Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Cambridge
Unit of AssessmentPhilosophy
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Political Science
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Philosophy
Summary of the impact
Dr Clare Chambers, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Philosophy, works
on feminist issues in political philosophy. The ideas in her book, Sex,
Culture and Justice: the Limits of Choice (2008) have had a
significant impact on public discourse, via two routes in particular: (i)
through their advocacy by the 2012 equality campaign group UK
Feminista, and subsequent media attention; and (ii) through
Chambers' participation in a public discussion at the Institute for Public
Dr Clare Chambers has been a lecturer in the Faculty of Philosophy since
2006, and was promoted to a Senior Lectureship in 2010.The underpinning
research for this case study was presented in her book, Sex, Culture
and Justice (2008) [3.1] and her article `Feminism'
(published in 2013, but circulated widely before that) [3.2].
Liberal political philosophy puts the concepts of equality and freedom of
choice at the heart of its vision of the just society. In Sex, Culture
and Justice, however, Chambers argues that a just society cannot be
grounded solely on the fact of individual choice. She begins from the
observation that autonomous individuals often choose to do things that
harm themselves or undermine their equality. In particular, women often
choose to participate in practices of sexual inequality-cosmetic surgery,
gendered patterns of work and childcare, makeup, restrictive clothing, or
the sexual subordination required by membership in certain religious
groups. She goes on to argue that this predicament poses a fundamental
challenge to many existing liberal and multicultural theories that
dominate contemporary political philosophy. She argues that a theory of
justice cannot ignore the influence of culture and the role it plays in
shaping choices. If cultures shape choices, it is problematic to use those
choices as the measure of the justice of the culture. Drawing upon
feminist critiques of gender inequality and poststructuralist theories of
social construction, she argues that we should accept some of the
multicultural claims about the importance of culture in shaping our
actions and identities, but that we should reach the opposite normative
conclusion to that of multiculturalists and many liberals. Rather than
using the idea of social construction to justify cultural respect or
protection, we should use it to ground a critical stance toward cultural
norms. The book presents radical proposals for state action to promote
sexual and cultural justice.
One case that is of particular relevance to this case study and that
Chambers discusses at length in her book is cosmetic surgery (for example,
breast implants). Many women feel that their lives would be improved by
such surgery. Chambers argued that these views are ultimately damaging to
women and to their equality, even if the decision to undergo these
operations is taken voluntarily. So a genuinely just society — which aims
at equality — ought to limit voluntary choice.
References to the research
[3.1] Clare Chambers, Sex, Culture and Justice: The Limits of Choice
(Penn State University Press 2008)
[3.2] Clare Chambers, `Feminism' in Michael Freeden, Marc Stears and
Lyman Tower Sargeant (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies
(Oxford University Press 2013)
Details of the impact
Sex, Culture and Justice has had an unusually significant impact
on public discourse, perhaps because, as one reviewer put it, `Plenty of
feminists have tried to write books that have an impact on — in the sense
of altering — mainstream, androcentric, liberal theory. But they have
sometimes failed, perhaps because they are too dependent on jargon
peculiar to gender studies, or because they do not engage enough with
liberal theorists' recent debates and preoccupations. Chambers's book
deftly avoids both of these problems, so there is real potential here for
this book to alter mainstream liberal thinking' Faith Armitage Feminist
Review (2009) 91: 200-203 [5.1].
Two examples in particular illustrate how the book has had an impact on
Adoption of Chamber's work by the UK Feminista
campaign in 2012 and subsequent media appearances
The Feminista campaign argued for a legal ban on the advertising
of certain cosmetic surgery practices. Chambers was an invited signatory
to the campaign's launch [5.2, 5.3] and an excerpt from her work
was chosen to be Feminista's first `thinkpiece' on its website [5.4,
5.5]. This was a result of the fact that one of the Feminista
organisers had read her work some time before: `I read some of your work
as a masters student a few years ago and now coming to run this campaign I
think that you would bring brilliant insight to the discussion with regard
to notions of choice and women's autonomy in the context of cosmetic
surgery as a harmful practice and gender inequalities in the UK' (Policy
and Campaigns Manager, UK Feminista) [5.6].
On the basis of the Feminista piece, Chambers was invited onto
BBC Woman's Hour [5.7]: `Having recently read some extracts from
your book Sex, Culture, and Justice on the UK Feminista
website, you sprung to mind as someone who could give us a really great
insight into how ideas of social norms are bringing more and more women to
have invasive surgery' (Producer, BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour) [5.8].
The context was a debate on cosmetic surgery and the concept of what is
`normal'. Woman's Hour has an audience of 3 million broadcast
listeners, plus listen again and podcast audiences and social media
shares. Dr Chambers's item was also discussed in the phone-in the next
Keynote speech at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)
event on Gender Justice, Society and the State
In December 2011 Chambers was invited to be a Keynote Speaker at the
Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) event on Gender Justice,
Society and the State [5.9, 5.10]. Audience members included
MPs, ministers, members of think tanks, pressure groups and journalists.
About 100 people attended this event.
This invitation was made on the basis of Sex, Culture and Justice.
A visiting fellow at the IPPR, wrote to her as follows: `My IPPR
colleague, Tess Lanning, and I were wondering whether you would be able to
give a 10 minute opening talk on the second of the workshop's panels based
on your research for Sex, Culture, and Justice and other works' [5.11].
Chambers received positive feedback on her contribution to the
discussion. The General Secretary of the Fabian Society (one of the
participants in the IPPR event) wrote that `Clare Chambers's presentation
combined the rigour of academic political theory with a focus on
real-world dilemmas relevant to her audience of political practitioners.
In highlighting the paradox of freely-chosen and enjoyed activities which
are also harmful, Chambers brought a new dimension to the Fabian Society's
on-going thinking on the limits of choice and markets in social democratic
politics. The questions of how to approach choice is critical to the
Society's efforts to promote new thinking within the British left that
moves beyond the conceptual and policy toolkit of new Labour's version of
liberalism. The presentation had immediate practical value in helping the
Fabian Women's Network define its 2012/13 work programme, including a
recent event on the sexualisation of women in popular culture which
received wide coverage in the national media' [5.12].
Chambers's IPPR talk (and her underlying research) was also discussed by
Rahila Gupta, in a post on the Open Democracy blog on 4th
January 2012 [5.13]. Chambers herself discussed these views on a
Philosophy Bites podcast, `Justifying Intervention' [5.14].
Sources to corroborate the impact
[5.1] Review of Sex, Culture and Justice by Faith Armitage Feminist
Review (2009) 91, 200-203.
[5.2] Open letter about cosmetic surgery, to which Chambers was a
[5.3] Email from Person 1 (Policy and Campaigns Manager, UK Feminista)
[5.4] Edited excerpt from Sex, Culture, and Justice published by
UK Feminista as their first `Thinkpiece' on "Cosmetic Surgery, Culture,
and Choice". See http://ukfeminista.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Cosmetic_surgery_culture_and_choice.pdf
[5.5] Email from Person 1 (29-Feb-12).
[5.6] Email from Person 1 (20-Feb-12).
[5.7] BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour (on 31st July 2012)
[5.8] Emails from Person 2 (Producer, BBC) (25-July-12).
[5.9] IPPR event: http://m.ippr.org/events/54/8464/gender-justice-society-and-the-state.
[5.10] IPPR talk cited in Fabiana, the magazine of the Fabian
Society Women's Network, issue 2 p. 7 (Winter 2012). Online version
(Note that Chambers is mistakenly located at the Centre for Gender
Studies, rather than the Faculty of Philosophy)
[5.11] Emails from Person 3 (Professor of Political Theory, University of
[5.12]Email from Person 4 (General Secretary, Fabian Society)
[5.13] Discussion of Chambers on the `open democracy' blog:
[5.14] Philosophy Bites podcast on "Justifying Intervention", interviewed
by Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds (2011). Also in special series
"Multiculturalism Bites", available on http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/multiculturalism-bites?track=5a53fc8505