Academic journal article Social Work

Social Justice and People of Faith: A Transnational Perspective

Academic journal article Social Work

Social Justice and People of Faith: A Transnational Perspective

Article excerpt

Social justice is a central social work value (NASW, 2000). Although no single, agreed-on conceptualization of social justice exists (Sterba, 1999), the construct has been associated with a wide variety of populations and perspectives. For instance, the intersection between social justice and race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, and class has been widely discussed (Thompson, 2002). More recently, the literature has featured examinations of social justice and international adoptions (Hollingsworth, 2003), probation services (Smith & Vanstone, 2002), Tibetan immigrants (Nassar, 2002), mental health (Sheppard, 2002), late-fife care (Johnson, 2002), marginalized South Asian children (O'Kane, 2002), and education for undocumented families (Belanger, 2001).

Largely absent from the social work literature on social justice, however, has been any similar discussion of religion. An examination of Social Work Abstracts using the keywords "religion" or "spirituality" and "social justice" revealed no articles designed to equip social workers to challenge social injustice in the area of religion, a finding consistent with studies indicating that most social workers have received little, if any, content on religion and spirituality during their graduate educations (Canda & Furman, 1999; Murdock, 2004).

The paucity of literature represents a significant oversight given the growing professional interest in religion and spirituality (Canda & Furman, 1999; Cnaan, Wineburg, & Boddie, 1999; Derezotes, 2006; Hodge, 2005). The extant research has suggested that most social workers are interested in addressing religion in their practices, underscoring the need for material on social justice (Canda & Furman; Derezotes, 1995; Murdock, 2004; Sheridan, 2004). Furthermore, and perhaps most important, social workers have an ethical duty to address religiously based social injustice (NASW, 2000, Standards 1.05a, b, c; 2.01b; 4.02; and 6.04d).

Therefore, this article represents an initial step in helping social workers challenge social injustice on behalf of what some refer to as "people of faith" individuals who adhere to the mainstream tenets of their respective faith traditions (French, 2002; Hertzke, 2003). In keeping with the Code of Ethics's injunctions, I have adopted a transnational perspective.


As implied earlier, social justice is a highly contested construct (Boucher & Kelly, 1998). Although the term is widely used, there is little agreement regarding what the concept signifies or how it should be operationalized (Reisch, 2002). Observers have noted that a wide variety of types (Chatterjee & D'Aprix, 2002), perspectives (Van Soest & Garcia, 2003), and conceptualizations (Sterba, 1999) of social justice exist.

One method that has been used to anchor the construct is human rights (Caputo, 2001; George, 1999; O'Kane, 2002; Queiro-Tajalli, McNutt, & Campbell, 2003; Stainton, 2002), with some commentators reporting that this understanding is gaining ground as a framework for understanding social justice (Reichert, 2003; Van Soest & Garcia, 2003). Within this framework, human rights are commonly defined as those characteristics that are necessary for us to live as human beings (United Nations [UN] Association in Canada, 1995). Human rights flow from the fact that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth. As these rights are grounded in the human condition, they are universal, applying equally to all human beings around the world, independent of their recognition in law. Social justice is exhibited by working to ensure that human rights are respected, nationally and internationally.

In keeping with the contested nature of social justice, the human rights framework is not without critics. Perhaps the most significant criticism has come from postmodern conceptualizations of social justice (Sterba, 1999). …

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