Matthew Cohen, MSW

Matthew Cohen, MSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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What Is Social Justice? Part 1

On the surface, answering “What is social justice?” might seem academic. The term is thrown around enough; it is used with conviction, and hardly anyone steps back to wonder what is meant by the question. Social workers are taught the methodology that gives rise to solid research; conceptualizing variables is a main component. The concept and definition of  Social Justice should not be immune to this sort of scrutiny.

The main problem in defining a word is that there is a tendency to always look for a set standard by which it can be evaluated. In this way, safety from the changing world can be established and a comfort level when using the concept in everyday life can be reached. Defining social justice presents with the same sort of dilemma because it is not clear that every culture, nor every person, would agree on the definition. For example, an American conservative might define social justice in economic terms, perhaps using purchasing power as the basic standard of evaluation. An American liberal might rely on ideas derived from beliefs about the fundamental nature of human rights. The perspective will determine if social justice is conceptualized as the expression of equity, equality, or some mixture of the two. Cultures that emphasize family or groups, over the individual, such as the Japanese or indigenous peoples of America, might conceptualize Social Justice from the top down. Meaning, justice is not derived from an individual expression or fulfillment, but by the survival and maintenance of the group and its traditions.

So, what is Social Justice? Part of the description for SJS’s homepage tackles this difficult subject.

SJS believes that social justice is defined as a dynamic exploration of equity and equality within a society.

The key phrase in the above quote is “dynamic exploration”. Recognizing that social justice changes with the society and culture, as well as with events and needs, must be an integral part of any serious definition.  Implicit in this concept is the belief that there must be an audit of the concept at regular intervals. Measuring performance is another important aspect of social work research; likewise measuring the justness of a society must require that the concept itself is constantly up for review.

Equity and equality must be conceptualized based on the standards of the culture as well. It is not as simple as “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. This is evident by the examination of the differences in position that conservatives and liberals take,  as outlined above.

Instead of asking “What is Social Justice”, perhaps the question should be “What is Social Justice to us?”. It might very well be that the barrier to finding the balance of justice in a society will be determined by the extent to which its people set out to answer what it means to them. If no consensus can be reached, i.e. Congress, than the necessary foundation upon which justice is conceptualized, and actualized, is shaky at best. The enemy of social justice is precisely believing that the definition of it can be fixed in some way. Before we answer the question, perhaps we need to figure out whether it can actually be determined. As such, I leave you with yet another question; can social justice be conceptualized and operationalized in a manner that is helpful in creating a just society? Furthermore  has there ever been such a thing as a just society?


Each SJS author has been asked to write a piece on Social Justice, as such this will be Part One of a continuing series on the exploration of the its meaning. I humbly submit my thoughts to you our valued readers and members. Please feel free to submit your own thoughts via comments or the submit button in the top navigation bar.

** Written By Matthew Cohen – SJS Staff Writer **

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