What Is Social Justice

Aside from the thing that’s been bothering me for months, or endlessly complicated, social justice is great. As a concept. It’s not made it into reality much. That could be because no two people seem to agree what it is, or the books about it are written in a highly inaccessible way. But I’ve been puzzling this one out for quite a while and I think I have a handle on it now. But before I can tell you what it is, I need to tell you what it isn’t; social injustice. It’s problematic that the negative is much more obvious than the positive in this. We can easily see when injustice occurs, but when things are working properly, we don’t tend to notice them in the same way.


(I couldn’t resist a Futurama reference)

I think this is the main reason why social justice is so hard to define. It’s not necessarily something to achieve, but the absence of something.  But to be able to talk and write about it, we have to be able to say what it is in clear and succinct terms. So basically, social justice is ensuring everyone has the same opportunities in life. This can take a few forms, from making sure there is equal access, or support, or giving some people extra help so that they can overcome a disadvantage. Making the societal playing field level is social justice. Some people think that this means taking out the high ground where some of us start. It doesn’t. It’s raising the dips. Social justice doesn’t mean everyone will reach the same end point, it just means you’ve had the opportunity to. It’s making sure everyone’s basic needs are covered.

There’s an important distinction to be made about the difference between need and want. Whilst I have some issues with it, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs illustrates this pretty well. The bottom couple of layers are essential needs. The things we need to stay alive and healthy. No one can argue with these really, everyone should have them. Further up the pyramid are things that you only focus on once these basic needs have been covered. Relationships, self-respect and creativity. These are all more social factors. I think that there could be a separate pyramid for social justice.

At the top of the social justice pyramid is Citizenship. If a society is socially just, all persons will hold true citizenship and the full rights and responsibilities that entails. This means that they can be held truly accountable for not meeting these rights and responsibilities as there is no reason why they couldn’t. Whereas in a socially unjust society, you can’t hold someone fully accountable for not meeting the rights and responsibilities of the society as they haven’t been given the opportunity to be a true citizen. Some form of need has not been met. This doesn’t cover issues of want, for example wanting a better job isn’t a social justice issue, whereas not being able to access the opportunity to apply for better jobs (through lack of education, or problems within the system) is a social justice issue.

One of the main problems with social justice is that it is often discussed in academic or politicised language, which means it often isn’t accessible to all. This in itself could be framed as a social injustice as access to information is being withheld. So I hope by writing this I’ve managed to explain this issue in an accessible manner.


About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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