Role models and the politics of recognition.

Author:Addis, Adeno

A crucial element of politics ... is the struggle to define social reality and to interpret people's inchoate aspirations and needs. Particular words and expressions often become focal in such struggles, functioning as keywords, sites at which the meaning of social existence is negotiated and contested. Keywords typically carry unspoken assumptions and connotations that can powerfully influence the discourses they permeate-in part by constituting a body of doxa, or taken-for-granted commonsense belief that escapes critical scrutiny. - Fraser and Gordon(1)


In the United States the concept of the "role model" has emerged with increasing frequency in both the social and legal domains. Indeed, talk about role models has become an important aspect of social, political, and legal discourse. People argue about whether professional women have enough role models,(2) whether the underrepresentation of minorities(3) in various occupations and positions of social and political influence (and the educational crisis in the inner cities) can be explained in terms of the lack of role models,(4) whether one can be a role model to those who belong to a different racial group or gender,(5) whether membership in a particular racial minority group in and of itself makes an individual an appropriate role model for members of that group,(6) and even whether characters in television programs can serve as appropriate (positive) role models for their audience.(7) "Role model" has therefore emerged as a key term in the discursive landscape through which individuals debate and contest the nature and meaning of social and political life in this country.

Quite often the discourse (and controversy) concerning role models, popular and scholarly, does not revolve around empirical claims.(8) Rather, the term is invoked as a means of making and contesting normative claims about the desirability of certain activities and as a rhetorical device to defend desired objectives and to attack unacceptable commitments.(9) Its attractiveness as a rhetorical device has resulted, to some degree, from its elasticity and indeterminacy, characteristics that allow people to invoke the term to assert varying normative positions under various circumstances without actually making an extended argument to defend those positions.(10)

In some contexts, the term means "mentor," and in other circumstances, the expression means "hero."(11) Sometimes the power of the role model is restricted to a specific segment of the model's behavior, and thus is role-specific. For example, a professional can serve as a role model to those who aspire to enter that profession. Thus, a good medical doctor can be a positive role model to medical students, and a famous lawyer can inspire law students,(12) but only in relation to the professional lives of the particular role model followers. Sometimes, however, the term refers to a comprehensively influential individual. In these situations, the role aspirant's 'emulation may ... extend[] to a wider array of behaviors and values of these persons."(13) A parent or a school teacher may serve as a role model in this comprehensive sense.(14) Here the reference point transcends a specific role to include the sum total of roles that constitute the individual. When people talk about parents as role models, they do not mean that children will just imitate their parents in relation to specific and defined activities or professions, but rather that parents' entire set of commitments, actions, and habits will shape the attitudes and aspirations of their children.

The concept of role model has not always been part of the vocabulary of discourse in this country. Indeed, it only emerged as such in the 1950s, mainly in the social sciences and particularly in psychological and sociological studies. It was later adopted in popular usage and has now become part of legal discourse.(15) This Article will explore the genealogy(16) of the concept of role model and the circumstances that gave rise to its emergence.(17) In this regard, it might be useful to ask whether the historical fact of racial divisions in this country has contributed to the popularity of discourse on the concept of role model, at least in the popular media and in ordinary daily conversations. As the historian E.J. Hobsbawm has observed, "[c]oncepts, of course, are not part of free-floating philosophical discourse, but socially, historically and locally rooted, and must be explained in terms of these realities."(18) The immense popularity of the concept of role model in the United States and the frequency with which it is invoked in daily conversations and in political discourse(19) suggest that its popularity as a rhetorical device derives largely from past and present local conditions.

My aim is also clarificatory, however, because the concept of role model is more often invoked than examined. When individuals invoke the concept of role model, they refer to a diverse set of political virtues (positive role models) and vices (negative role models). An inquiry into the various meanings that the concept of role model has carried might well lead us to be skeptical about some of the ways in which the term is currently used in both the legal and social domains. Indeed, this Article claims, among other things, that people often use the term as a convenient substitute for dealing with real problems. They use the term to shift attention away from institutional and material issues to questions of mere cultural signification. In doing so, they emphasize individuals and individual acts to the exclusion of institutions and collective acts and constraints. To use C. Wright Mills's words in another context, commentators use the concept of role model in its "hypnotic though frivolous shape, [to] divert attention from problems of power and authority and social reality in general."(20)

This Article does not, however, aim to reject totally the concept of role model. Indeed, it is the desire to salvage a defensible and coherent meaning for the term, in the face of the rhetorical threat that attempts to endow it with everything and thus to rob it of any meaning at all by trivializing it, that has led me to reflect on the concept. In this regard, my concern about the manipulation of the concept of role model parallels the concern David Couzens Hoy expresses in relation to the term "ideology": "it is used in so many different senses that it has become meaningless."(21)

I sympathize with the concern of some minority legal scholars who argue that the use of the concept of role model has negative consequences,(22) such as turning the issue of material inequalities into a mere problem of psychology and perception, recharacterizing institutional and structural constraints as individual failings on the part of the supposed role model and lack of ambition on the part of the supposed role model follower, and creating the possibility that the concept will be invoked to affirm and sustain racial tokenism.(23) Despite these negative realities and possibilities, however, we should not reject the concept of role model in its entirety. Rather, we must investigate the "taken-for-granted" meanings of the term, reveal how the ideology of disempowerment characterizes those meanings, and rearticulate the concept as one of resistance, empowerment, and transformation.

Part I explores the genealogy of the term "role model." It examines the various ways and circumstances in which individuals have understood and invoked the term over the last four decades. As Part I illustrates, two distinct meanings emerged early on: the "role imitation" view and the "comprehensive" view. Both of these approaches enjoy logical and descriptive support. Part I also identifies a recent shift in the use of the concept of role model away from the role imitation and comprehensive views. More and more, the concept refers to race and gender specific activities or interests. I suggest reasons why that shift has occurred, why it might be peculiarly American, and what purposes it might serve.

Part II engages in a critical evaluation of the two primary historical conceptions of role model and argues that the recent departure from them toward a usage of the concept of role model that focuses on race and gender is sometimes logically unsound, descriptively incoherent, and normatively suspect. I also argue, however, that this new approach may sometimes be useful and make sense in terms of what the noted political theorist, Charles Taylor, has referred to as "the politics of recognition."(24) Part II.C develops the notion of the politics of recognition, drawing from the works of George Herbert Mead, Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Axel Honneth and then explores the relationship between the politics of recognition and the concept of role model.

Part III examines how each conception of role model - the role imitation view, the comprehensive view, and the politics of recognition view - has fared in the jurisprudence of the courts. I conclude that courts express inconsistent views regarding the usefulness of the concept of role model in the context of adjudication. Likewise, the courts that have accepted the term into their jurisprudence do not agree on what meaning to attach to it. I also draw two general conclusions from the jurisprudential "career" of the concept of role model. First, courts invoke the rhetoric of role model to defend normative positions without making extended arguments to justify those positions. Second, the courts embrace the term as jurisprudentially meaningful and precise when the issue involves the exclusion of marginal groups from political and social life. When minority claimants invoke this rhetoric to support normative positions that do not correspond with the horizons of significance of members of the court,(25) however, courts debunk the rhetoric as amorphous and jurisprudentially suspect (in the same...

To continue reading