Social Justice and the Research Curriculum

By Longres, John F.; Scanlon, Edward | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Social Justice and the Research Curriculum


Longres, John F., Scanlon, Edward, Journal of Social Work Education


THE COUNCIL on Social Work Education (CSWE) took a bold step in mandating that content on social and economic justice be a central component of the social work curriculum (CSWE, 1994). In doing so, it increased recognition of the many social welfare researchers who have worked to illuminate themes of injustice and inequality. This focus on justice is in keeping with the National Association of Social Workers' (NASW) Code of Ethics, which states that "social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients" (NASW, 1996). CSWE's and NASW's mandates concerning social justice are important for the profession; however, they raise some questions as well. This article explores the question of how social justice fits into the social work research curriculum.

If justice as a concept and value is to be infused into the social work research curriculum, several issues will need to be investigated. One important question is whether justice can be infused without jeopardizing the goal of objectivity, a goal that is central to the scientific method and scientific research. Another question concerns how the profession defines social justice, and how it should be defined. Other issues concern the selection of research questions, the use of theory, and the choice of methods in justice-oriented research.

In this article we report on a qualitative study where researchers and research instructors at a school of social work in a large, public university were interviewed on the definition of social justice; how social work research courses were informed by concepts of social justice; and whether the infusion of justice into the research curriculum required the promotion of certain research topics, theoretical frameworks, or research methodologies.

The article opens with a review of the social work literature regarding the conceptualization of social justice as a way of clarifying our terminology and establishing a framework within which to assess our respondents' comments. Then we review textbooks and syllabi used in all of the research courses at the school of social work where the interviews took place. Following a description of our methodology we present the results of the study. We conclude with a discussion of our findings and their implications for social work educators.

Social Justice: A Review of the Literature

Philosophical Frameworks

Not all scholars believe that social justice is a useful concept. Hayek, for instance, believes that "in a society of free men whose members are allowed to use their own knowledge for their own purposes the term 'social justice' is wholly devoid of meaning and content" (1976, p. 96). Although it could be useful for social workers to acquaint themselves with Hayek's work and reflect on his ideas, it is evident in CSWE standards and NASW principles that the profession generally proceeds from the belief that social justice is definable, desirable, and possible.

The ideas of two scholars--John Rawls (1971), who writes on distributive justice, and Iris Marion Young (1990), who writes on processual justice--have greatly influenced social work. Wakefield (1988a; 1988b) systematically cited Rawls, as did Beverly and McSweeney (1987), Gil (1998), Reamer (1993, 1995), and Van Soest (1995). As Young's work is relatively recent, only a few social work scholars have published work informed by it. These include Nagda et al. (1999), and Uehara and her colleagues (1999).

Distributive justice refers to the way economic and social goods and services are distributed in a society. Relational or processual justice refers to the decision making processes that lead to decisions about distribution and to the relationships between dominant and subordinate groups, such as racial majorities and people of color, that affect decisions about distribution. The two types of justice may be considered two sides of the same coin: relational justice emphasizes decision inputs, or the decision making process itself, while distributive justice emphasizes decision outputs, or the results of the decision making process. …

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