What Exactly is “Mutual Recognition”?

The construct of “mutual recognition” is circulated frequently in the interfaith society: nearly every organization I approach as an ethnographic researcher names it as a primary goal. But what is it? 

Inasmuch as “transformation” is a commonly-stated investment of dialogue practitioners, “mutual recognition” can be considered the relational change agent of interfaith engagement, because of its potential as a catalyst and container for “re-cognition”—literally, changing how people think about and relate to each other. In order to understand what impact is effected by interfaith engagement, it is necessary to parse “mutual recognition” and stabilize the construct. It can be evaluated via multiple approaches, two of which I focus upon in my work: 1) as a discursive object (what the idea signifies in the minds of those who pursue it); 2) as a psychoanalytic theoretical construct (what are theoretical descriptions of such an experience); and 3) as an empirically-observable phenomena, the detection of which requires well-defined benchmarks and psycho/socio-metric measures.

In my work I have tried to merge approaches 1) and 2), demonstrating how the ethnographic, narrative data on “mutual recognition” reinforces concepts articulated by psychoanalytic theorists on the mechanics of psychological structures and the experience of really “seeing” another person without distortions of projection or defensiveness. I hope that this fusion of complementary theoretical concepts and field data will help stabilize the concept of mutual recognition, its preceding conditions and its outcomes–and that this discussion will lead to the development of reliable measures for the presence of mutual recognition.

As a theoretical construct, mutual recognition is described by psychoanalytic theorist Jessica Benjamin in her theory of intersubjectivity. She writes, “a relationship of mutual recognition [is] a relation in which each person experiences the other as a ‘like subject,’ another mind who can be ‘felt with,’ yet has a distinct, separate center of feeling and perception.” Intersubjectivity is “the process by which we become able to grasp the other as having a separate yet similar mind.” (2004) Mutual recognition involves seeing the other as a subject with an equivalent center of experience; it is a developmental achievement that entails the only gradually and imperfectly acquired capacity for mutual recognition. Benjamin presupposes that humans have a capacity –though always unevenly manifest—to mutually recognize one another.

To achieve “mutual recognition” requires an increase in the ability to withstand aggression, offense, and the stress of alterity—that is, an enhancement of “differentiation of self” among participants. “Differentiation of self” is a central integrative maturity construct, described by Sandage, Jense, and Jass (2008) as “the ability to balance (a) emotional and cognitive functioning and (b) intimacy and autonomy in relationships.” Interfaith engagement, given the right conditions, can serve as a crucible for the achievement of mutual recognition, and through its sustained repetition can help enhance “differentiation of self” so that people come to differentiate between types of threat and to withstand differences. (See footnote on how different types of interfaith engagement have uneven potentials for promoting mutual recognition.)

The achievement of mutual recognition—a corrective relational experience, or what Daniel Stern calls “a moment of meeting” or a kairos moment (ibid.), is spontaneous, unpredictable, and highly contingent. Its achievement is a form of “alterity therapy.” If achieved, it is temporary and unstable. But the muscle of mature and healthy relationality can strengthen through repeated correctional relational experiences, allowing for mutual re-cognizing, therefore allowing for interfaith engagement to facilitate increased differentiation of self and increased capacity for the experience of mutual recognition.

The actual detection of the achievement of mutual recognition is another methodological challenge that requires a longitudinal study. This phase of my study of mutual recognition has been concentrated on stabilizing the construct and identifying the many dimensions of mutual recognition, by weaving together empirical accounts of the experience with psychoanalytic understandings of its mechanics.

I have observed that practitioners of interfaith dialogue describe mutual recognition in terms roughly equivalent to the psychological processes charted by psychoanalytic theorists. The major difference between how theorist Benjamin defines mutual recognition and how it is conceptualized by people striving to achieve it in the ambit of interfaith dialogue is a matter of scale. Benjamin defines mutual recognition specifically by its capacity to transcend the stress of interpersonal difference and briefly alleviate internalized defense mechanisms that may arise in the face of vexing personal differences. But practitioners of dialogue also define it in terms of establishing commonalities and achieving sentimental connections. In other words, theorists see it as centered on difference whereas practitioners see it as conveying a dance of similarity and difference.

In order to clarify the difference between the theoretical construct of mutual recognition and on-the-ground colloquial understandings, I have developed a questionnaire measure in conversation with both the theory and the narrative data, presenting a number of possible dimensions  of “mutual recognition” and asking respondents to rank them. The measure’s agenda is to establish the “what and where” of mutual recognition: “what is mutual recognition” in the minds of those who pursue it, and where do they feel most likely to experience it. I hope that this measure will lead to a more stable description of this multidimensional construct, and a clearer idea of the conditions required for it.

Given that mutual recognition is a subjective experience, it remains difficult to detect or define beyond the venture to stabilize the multidimensional construct—as with a similar concept, “spirituality.” Whether or not mutual recognition is “real” is a phenomenological, epistemological and psychological question. But I am an anthropologist, and my study relies upon self-reported data on subjective experience. It is possible to consider “mutual recognition” as a discursive object without affirming or denying the existence of the phenomenon itself, and so I consider “mutual recognition” to be an ideal that motivates and shapes dialogue strategies—whether or not it is ever achieved. But given that it is a programmatic goal of any number of prominent and community-level organizations, it has struck me as remarkable that the construct itself is so ill-defined, and that the achievement of the end-goal is so elusive.

In a pragmatic Jamesian sense—“God is real because his effects are real”—the presence of mutual recognition might be confirmed by assessing the consequences of its presence, for example, through narrative accounts of personal transformation through “corrective relational experiences.” As for the project of detecting the presence of transformation, I have discussed elsewhere the methodological complications of empirically demonstrating personal transformation. 

In summary, in order to know whether “transformation” occurs as a result of interfaith engagement, we have to evaluate the relational change agent of interfaith encounter—“mutual recognition”—in two broad categories: 1) as a discursive object (the object of both academic and social construction) and 2) as an achievement. These discussions are of course related but require considerably different approaches, only the first of which is within my purview as an anthropologist.

I conclude in the spirit of Jessica Benjamin, who would probably agree that mutual recognition is more complicated, elusive and perhaps painful than we can accept—but it is still possible. Mutual recognition offers the promise of creative, spontaneous encounter between people who can learn to see each other and love each other with clear(er) eyes. It arises spontaneously and recedes, but leaves an experiential residue. The hope of interfaith workers is that, although people generally see each other “through a glass darkly,” with repeated therapeutic interventions of “mutual recognition,” the glass may become slightly more transparent.



Not all forms of interfaith engagement facilitate mutual recognition equally: “mutual recognition” presently described is chiefly relational and interpersonal, which not all methods of interfaith engagement are. Academic and discursive methodologies of dialogue “that focus exclusively on content to bypass relational processes” (Sandage/Jensen/Jass 2008) may actually serve to protect subjects from achieving the vulnerability involved in mutual recognition and the concomitant practice of withstanding aggressive attack and destructive idealizations. Abstract “meta-dialogues,” public panels, and discursive theorizing about theological or social scientific concepts can alienate participants and “this can result in the ‘ceiling effect’ of spiritual conformity and dependence on other-validation that limits adult differentiation” (ibid.) Dialogue that is overly-idealistic (“we’re all the same”) or motto-driven (“It’s all about love”) —or “that enforce extremes of homogeneity to control the anxiety related to differences” (ibid.)—can obscure critical, constructive regard of irreconcilable differences or even be maladaptive and developmentally limited. Though these forms of dialogue may be meaningful, pleasant, or interesting for participants—and effect transformation on some levels—they do not promote “mutual recognition” as I have described it here.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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