New Arrivals: Participatory Action Research, Imagined Communities, and "Visions" of Social Justice

By O'Neill, Maggie; Woods, Philip A. et al. | Social Justice, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

New Arrivals: Participatory Action Research, Imagined Communities, and "Visions" of Social Justice


O'Neill, Maggie, Woods, Philip A., Webster, Mark, Social Justice


THIS ARTICLE EXPLORES THEMES OF SOCIAL JUSTICE IN RELATION TO GLOBAL REFUGEES and the asylum-migration nexus by drawing upon a participatory action research (PAR) project recently completed in the United Kingdom (U.K.). The research sought to explore and address the needs of newly arrived children and families to the education system in a city in England. In the article, we affirm that a holistic conception of justice is of crucial importance to understanding and promoting social integration within the complex dynamics of the asylum-migration nexus as they affect urban environments. Moreover, we suggest that PAR as a research methodology can address a more holistic model of social justice and avoid some of the potential inequalities in the researcher/participant relationship. Patterns of problematic and positive aspects of the experience of newly arrived families are analyzed in terms of three interlinking models of social justice.

What Do We Understand by Social Justice?

Three forms of social justice are neatly summarized by Cribb and Gewirtz (2003), drawing upon but extending models developed by Nancy Fraser and Iris Marion Young:

* Distributive justice, which includes concerns about what Fraser calls economic justice and is defined as the absence of exploitation, economic marginalization, and deprivation;

* Cultural justice, defined (by Fraser) as the absence of cultural domination, non-recognition, and disrespect;

* Associational justice, defined as the absence of "patterns of association amongst individuals and amongst groups which prevent some people from participating fully in decisions which affect the conditions within which they live and act" (Power and Gewirtz, 2001: 41, quoted in Cribb and Gewirtz, 2003: 19).

From a community development perspective, social justice:

   is about building active and sustainable communities based on
   social justice and mutual respect. It is about changing power
   structures to remove the barriers that prevent people from
   participating in the issues that affect their lives ... [and]
   enabling people to claim their human rights, meet their needs,
   and have greater control over the decision-making processes
   which affect their lives (see www.sccd.org.uk/).

This community development perspective encompasses associational justice. Its references to enabling people to meet their needs also highlight the importance of distributive justice. Analysis of the social and critical theory literature throws up approaches to social justice that coalesce around philosophical analysis and empirical enquiry, equalities of opportunity, and social justice through pedagogy (Applebaum, 2004), as well as discourses around rights, redistribution, and recognition (Bauman, 2001; Fraser, 1997), and the fabric of modernity, postmodernity, and liquid modernity. Hence, this critical theory perspective embraces cultural justice (issues of recognition) and distributive justice (equality of opportunity, redistribution). A more complete view of social justice needs to appreciate the importance and interrelation of each of the three models highlighted by Cribb and Gewirtz to provide a sophisticated conceptual framework for understanding and advancing social justice.

In late modernity, the problem of social disintegration and division that can result from a more diverse, multicultural society becomes particularly acute. Giddens (1994: 126) describes the danger as one of returning to "cultural segmentalism," in which local communities "function through exclusion, a differentiating of insiders and outsiders." It raises, in new forms, the longstanding sociological issue posed by modernity, that of solidarity. For Bauman (2001: 74), the vision of a final, just society, which characterized earlier modernity, gives way to a "'human rights' rule/standard/measure meant instead to guide the never-ending experimentation with satisfactory, or at least acceptable, forms of cohabitation. …

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