Social Work Scholars' Representation of Rawls: A Critique

By Banerjee, Mahasweta M. | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview
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Social Work Scholars' Representation of Rawls: A Critique


Banerjee, Mahasweta M., Journal of Social Work Education


RAWLS (1971) IS THE MOST cited social justice theorist in social work, but he is not always accurately represented in the social work literature. To illuminate this assertion, this article reviews social work scholars' views about social justice, presents social work scholars' representation of Rawls, and highlights aspects of Rawls' (1971, 1999, 2001) views on social justice. A critical review suggests that there have been and continue to be more differences than similarities between Rawls and social work scholars who cite Rawls to discuss social justice. Consequently, it recommends revising the social work knowledge base related to social justice and Rawls so that his ideas are more authentically represented in future social work scholarship and education. This article paves the way for social work scholars to move in that direction.

Rawls' treatise on social justice, A Theory of Justice, was first published in 1971. Social work scholar Lewis (1973, p. 113) reviewed the book and wrote, "It hardly needs another enthusiastic review to recommend it to potential readers. I suspect that from now on no serious discussion of justice ... will be complete without some reference to this seminal work." Lewis was right in his observation. Since then, Rawls has been extensively cited in social work. It is not surprising that social work scholars have cited Rawls and written extensively about social justice, for at least two reasons. First, Rawls is regarded as the most important social justice theorist of the 20th century (Nussbaum, 2001; Sen, 1999). Second, social justice is a primary mission and a driving force for social workers (Brieland, 1990; Reamer, 1998; Reisch, 2002; Wakefield, 1988a). The NASW's Code of Ethics requires social workers to promote social justice, and the Council on Social Work Education mandates the infusion of social and economic justice content into the social work curriculum (Council on Social Work Education [CSWE], 2061; National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2005).

However, Galambos (2008, p. 1) noted that although social justice is one of six core values of the social work profession, "The profession's attempts to define social justice now and in the past demonstrate an inconsistency and lack of clarity." Similarly, Reisch (2002) pointed out that it is difficult for social work educators to teach about social justice, and for social work professionals to act purposefully towards enhancing social justice, when the profession of social work is unclear about its meaning. Instead of clarifying the meaning of social justice, this article identifies another major problem that confounds our social justice literature. It relates to social work scholars' reliance on Rawls (1971) to discuss and promote social justice in a manner which is not always consistent with his entire social justice framework.

An internet search of Social Work Abstracts from 1978-2009 showed that the term social justice appeared 336 times in abstracts and 93 times in titles, while Rawls was mentioned nine times in abstracts (searched June 2, 2009).

A review of all these abstracts showed that a vast majority of them mainly used the term social justice to indicate how certain ideas or interventions could promote it, and only a few abstracts discussed the concept of social justice in more depth. A detailed review of this latter group of articles led to some interesting findings. First, Rawls (1971) was cited in 21 separate publications, and these articles referenced other articles and books in which Rawls was mentioned. Second, it appeared that over time some social work scholars were deemed as authorities on social justice or on Rawls because later writers routinely cite them. For example, Morris (2002, p. 365) stated, "Today, John Rawls' (1971) A Theory of Justice is typically cited as the social justice theoretical framework embraced by social work (Figueira-McDonough, 1993; Swenson, 1998; Wakefield, 1988).

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