The Problem of Sorting: A Dilemma Between Freedom of Association and Social Justice

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What does justice require of us in the personal realm of intimate association? Many seemingly innocent choices at the heart of private life, such as our tendency to sort ourselves into groups of friends, partners, and neighbors who share our social identities, play a significant role in perpetuating social segregation and its concomitant inequalities. And oftentimes, we rely on structures such as informal social norms, selective rules of club membership, or local land-use policies to protect these associational choices. I call this the problem of sorting. Because these choices are in the private realm, there is significant tension between personal liberty, especially the freedom of association, and the demands of justice. I begin this dissertation by using empirical social science to outline the problem of sorting. Individuals have reasons to take political action in favor of shaping their search environments according to these criteria, and they also have reasons to offer social opportunities to the excluded. The state should take positive steps to create diverse search environments. However, the state ought not interfere in our actual associations, and individuals have no duties to form substantive associations with the excluded. I conclude that this understanding of freedom of association and its concomitant duties reduces the tension that we began with, though it does not eliminate it.






Soon, Valerie-Jean (2021). The Problem of Sorting: A Dilemma Between Freedom of Association and Social Justice. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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