rescues the work concept from overly cognitive con-

ceptions of social interaction (Moll 2009). For example,

Honneth’s mentor, Habermas (e.g. 1981), locates ethicality in

‘‘communicative rationality,’’ within the processes of inter-

subjective truth-finding, dissociating ethics from instrumental

conceptions of action, which are directed toward functional

aspects of society. Honneth (1995b), departing from this tra-

dition, argues that Habermas had abandoned work as an

ethical mode of being, and that instrumental action should

not be dismissed as irrelevant to the ethical sphere. Yet work,

and instrumental action generally, can also promote habits of

forgetting whereby we deny, repress, or misrecognize the

ethical basis of our work (Honneth 2008a, 1995b). Neither

‘‘unethical’’ in the sense of breaking ethical codes (Wiley

2000) nor ‘‘erroneous’’ in the sense of making category mis-

takes (Honneth 2008a), such misrecognitions involve taking

an inauthentic stance toward work, failing to understand what

it is that one is actually doing while acting. In a similar way

that for Habermas (1981), rational communication presup-

poses that one cares about, or has a stake in, the ability for

people to reach consensus, for Honneth, coordinated social

interaction presupposes that actors care about or have a stake

in mutual acknowledgement.

Despite this presupposition, however, when work

interactions are goal directed, we may neglect this under-

lying basis in interpersonal recognition, treating organiza-

tional goals as if they existed independently of human

intentions and shared projects. This does not change the

social nature of work, but may promote neglect of this

aspect. Because the immediate object of work involves a

product or service, the production of which is the explicit

goal of a work system, the underlying social bases of the

system may remain below consciousness, and risk being

forgotten altogether. Although intersubjective recognition

does not itself constitute an object of work, but rather a

‘‘grammar’’ (Honneth 1995a, b) of work, its underlying

structuration of the work sphere provides a basis for col-

laboration and instrumental labor. Reification is the term

Honneth (2008a) uses to describe the various processes that

promote a misrecognition, forgetting or neglect of this

underlying relation at work, and reification is thus a useful

concept to discuss as a basis for HRM.

Human Resources and the Problem of Reification

While labor discussions have tended to frame issues of

worker well-being in terms of economic welfare (Gill

1999), an ongoing debate within critical theory involves the

extent to which systemic critique should involve primarily

economic questions of material redistribution or symbolic

issues of identity and values (Fraser 1995; Fraser and

Honneth 2003). Honneth and coworker (2003) argues that

the history of labor conflict is marked by struggles to

defend ‘‘ways of life,’’ not simply gain material benefits

(c.f. Thompson 1924/1993), and thus understanding ethical

worker relations must involve a recognition of work as part

of an ethical human striving for a ‘‘good life.’’ Recognition

theory (Honneth 1995a, b) argues that such a good life

involves the striving of actors to achieve work-related

goals that are considered valuable in a community of


Recognition, Reification, and Human Resources 39


Because HRM specializes in the administration of

human action, motivation, and relationships at work, it

must contain an (implicit or explicit) concept of employee

agency. According to Kallinikos (2003), ‘‘The consider-

ation of the models of human agency, underlying the

constitution of the workplace during the past 100 years or

so, seems to be essential to the project of understanding

the key behavioral premises of current economic and

labor developments.’’ (p. 596). The concept of reification

(Lukacs 1971; Honneth 2008a; Berger and Pullberg 1966)

contributes to the understanding of organizational life a

particular vision of the relationship between human agents

and the products of their labor. According to Lukacs

(1971), the meaning people attribute to work depends on

the relations they take with the objects of their labor, as

well as their co-workers; these relationships shape not only

the products of labor but the worker’s ideas of themselves

as well. Lukacs’ (1971) formulation of the concept

involved the modern essentializing of work, such that the

products of contemporary labor practices appear as inde-

pendent of the social processes by which they were con-

structed (Jay 2008). Obscuring the work processes

underlying social products then made such products appear

as fact-like, deterministic constraints on agents rather than

as reflections of their own agency (Whyte 2003).

Applied to the world of employment relations, forms of

sociality thus reified begin to look like duties and obliga-

tions, rather than as freely entered forms of social inter-

action. The facticity of social relations makes social actors

appear as objects, either of duties and obligations, on the

one hand, or as objects of manipulation and profit, on the

other. Such objectification feeds back into the self-concepts

of actors (Whyte 2003), and they begin to see themselves

in fact-like terms, as bearers or owners of traits, exemplars

of categories, and holders of human ‘‘capital’’ such as

KSA’s, rather than as free agents whose self-expression is

realized in and through such traits and categories.

Following this logic, according to Honneth (2008a),

reification has three progressive aspects for the subjects of

commodity exchange. First, actors come to view their

environments as composed of ‘‘objects’’ that serve as

constraints or opportunities for commodity exchange.

Second, they learn to view their fellow human beings as

‘‘objects’’ of economic transaction. Finally, they come to

see themselves as ‘‘objects,’’ defined by what they can offer

to others in terms of commodity exchange and human

capital. Each of these forms of reification is related to the

others in that each decontextualizes its respective objects

from their origins in networks of social recognition,

viewing things, others, or themselves in isolated, disem-

bedded terms (Berger and Pullberg 1966).

How do HRM practices fit into the reification story?

Are there specific practices that are in themselves reifying,

or that force people into thing-like relations with each other?

Honneth suggests that social practices can promote, but do

not determine, reification, a point of view that attempts to

engage in social critique without presenting a deterministic

view of social circumstances. Rather, as emphasized by

practice theorists (e.g., Feldman and Orlikowsky 2011),

HRM practices can promote ways of thinking about work

and simultaneously performatively constitute ways of being

at work, by framing symbolic meanings and social relations.

Following Honneth’s direction, the proper question in this

context would be more like ‘‘how do HRM practices promote

environments in which reification appears as a normal,

business-as-usual form of social existence?’’

While an exhaustive review would be beyond this

essay’s scope, I will present three illustrative areas where

HRM practices might constitute pathways to reification of

employees. Such pathways range from more ‘‘micro’’

processes whereby employees essential features are defined

through stable individual traits, to techniques that attempt

to essentialize employees through metrics and incentives

systems, to more ‘‘macro’’ trends in the workplace that

decontextualize work from its social bases. I discuss each

of these in turn.

‘‘Human Capital’’ and the Reification of Employee


Because reification involves seeing people in ‘‘thing-like’’

terms, treating their aspects as inert properties rather than

as subjective expressions, we may point to organizational

attempts to define people in terms of such properties as

constituting a preliminary pathway to reification. Such

attempts are characteristic of recent treatments of ‘‘human

capital’’ (e.g., Foss 2008), which emphasize the organiza-

tion of employment relations according to allocations and

costs of human capital involved in production tasks. As

Foss describes such views, ‘‘there is nothing particular

about human capital; it is just a capital asset like any other

which to be more or less specialized to specific uses and/or

users’’ (Foss 2008, p. 8). Employees, as the ‘‘owners’’ of

their own human capital, hold bargaining power to the

extent that they hold specific job-related assets or capa-

bilities that are hard to imitate (van Marrewijk and Tim-

mers 2003), and the ability to act opportunistically to the

extent that their contributions are not separable from other

employees or monitorable (Williamson 1985). To this

extent, HRM systems can increase managerial power by,

on the one hand, finding ways to standardize employee

human capital, and on the other hand, increase the sepa-

rability of individual contributions through measurement

and monitoring.

HRM practices contribute to a human capital view of

work by providing the conceptual tools by which to

40 G. Islam


categorize work in terms of discrete, individualized worker

capacities, or properties. Largely under the aegis of

understanding differences in work behavior and produc-

tivity, as well as to develop effective selection systems, the

search for stable, universal individual differences that

relate to workplace performance has been a mainstay of

HRM systems (e.g., McCrae and John 1992). Individual

differences perspectives tend to frame human behavior as a

product of developmental factors resulting from individu-

als’ pre-existing potentials, often genetic in nature (Loehlin

1992), that are subject to change, although more from

intrinsic developmental maturation than from cultural or

social relationships.

Employees thus framed seem to possess capabilities that

display a certain independence from the employee’s own

phenomenological lived experiences, intentions, or choi-

ces, and that can be traded, bargained, or otherwise

instrumentally acted upon. Acquired skills are considered

as job- or firm-specific human capital components that

come with training or on-the-job experience (Foss 2008;

Williamson 1975); this acquired knowledge constitutes a

form of ‘‘asset specificity’’ (Williamson 1975), allowing

employees to behave opportunistically. According to Foss

(2008), the tying of incentives and benefits to job catego-

ries rather than individual negotiations, along with other

work arrangements, reflect attempts to negotiate human

capital across differentially specific and separable work

situations. Training versus selection processes are essen-

tially the outcomes of ‘‘make or buy’’ decisions, where the

asset is human capital tied to the firm to the extent nec-

essary to avoid opportunism. Stone (2002) describes how

this view can lead to struggles over who ‘‘owns’’ worker

knowledge, with not only ideas but also worker knowledge

and experience, treated as a firm-specific asset that can be

claimed from employees by firm owners.

In his essay on reification, Honneth (2008a) explicitly

references psychometric testing of ‘‘talents’’ as promoting

reification, particularly when such capacities are framed

in genetic terms. The generalization of human capital as

KSAs seems to abstract human inputs from their bases in

the lived experiences of actors, and treat them as holders of

bundles of capital inputs. Recognition views suggest that

simply offering employee programs for skill or knowledge

acquisition is not tantamount to recognition (Gutmann

1994), and some see a skill-based focus as exploitative

(Borman 2009). In addition, Honneth (2003) has noted that

an instrumental view of job skills can lead to a lack of

recognition when such skills become disqualified from the

market or outmoded. Thus, the reification of KSA’s pro-

duces the difficult situation of being either used instru-

mentally for one’s valuable skills, or else being seen

obsolete or un-usable, neither of which constitutes a rec-

ognition of an employee’s full humanity.

Measurement, Incentives, and the Reification

of Employee Behavior

While not referring to organizational practices per se, Honneth

(2008a) describes reification as promoted where ‘‘the mere

observation of the other has become so much an end in itself

that any consciousness of an antecedent social relationship

disappears’’ (p 79). The habitual practice of monitoring and

measuring is a fact of contemporary organizational life (Ball

2005), where measured behaviors and attitudes are used to

create objectified categories, which are subsequently tied to

economic outcomes based on the estimated economic value of

these categories. Such practices seem like a recipe for pro-

moting a reified stance toward people. As discussed above, the

parsing of human behavioral tendencies into discrete and

general categories (i.e., traits, skills, abilities) reduces work

capabilities to standardizable functions rather than autono-

mous choices. In addition, the establishment of performance

metrics increases the separability of individuals, allowing

productivity to be individualized and evaluated for specific

workers, neglecting the embeddedness of work practices with

wider networks of social activity. Third, if organizational

incentives are framed as compensation for lost time or effort

rather than recognition of good works, then the goals of

employee action cease to be seen as a form of inclusion in a

socially valuable endeavor, and action is experienced as

alienated from its actor.

Several scholars have directly or indirectly tied incen-

tives practices to the reification phenomenon. Ball (2005),

for example, discusses metrics in terms of the separation of

the body as a social object from its phenomenological

moorings as a site of lived experience. Holgrewe (2001)

claims that incentives, bonuses, and other forms of ‘‘ritu-

alized admiration’’ linked to performance measurement

come to replace and attempt to compensate for a feeling of

being recognized as a member of one organization, and the

sense of belonging this entails. Carlon et al. (2006) argue

that performance statistics can act as ‘‘fetishes,’’ masking

underlying social relations by treating such relations as

facts, a concept closely related to the description of reifi-

cation given above. Their analysis suggests that such

metrics serve as signifiers that tend to break free from their

original referents, taking on a life of their own.

As routinized measurements become dislocated from the

lived human experiences from which they are drawn, rec-

ognition theory suggests they have harmful consequences

for personal dignity. Diverse scholars have noted such

effects; Sayer (2007), for example, points out that moni-

toring, because it frames actors solely as opportunistic

economic actors, negatively affects their dignity. Lamont

(2000) notes that worker dignity often results from the

autonomy and trust an organization can show by not

measuring worker output in economic terms.

Recognition, Reification, and Human Resources 41


Although Honneth’s writings on recognition focus more

on observation than incentive systems, the latter, because of

their close relations to systems of measurement, gives rise to

reifying standpoints. Sayer (2007) claims, for example, that

dignity at work requires a certain temporal distance between

action and reward, which facilitates reward as a recognition of

general good performance rather than a specific transactional

exchange. This falls in line with the self-determination per-

spectives in which rewards seen as coercive diminish workers’

sense of self-determination, but seen as a recognition of value

or good performance, they reinforce self-determination and

intrinsic motivation. According to Honneth (2003), recogni-

tion of workers is possible through a ‘‘principle of achieve-

ment,’’ by which actors are recognized for their successes.

Thus, it is not the incentives themselves that reify employees,

but rather the framing of incentives as compensations of

workers for their work (thus framing work as a loss) instead of

as signals of recognition for their achievement.

The Contemporary Flexibilization of Work

While the within-organizational ‘‘micro’’ practices of HRM

discussed above can promote reification, personnel changes

associated with the changing workforce at the ‘‘macro’’ level

also have implications for reification. Increasingly, scholars

have noted increased workforce fragmentation, resulting

from increases in temporary, contingent, or precarious forms

of work (Kalleberg 2009), and the psychological costs

associated with such changes (Deranty 2008). Such changes

reflect large-scale shifts in the ‘‘psychological contracts’’

defining work relations, from relational contracts based on

workplace inclusion to transactional contracts emphasizing

spot transactions and economistic employee–organization

relations (Rousseau 1995).

Because careers provide a source for narrative biograph-

ical continuity, enabling a coherent identity (Levinson et al.

1978), fragmented employment forms ‘‘challenge the

behavioral and existential unity’’ of employees (Kallinikos

2003, p. 600). By removing the temporal continuity from

work relationships, temporary work arrangements disembed

indviduals’ work lives from their surroundings, making the

individual the only constant, and thus obscuring the diffuse

social connections from which those individuals draw their

manners of thinking and acting. Kallinikos (2003) notes, for

example, that contemporary forms of work promote the

dislocalization of workers from sites of work and stable

social relations. This is not to suggest that the workplace is

the only or central space in which biographical continuity is

achieved—worker identity can also be established through

professional associations, craft guilds, and the like, and

biographical continuity also rests on non-work bases such as

the family or social ties—but it does suggest that the work-

place is a key source for identity construction.

Such dislocations link the flexibilization and precariza-

tion of work to reification. Some argue that the fragmentation

of work life can lead to a sense of drift and social dislocation

among individuals (Deranty 2008; Sennett 2006), promoting

a view of humans as ‘‘depthless’’ (Jameson 1984) and

‘‘modular’’ (Gellner 1996). As some have noted (Bernstein

2006), the precarization of work de-couples skill acquisition

from the social context of work, treating skills as a kind of

‘‘toolkit’’ employees carry from workspace to workspace.

Given the relation of this toolkit view to a reified picture of

human traits, it stands to reason that such a standpoint toward

employees reflects reification.

In addition, precarious forms of work can reduce work-

related solidarity and exacerbate ethnic and group-based

divisions (Gill and Pratt 2008), divisions which are often

reflective of reification (Honneth 2008a). Honneth argues

that stereotyping, for example, is a problem of reification

because it reflects a lack of recognition of the whole per-

son, reducing people to single dimensions and denying

their autonomy to transcend a group-based category. Chr-

istopherson (2008) links gender and ethnic divisions to

precarious work because, under precarious work relations,

workers are forced to rely on their group-related resources,

such as friendship networks, to secure work contracts,

leading to the treatment of such networks as ‘‘capital,’’ or

the instrumentalization of social identities.

As said earlier, the three above areas of analysis are not

meant to be exhaustive, nor do I argue that they invariably give

rise to reification. Rather, similar to other recent approaches in

critical theory, recognition theory focuses more on intersub-

jective meaning than structural causation (Chari 2010),

emphasizing the performative aspect of social practices in

enacting status roles and demonstrating respect, an aspect that

fits well with contemporary organizational practice perspec-

tives (Ibarra-Colado et al. 2006; Feldman and Orlikowski

2001). Rather than a direct cause, then, reification promotes and

embodies habits of thought by which HRM professionals’

attention is diverted from the recognition of employee dignity

and toward viewing employees as sources of individual and

social capital.

At this point, however, one might ask ‘‘Even if reifica-

tion is best thought of as a failure of recognition, and HRM

practices can, in their various ways, promote such reifica-

tion, why should this be a problem?’’ In other words, is

reification morally wrong, or unethical? On what basis does

exposing reification in HRM constitute a critique of HRM?

I now turn to this topic.

Why is Reification a Problem? A Recognition View

To understand how reification constitutes a normative

problem according to recognition theory, we must note the

42 G. Islam


peculiar line that this theory navigates between descriptive

and normative perspectives. According to Honneth (2008a,

p. 52), reification is ‘‘neither an epistemic category mistake

nor…a transgression against moral principles.’’ It is not the former because it does not make an erroneous assertion, but

is a habit or perspective, but neither does it constitute an

instance of ‘‘liability or guilt’’ (p 53), which would make it

a moral transgression. This is perhaps the most difficult

subtlety of Honneth’s critique, and has drawn some criti-

cism (e.g., Lear 2008). It is important, however, because it

reflects the view that recognition is not a moral ideal or

utopic vision, but a basic, pre-cognitive component of all

social relations. In essence, Honneth argues that by living

in society, we have already tacitly agreed to certain

commitments, and thus undercut our own social existence

and that of others when we fail to make good on these tacit


According to this view, which Honneth draws from

diverse authors such as Dewey (1931), Heidegger (1962),

and Cavell (1976), humans relate to each other neither as

bundles of information (epistemic) nor as moral claimants

(normative), but rather through a basis of acknowledge-

ment and empathy. Just as our own feelings are to us

neither simple ‘‘information’’ nor moral demands, but

subjectively felt experiences, our primary relations with

others are empathic experiences, a claim in support of

which Honneth mobilizes evidence from developmental

psychology as well as from philosophy. Misrecognition,

typified by reification, is thus a kind of social pathology by

which we forget the empathic basis of our relations, turning

our attention to instrumental uses of other people.

Applied to HRM, I argued above that contemporary

HRM approaches frame employees as bundles of objective

capacities and ‘‘human capital,’’ to be utilized, developed,

or divested according to an economic logic. If one asks

‘‘why should people not be treated in such a way, given

that people enter into contractual arrangements of their

own free will?,’’ the response would be that acknowledging

employees’ free autonomous will presupposes under-

standing them as more than simply human capital. Thus

posed, such a response criticizes HRM internally, rather

than imposing an arbitrary, ‘‘high philosophic’’ (Green-

wood 2002, p. 265) framework on organizations that

sounds moralistic and could estrange managers. Entering

into a contract with an employee already presupposes the

autonomy and basic dignity of both parties (Honneth

2008a, b, 1997). By subsequently reifiying employees,

HRM ‘‘forgets’’ the implicit terms under which the

employment contract is valid in the first place. The orga-

nization treats the employee as if (Honneth 2008b) they

were mere instruments.

Thus, ‘‘we are left with the realization that reification

has not eliminated the other, non-reified form of praxis but

has merely concealed it from our awareness’’ (Honneth

2008a, p. 31). It is this concealment that leads Honneth

to borrow Horkheimer and Adorno’s (1999) celebrated

phrase, ‘‘All reification is a forgetting.’’

Remembering Recognition

If reification is tantamount to a forgetfulness of the rec-

ognitive bases of human relations, striving for a norma-

tively sound HRM approach is less a question of finding

correct values than of ‘‘remembering’’ or attending to the

values implicit in our social system, i.e., the unquestioned

notions of civility that social actors expect from each other

but are often left unexplicit in contractual terms or day-to-

day work relations. The driving issue for HRM is thus how

to promote employee capacity development without

reducing human beings to bundles of capacities.

A recognition-theoretic approach would avoid external

‘‘solutions’’ that denied the instrumentality of worker

behavior, because worker traits and skills are, after all,

instrumentally valuable, as are incentive and measurement

systems. Neither would solutions attempt to change basic

moral or ethical values of HRM practitioners according to

an external philosophical criterion, because they are taken

to be presupposed in the employment relation. Rather,

solutions would have to promote a kind of ‘‘facing up’’ to

the underlying sociality of employment, what Honneth

describes as a problem of acknowledgement or attention.

This aspect of recognition theory implies both ‘‘good

news’’ and ‘‘bad news’’ for HRM practice. The bad news is

that there is no ‘‘silver bullet’’ to solving normative pathol-

ogies through codes-of-ethics, value alignment, or other kind

of organizational change; change, rather, would be a subtle

shift in ‘‘stance’’ of HRM systems. The good news, contrary

to Lukacs’ (1971) perspective, is that preventing reification

would not require social revolution; because existing rela-

tions presuppose recognition, such relations could be main-

tained along with attempts to raise the self-conscious

awareness of their bases among HRM practitioners. Put

differently, it is not the work arrangements themselves which

reify work, but the fact that they obscure their own origins in

recognition, that promotes processes of forgetting. In prin-

ciple, then, it is possible for a recognition-rich work envi-

ronment to coexist with human resources views.

How would such consciousness-raising or recognizing

of original acknowledgement be promoted? Unfortunately,

to this point recognition theory does not provide much

direction; in its current development, the diagnosis of

social pathologies receives a more thorough treatment than

do proactive ways to overcome such pathologies. However,

given the sources of attentional deficit described above,

some initial directions could be proposed.

Recognition, Reification, and Human Resources 43


For example, Pless and Maak (2004) use recognition

concepts to discuss building cultures of diversity in orga-

nizations. Rather than discussing diversity in legal or per-

formance contexts, promoting diversity should be

considered as a form of solidarity, recognizing differences

because they reflect the richness of a common humanity.

They argue that a diversity culture based on recognition

could, paradoxically, lead to greater instrumental benefits

because it allows the free expression of differences without

fear of such differences being exploited or taken out of the

context of the person’s autonomous life choices. To this

end, they replace the term ‘‘HRM’’ with ‘‘Human Relations

Management,’’ because the latter de-emphasizes the treat-

ment of employees as material or financial resources.

‘‘Human Relations’’ would thus be an alternative to the

‘‘Human Capital’’ approach, as a frame for HRM.

Adding further to recognition theory’s ability to unpack

diversity issues, from this lens we can recognize a partic-

ular internal tension in diversity issues that is informative

for work practices in general. Referring back to the dis-

cussion of the progressive forms of recognition, we see that

the workplace involves both rights-based forms of soli-

darity (which emphasizes formal equality and universal

human dignity) and esteem-based recognition (which

emphasizes particularistic dignity and esteem through

achieving good works that are intersubjectively recognized

as such). In Honneth study (as in Hegel previously), these

forms of identity formation are dialectically related and

mutually reinforcing (Honneth 1995a, b). However,

because they seem to superficially represent opposite

principles (i.e., equality vs. distinction), it might be diffi-

cult to understand how diversity promotion coheres with

solidarity and strong organizational culture. A recognition

perspective helps theorize this apparent difficulty in

diversity studies, and by extension, in the myriad organi-

zational spaces where equality and distinction principles

coexist in tension.

Also related to diversity, while Pless and Maak (2004)

focus on organizational cultures, recognition theory can

further be used to highlight the diverse forms of work that

are left unrecognized in contemporary society (Fraser and

Honneth 2003). Because work constitutes a form of social

recognition, the definition of work involves ideological and

exclusionary aspects whereby entire groups (such as unpaid

household labor), or sets of behaviors (e.g., organizational

citizenship or prosocial behaviors) are left outside of rec-

ognized work relations. Thus, the recognition of forms of

work is specifically tied to distributional outcomes (Fraser

and Honneth 2003). Leveraging this idea critically, HRM

practices like maternity leave, work-life flexibility, or the

promotion of prosocial, extra-role behavior involve eco-

nomic-distributional decisions that promote the recognition

of certain forms of life. Such decisions are not purely

economic but are demonstrative of forms of social respect

and value.

Recognition theory also illuminates important non-

diversity issues, such as the social role of incentives.

Because reification is closely connected with forms of

economic exchange (Lukacs 1971), although not deter-

mined by these forms (Honneth 2008a), incentive systems

play an important symbolic role in acknowledging or

subverting employee autonomy. Deci et al. (1999), for

example, show meta-analytically that reward systems can

be detrimental to intrinsic task motivation when rewards

are expected and contingent. They explain this with the

idea that such reward systems can compromise employee’s

sense of autonomy or self-determination. Unexpected yet

salient rewards, however, do not show such effect. On the

contrary, such rewards often increase intrinsic motivation

by showing that employee contributions are valued and

recognized. Although Deci et al. (1999) do not reference

recognition theory, these results are consistent with one of

its main assumptions, namely, that the social-integrative

function of work confirms workers’ sense of autonomy and

identity, but that economic exchanges can cause this self-

determination to be ‘‘forgotten,’’ as the reward becomes an

end in itself. But if rewards are configured such as to avoid

such forgetting, autonomy can reemerge as part of the work


Other literature more closely aligned with recognition

theory itself acknowledges that the symbolic framing of

incentive systems has important implications beyond the

economic value of incentives. Heinich (2009), for example,

looks at the recognition effects of vocational prizes, such as

professional artistic and scientific awards, which can

symbolize social recognition when their outcomes are seen

as not politically determined and the community of judges

is psychologically important to the candidates. Thus, rather

than the economic value or even the reputational esteem

conferred by a prize, Heinich argues, such prizes place one

within a community of peers as a respected member, giving

stability to members’ professional identities. Similarly,

Sayer (2007) argues that maintaining a temporal distance

between reward and action (a point also discussed by

Heinich) increases worker dignity by removing the per-

ception of reward contingency, another factor that Deci

et al. (1999) find to diminish intrinsic motivation. Finally,

Holgrewe (2001) argues that social admiration through

workplace recognition programs can increase a sense of

social belonging, unless such admiration is ‘‘ritualized’’

(i.e., standardized), in which case it can promote jealousy

and competition.

In all these cases, it is acknowledged that the recognition

possibilities of incentive systems are tied to their ability to

signify social respect, autonomy, and belongingness

beyond economic value. In Honneth’s (2009) terms,

44 G. Islam


incentive systems exhibit a ‘‘social integration’’ function in

addition to an ‘‘economic integration’’ function, and that

once this double function is recognized; it is possible to

maintain an economically integrated HRM system while

recognizing its social-integrative aspects.

Evaluating a Reification Perspective on HRM

A critical ethics perspective on HRM practice, born out of

a concern for work effects on well-being, fits well with

recognition theory. The latter’s focus on the interpersonal

respect, its emphasis on community as a source of dignity,

and its ability to critique the world of work while retaining

work as a central aspect of human worth, make it a useful

theoretical tool. As Honneth (2009) states, despite the

growing instability and precarization of employment rela-

tions, work remains perhaps the central category for social

identity and a meaningful life, a situation only more

pressing because of the growing transnationalism of work

spaces and the integration of women into the work force. In

this scenario, the addition/substitution of work identities

vis à vis traditional geographically bounded or kinship-

based identities, and the extension of work as a crucial

psychological support for larger segments of the popula-

tion, means that the ethics of employee dignity are more

pressing than ever before.

Viewing employee dignity through a reification lens,

and particularly through the recognition-theoretic refor-

mulation of the reification notion, offers several advantages

in this regard. Because of its critical theory roots, the

recognition theory and reification attempt an internal cri-

tique of work practices, trying to reconcile the experience

of lack of dignity at work with expectations constitutive of

the work role that such dignity be provided. The critical

perspective thus does not rely on external visions of the

proper work role, avoiding utopian claims (Burrell 1994)

that both academics and managers might find problematic.

Rather, recognition theory wagers that if managers prop-

erly understood the relational standpoints implicit in their

own practices, they would be led to recognize, and not

reify, employees (Honneth 2009).

Second, the link between critical theory and community-

based practice views allows recognition theory to

engage with practice-based ethical theories. For example,

MacIntyre’s (1981) discussion of practice-based ethics

distinguishes between goods derived because of work

practices (external goods) versus goods that inhere in the

performance of the practices themselves (internal goods).

The latter tend to mark communities of practice, where the

perfection of a practice both justifies and legitimates the

community and confers esteem on its individual members

(Lovell 2007). Thus, a scientist profiting from an invention

would receive an external good, but the internal good that

flows from discovery would both confer esteem on the

scientist and strengthen the scientific community as a

whole. The increasing popularity of practice views in

organizational studies (e.g., Feldman and Orlikowsky

2011) means that theories that help us (a) understand the

symbolic functions of practice, (b) understand the com-

munity embeddedness and reciprocal influence of practices

on communities, and (c) understand how practices influ-

ence the attainment of human flourishing or the ‘‘good life’’

are particularly timely in the current intellectual climate of

business ethics.

Third, while earlier visions of reification (Lukacs 1971)

were more squarely based on a Marxian paradigm, Hon-

neth deliberately distances himself from such perspectives

by allowing for the possibility (indeed the necessity) of

fundamental recognition in economic exchange (Honneth

2008a; Jay 2008). While for Lukacs, overcoming reifica-

tion was a revolutionary, proletarian act, Honneth gener-

alizes the need for recognition and the danger of reification

to social actors more generally. As Jay (2008, p. 9) states it,

‘‘no one has a monopoly of primal recognition.’’ The

advantages of this move are, first, that its acceptance does

not force managers or business scholars to adopt a Marxian

paradigm, but rather to acknowledge the centrality of

interpersonal recognition in the formation of individual

dignity. Second, overcoming reification does not require

overthrowing a market system of exchange, but rather

remaining vigilant as to the cognitive and social biases that

the operation of such a system can promote (Jay 2008).

The possibility of recognition from within the current

economic system, however, has drawn criticism. Jay (2008,

p 10), for example, questions whether ‘‘remembering a past

hurt (or recapturing the trace of positive nurturance)’’ is

enough to remedy social ills and restore dignity, seeing it

as a necessary but insufficient condition for worker well-

being. Chari (2010) critiques Honneth’s characterization of

recognition as an ‘‘irreducible kernel’’ of social relations as

leading to an apolitical position. Similarly, Fraser (1995;

Fraser and Honneth 2003), critiquing recognition perspec-

tives, viewed recognition theory as conservative, because it

does not require radical social transformation. However,

according to Honneth, this aspect makes it a workable way

to humanize society without demanding proletarian revo-

lution (Honneth 2008a).

In the exchange between Honneth and Fraser (2003),

Honneth clarifies that recognition, different than what

Fraser mentions as ‘‘identity politics,’’ does not substitute

material welfare (e.g., worker benefits, increased salaries,

decision-making authority) for merely symbolic identity

recognition. Indeed, some treatments of workplace recog-

nition focus almost entirely on the symbolic aspect of

recognition, for example, Pfeffer’s (1981, p. 37) claim that

Recognition, Reification, and Human Resources 45


symbolic managers ‘‘trade status for substance.’’ Rather,

for Honneth, material aspects of work are important forms

of recognition, and embody recognition when used in the

context of community solidarity. Thus, a salary increase

can signal respect as much as it can be used to ‘‘buy off’’ a

lack of respect, and the task of the recognition scholar is to

examine the subtle performative shifts that can greatly

change the meaning of the material.

Thus, in principle, because reification is due to an

intersubjectively based pathology of meaning, rather than a

social-structural, objectively determined pathology, it is

possible for actors to recognize each other’s dignity within

the current economic constraints. In this way, recognition

theory both levies a critique against current conditions, and

at the same time allows actors to find an ethical space

within these conditions. This makes recognition theory

ideal as a critical ethical project for HRM, allowing it to

remain within traditional employment relations and launch

its critique from this interior space, without rejecting HRM

outright as an unethical institution.

A third advantage of the recognition-theoretic view is that

the abstract and pre-cognitive nature of recognition allows

for a diversity of ethical forms of life, rather than promoting a

specific set of HRM values or codes (Pless and Maak 2004).

Forms of recognition do not have to lead to similar moral

obligations, but rather to plural or even contradictory forms

of moral actions depending on the ‘‘concrete communities’’

within which recognition takes place (Honneth 1997). Thus,

recognition views have the benefit of allowing for plural

ethical standpoints while at the same time supporting a view

of basic human worth (Jay 2008). Indeed, existing recogni-

tion perspectives in the business ethics literature have

focused on workplace diversity (Pless and Maak 2004).

This very possibility for diverse forms of recognition,

however, has drawn criticism. Some view recognition

norms as idealistic (Duttmann 2000), and others have noted

that personal differentiation is as important to identity as

interpersonal acknowledgment (Butler 2008). Butler

(2008) hits at the core of recognition theory, doubting both

that original affective affirmation is plausible, and that a

reified attitude is impersonal. To Butler, reification and

other dehumanizing practices are often infused with dom-

inance urges, requiring recognition of the other in the very

act of social humiliation. Bullying, for example, requires

that the target be aware of, and acknowledge, ill-treatment.

Where interpersonal recognition takes perverse forms,

according to Butler, recognition theory gives no recourse.

Indeed, by analytically separating recognition from

positive emotions, Honneth buys the general applicability

of the theory at the cost of its putative normative force. The

importance of affirming original bonds is questionable if

such affirmation provides no compass for specific social or

organizational changes.

A second limitation similarly involves the variety of

sources of recognition possible at work. Although we have

assumed that the work relationship is primarily constituted

through employment contracts, the role of professional

associations, craft guilds, or other types of work-based

relationships cannot be overlooked (Greenwood et al.

2002). Where there are strong non-employer ties, alternate

identifications might substitute for the employee–employer

relationship, which might become thereby less central for


Two responses may here be given. First, while in many

professions the employment relationship does not consti-

tute the primary basis of worker identity (c.f. Deranty and

Renault 2007), this fact does not refute, but rather limits the

scope of, the effects of employer-based reification. Exclu-

sivity of identity thus acts as a moderator variable for the

impact of workplace recognition, and future research

should examine the dynamics of recognition in other, non-

employer work relationships. Second, even where the

primary identification is outside of the employer, the cen-

trality of employers in (a) providing a space and structure

for work, (b) evaluating, rewarding, and punishing per-

formance related outcomes, and (c) placing the employee

within a status hierarchy defined organizationally means

that employers play a central actor in recognition pro-

cesses. Some evidence exists (Hillard 2005) that organi-

zational practices matter for ties of solidarity even in craft-

type occupations, suggesting that non-organizational

identities interact with, but do not fully compensate for,

lack of organizational recognition. Because the study of

recognition at work is still incipient, however, much work

needs to be done in disentangling the relative influences of

different components of recognition.


In this article, I have outlined an ethical approach to HRM

based on recognition theory, and its unique treatment of

reification at work. While reification was important concept

to earlier descriptions of worker exploitation (Lukacs

1971), these versions were linked to a theoretical legacy of

Marxian thought (e.g., Burris 1988) that equated reification

with economic exchange per se. Recognition theory frees

the concept for more general usage, in a language under-

standable by those who write about and practice HRM,

although as described above, this generalization comes at

the cost of a clear social-transformative paradigm.

Despite this limitation, there is cause for optimism.

There are several areas in which ‘‘remembering’’ can

promote constructive organizational changes, maintaining

market-based employment relationships while re-empha-

sizing recognition. Attending to the social-integrative

46 G. Islam


functions of exchange, labor or otherwise, can maintain

work structures while reaffirming human dignity social

value. By focusing on recognition as a source of this dig-

nity, and reification as a symptom of its absence, future

work on ethics in HRM has a diagnostic tool that combines

the values of individual affirmation and autonomy, social

solidarity, and the universalistic value of respect. The

recognition perspective thus provides a rapprochement

between descriptive psychological and sociological per-

spectives, on the one hand, and normative perspectives, on

the other. The next step would be for research to illustrate

the subtle ways in which recognition is achieved or sub-

verted in specific workplace settings.

Such empirical work can discover and refine our

thinking regarding workplace recognition, and provide the

ground with which to turn recognition into a normative

claim. While claims about worker well-being abound in

academic and practical contexts, while such claims remain

ungrounded in the constitutive norms of social life, they

appear disjointed, arbitrary, and without wide-reaching

social legitimacy (Honneth 2009). Once recognized as

demands for full participation in a society valuing partic-

ipation, such claims gain renewed legitimacy in an era

where the workplace dignity has been made increasingly


Acknowledgments The author would like to acknowledge Janna L. Rose, Charles Kirschbaum, and Patrick O’Sullivan for their

in-depth comments on previous versions of this manuscript.


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