Social Justice Research Paper Starter

Social Justice

This article provides a summary of social justice in education, with an overview of definition and theory, practical applications, and contesting viewpoints. While social justice is an idea with roots in ancient Greek philosophy, as a more formalized area of study within education, it is a much more recent development. Given the field's evolving nature, little theoretical consensus exists; the significant influence of postmodernism has only encouraged fragmented viewpoints and multiplicity of perspective. Nonetheless, the practice of social justice, and particularly its practice in the classroom, is a growing trend. Educators are designing curricula and activities specifically with the aim of eliminating forms of oppression such as racism, classism, and sexism. Such efforts have not been undertaken without controversy; many believe that the classroom isn't the appropriate environment for what are sometimes perceived as political agendas. Such debate taps into larger disagreements about the fundamental purpose of schooling.

Keywords Ableism; Associative Justice; Classism; Distributive Justice; Heterosexism; Oppression; Postmodernism; Racism; Recognitional Justice; Sexism


Social justice has a long history; almost as soon as human societies were formed, philosophers began thinking about how individual and collective needs could be met simultaneously (Griffiths, 1998). They sketched out the defining characteristics of a just society, and developed arguments for just behavior on the part of individuals. Even more recently in modern American education, policymakers have addressed issues of social justice. Gender equity and desegregation, for example, are about distribution of resources; at their core, they are efforts to achieve good for the individuals in a society, and good for the society itself.

Social justice in education, as a more formal and organized area of study, is a relatively recent development. Even those who are at the forefront of the movement concede that it has yet to solidify as a field of study (Merchant & Shoho, 2006). Differences of opinion about what social justice is, and how it can best be achieved, for example, contribute to instability and discontinuity. As Merchant and Shoho (2006) argue, "Theory building involving social justice in education has been scant. Unless a coherent body of scholarly work can produce an empirically validated model for social justice, the likely outcome is fragmentation…" (p. 108).

For many scholars contributing to research in social justice, fragmentation is exactly the point. Postmodern theorists, with their emphasis on plurality and fragmented subjectivity, argue that the "way forward" is to "develop a continuously revisable framework in place of the timeless universalism of current ones" (Griffiths, 1998, p. 175). Similarly, Bogtoch (2002) argues "there can be no fixed or predictable meanings of social justice;" they must be "continuously reinvented and critiqued, again and again" (p. 10).

This emerging field faces external challenges as well. Social justice scholars have often found themselves in the center of the larger academic debate between conservatives and liberals. As Kohl (1999) explains, the tradition of social justice in education is not a neutral one; "there is an agenda manifested in one way or another…" (p. 307). For those anchored on the other end of the political spectrum, the agenda is the problem. David Horowitz, a prominent spokesperson for the conservative right, is dedicated to fighting what he perceives to be the liberal bias in the classroom. He argues, "Becoming a college professor is not a way to change the world. If you want to change the world, you go into politics…you don't go into the classroom" (Salas, 2006, p. 57).

Difference and disagreement may go hand-in-hand with the study and practice of social justice, but surprising unity emerges among social justice scholars with regard to the identification and definition of injustice. Although any one researcher may focus on one or more of the forms of oppression in varying degrees, they generally agree that each merits attention. Forms of oppression include, but are not limited to, racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, sexism, and anti-Semitism (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 1997). Each describes a general form of oppression, but the experience of oppression, as it plays out in our day-to-day lives, scholars argue, may vary from person to person.

Further Insights

Before we turn to a brief discussion of the ways in which social justice educators have attempted to fight some of these injustices in the classroom, we'll return first to issues of theory and definition. Later, we'll revisit the arguments of conservative critics, and discuss some scholars' attempts to find a middle ground.


While the term social justice is a relatively new one as applied to education, the underlying concepts it represents are not. Educators have been discussing equal opportunity and equality for centuries, which begs the question, is the new terminology necessary? According to Griffiths (1998), "the discourses of equality [and educational opportunity] in schools are becoming unhelpful" (p. 175). Because 'equal opportunity' was co-opted by "both the right and left to argue for different versions of…values," she argues, the terminology of the 1960s and 1970s is no longer able to support their agenda (p. 178).

Use of the term 'social justice,' Griffiths (1998) argues, is the way forward, but in order to understand its potential contribution, we must first look back to ancient Greece in 400 BC. Plato and Aristotle were the first to offer a definition as "the good of the community which respects the good of the individuals within it" and to some degree, present-day definitions still reflect this philosophical foundation (Griffiths, 1998, p. 179). Aristotle also suggested that social justice could not be imposed upon a community by its leaders but rather had to be agreed upon by its individual members in order to be effective. Modern day theorists emphasize self-determination too, as when Adams, Bell, and Griffin (1997) write, "we do not believe that domination can be ended through coercive tactics, and agree with Kreisberg (1992) in a 'power with' vs. 'power over' paradigm for enacting social justice goals" (p. 4). More recently, Rawls (1972) has highlighted Aristotle's notion of distributive justice. As summarized by Griffiths (1998), Rawls defines social justice as "a way of assigning rights and duties, and distributing the benefits and burdens of social co-operation" (p. 179). In other words, justice is more than just the following of rules.

While Griffiths (1998) relies heavily on philosophical foundations in defining social justice, she nevertheless suggests that theoretical advancement depends on scholars' willingness to move beyond a "framework of individualism" toward postmodernism. The notion of individual rights and merit, she argues, are difficult to apply to social justice issues in education; not only does the notion of 'individual' imply a rational, choosing adult being (as distinct from a typical school-age child), but merit is difficult to define, and may not be relevant in decisions about allocation of educational resources. Griffiths believes postmodern theories which emphasize plurality and multiplicity of experience and perspective, as opposed to the notion of 'the universal citizen,' offer more promise for social justice theory and practice in the future.

Perhaps heeding Griffith's advice, Gewirtz (2006) draws upon principles of postmodernism in her proposal for a contextualized analysis of social justice in education. She writes that "it is not possible to resolve the question of what counts as justice in education at a purely abstract level, and that what counts as justice can only be properly understood within specific contexts of interpretation and enactment" (Gewirtz, 2006, p. 69). Because justice is multi-dimensional, mediated by competing interests, and dependent on the perspective of the person(s) seeking it, it can never exist in a 'pure' form apart from its practice.

Gewirtz's analysis of social justice is significant not only for its emphasis on context, but also for further 'flushing out' a working definition of social justice. Building upon the work of Iris Young, Gewirtz (2006) partitions social justice into three components - distributive, recognitional, and associative justice. Distributive justice, as previously defined, refers to the distribution of goods and resources. Recognitional justice is defined as respect and recognition for a person's culture and way of life; to experience the absence of it, Young writes, "is to experience how the dominant meanings of a society render the particular perspective of one's own group invisible" (as quoted in Gewirtz, 2006, p. 74). Finally, associative justice is most closely aligned with the concept of democracy; that is, each individual should have the opportunity to participate fully in the decisions that affect his or her life.

Other theories of social justice in education show a similar shift in emphasis from distribution of resources to notions of self-determination and individual agency. Walker (2006) proposes a "capability-based" theory of social justice based on the work of Amartya Sen (1992), arguing that economic growth should not be the key measure of the quality of a person's life. According to Sen (1992), "in the capability-based assessment of justice, individual claims are not to be assessed in terms of the resources or primary goods the persons respectively hold, but by the freedoms they actually enjoy to choose the lives that they have reason to value" (as quoted in Walker, 2006, p. 164). Therefore, this approach draws heavily on the concept of freedom, and in particular, the freedom to choose what one wants to be and do.

Recent theories of social justice are shifting away from distributive definitions of justice in a second way as well. Distribution of resources and goods implies an end state; while scholars acknowledge that social justice is indeed a goal, many are emphasizing the need to think of it as a process as well (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 1997). According to Enslin (2006), for example, "justice is relational rather than static, and is concerned with action and process" (p. 58). And in Griffiths' (2003) book titled "Action for Social Justice in Education" she too honors social justice as a process and defines it as a verb (Elijah, 2003). Griffiths' (2003) thesis is twofold: she attempts to understand how we can honor diversity and difference within a single humanity, and how we can take action, through education, to create a "more humane, just world which will benefit individuals and society" (Elijah, 2003, p. 54).

Social Justice Practice in the Classroom

Griffiths' (2003) definition provides a logical segue into a brief discussion of the ways in which social justice is practiced...

(The entire section is 4835 words.)