Integrating Deliberative Justice Theory into Social Work Policy Pedagogy

By Morrow, Helen | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Integrating Deliberative Justice Theory into Social Work Policy Pedagogy


Morrow, Helen, Journal of Social Work Education


SOCIAL WORK EDUCATORS are charged with teaching students to develop and critique social welfare policies that impact the lives of their clients and client populations. It is assumed that most beginning level social work policy courses provide: an overview of the nature of social welfare, including its history and recent events; a model used for basic policy analysis, touching on concepts, values, and their relationships; and examples of current social welfare policies, such as healthcare, poverty programs, etc. (e.g., Gilbert & Terrell, 2010; Jimenez, 2010). The above assumptions are based on a brief review of typical policy textbooks; yet it is likely there are other approaches. One might expect to see the application of a policy model and a demonstration of how policy alternatives are evaluated (e.g., Gilbert and Terrell, 2010; Kraft and Furlong, 2007). The impact of the economic system is considered by some (e.g., Jimenez, 2010), whereas others focus more on political influence (e.g., Kraft & Furlong, 2007). In general, the models use the values of distributive justice to weigh the relative worth of any given social welfare policy. In other words, the questions raised in policy analysis normally have to do with the fair distribution of resources, especially money, at various levels (i.e., federal, state, and local).

This focus on distributive justice fits well with the social work profession's "quest for social and economic justice," as identified by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE, 2008, p. 1). Segal (2010) says this "paradigm calls for us to identify what social benefits should be provided to all citizens and then create ways to ensure a fair allocation of those benefits" (p. 68; see also Rawls, 1971).

Deliberative Justice

But what of deliberative justice? This second paradigm stands beside distributive justice, yet emphasizes that the voices of affected stakeholders must be heard and respected in the policy decision-making process (Aday, Quill, & Reyes-Gibby, 2001). Deliberative justice also stresses the importance of debate among stakeholders to allow for an active interchange of ideas and values prior to decision making. A body of literature on deliberative democracy and civil society is available for study, much of it expounding or critiquing the work of Jurgen Habermas, a sociologist whose work has not often been reported in U.S. social work literature. His work, which is not without controversy, has recently been studied in relationship to the practice and ethics of social work primarily in Australia and the United Kingdom (Garrett, 2009; Gray & Lovat, 2008; Houston, 2009; Lovat & Gray, 2008; Lovelock & Powell, 2004). Likewise, his emphasis on inclusion is referenced in the literature of healthcare policy making, written primarily about policies in universal healthcare countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Africa (Scambler, 2001; Syrett, 2007).

Without diminishing the significance of teaching the concepts of distributive justice in social welfare policy, this article seeks to emphasize the importance of also teaching the concepts of deliberative justice. The sentiments of deliberative justice are similar to those of inclusion in social work theory and in the core of social work beliefs. Social work practitioners admit to the "strengths and resiliency of all human beings," including those strengths based in diversity, and practitioners are encouraged to build on these strengths (CSWE, 2008, B2.2).

One of the key skills in this strengths-building process is engagement with the client population. Engagement involves working with clients to find the ways that they can work together to achieve their collectively desired outcomes. Skills needed to accomplish engagement include the ability to identify "mutually agreed-on intervention goals and objectives"; the ability to "help clients resolve problems"; and the ability to "negotiate, mediate, and advocate for clients" (CSWE, 2008, 2.

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