Social justice

The notion of social justice is central in educational research today given the globalisation of education in advantaged and disadvantaged educational regions around the world. When we think of our experiences with newcomer students, we cannot but think about this notion.

For Bialystok (2014), often, the notion of social justice is the “apple pie of contemporary education work” but also, somewhat, “a feel-good phrase”. In education around the world, there appear to be contradictions between current practices of neoliberalism (marketisation, economisation, the ‘ranking’ culture) and omnipresent calls for social justice. In his Marxist critique of claims for postmodernism and poststructuralism as forces for social justice, Cole (2003) argues that social justice is made impossible by the strong capitalist forces present in education today.

Rather than offering a static definition of the concept, which would be necessarily biased, limited/limiting and very much related to our own (geopolitical) ideologies, we need to bear in mind that, conceptually, politically, philosophically or in relation to practices, defining social justice is a challenging task, that deserves our critical and reflexive attention. In general, there tend to be easily accepted definitions that emerged from e.g. the USA during the Civil Rights Movements. These are specific to this historical context and, the ideas or words associated with social justice, may not be relevant to other contexts. For instance, the famous American scholar, specialized in multicultural education, Ch. Sleeter, argued in 2014 that “Most people agree on its [social justice] broad principles, such as these: “1) Equity, the principle of fairness… 2) Activism, the principle of agency… [and] 3) Social literacy, the principle of relevance.” When Sleeter talks about most people, who does she refer to? People in Europe, North America and/or Asia? Although we might argue that justice is something meaningful to most people, is it really correct to say that social justice has ‘broad principles’ that are agreed upon by everyone? Other scholars have demonstrated that education researchers analyze education policy through different lenses, thus reflecting different conceptions of social justice.

The following principles can help us think about the notion more critically and reflexively: First, social justice is present as a concept in many different academic disciplines such as political philosophy, geography, history, social work, and psychology (e.g. Shriberg, Song, Miranda & Radliff, 2013). This makes it a highly interdisciplinary concept, with an already long history. We need to be aware of and transparent about these elements.

Second, according to Sen (2002), different contexts as well as groups might have a different understanding of social justice. As such, social justice is both an intercultural and an intracultural issue. Even within a given context or group (e.g., parents vs. teachers; minority vs. majority students, etc.), its meanings and the ways it is experienced may be disparate, inconsistent, tacit and even underexplored. For Bogotch (2013: 57), “Each of the 190 plus nations is challenged to re-center how it defines educational quality to meet the needs of its nation’s citizens, not just constitutionally. As a result, social justice itself is made relevant contextually across geographic locations around the world”. Politics, socioeconomics, amongst others, also have an influence on the instability of the concept. In order to make it a valuable addition to research on education, there needs to be explicit discussions of what it means or ought to mean. There is also a need to document better how it is practiced in schools.

Third, besides social justice being polysemic (Rizvi, 1998: 47) it might go hand in hand with different other (polysemic) concepts such as inclusion/exclusion, equality/equity, etc. In education research around the world, although one might have the illusion that the concept is ‘universal’ in terms of what it refers to and in relation to practices, the use of locally connoted words to refer to it in/directly and explicitly/implicitly might make social justice even more difficult to construct and negotiate across borders. This ‘popular’ concept is multifaceted and always ideologically marked – and thus impossible to generalize. The dominance of Americano-centric discourses on social justice in education can have a negative influence on the way we discuss social justice in other contexts. There is thus a need to include ideas, beyond ‘Westernization’, concerning these issues. I also agree with Hackman (2006) that social justice needs to be problematized within a given (macro- and micro-) context, and with specific individuals. I do not believe that an effective approach to social justice is to give it a static definition, ‘generalised’ for every context of education. This might help us to avoid imposing certain ideologies onto others, to judge the other with our own criteria and/or to give the impression that one context is better than another.

In his article on education leadership and social justice, Bogotch (2013) suggests that one can adopt at least two attitudes to defining social justice in education. 1. One starts with a definition and verifies if collected data correspond to the aspects of the definition: “the researcher concludes that social justice was found (rarely not) through this particular empirical study” (ibid.: 56). 2. One starts from a broader approach, arguing that words are polysemic and that the context and those involved in it will (re)negotiate them during the research process. He suggests asking the following questions: “(…) are individuals, groups, or even nations capable of creating socially just conditions for others? How do the meanings of social justice vary across cultures?” (ibid.). He concludes by arguing, rightly we believe, that “We should be sceptical, therefore, when we read or hear a single definition of social justice in a strict semantic sense” (ibid.).

Finally, it is important to bear in mind that social justice is about real people. And the only way we can help them or empower them to help themselves is by making it meaningful and understandable between us and with others. Social justice might be a “feel-good phrase” to be recited as a mantra (Bialystok, 2014), yet, we should ‘heal’ it from its woes to make it work.

How often do you hear the word of social justice being pronounced in education? What about its companions such as equality, equity, etc.? How do you understand them? Do you think they mean the same to everyone? Do you think that your school and municipality is doing enough to promote some form of social justice especially in relation to newcomer students? Does it work? Would you change anything about how they do it? Finally, do you feel that in your everyday teaching you contribute to enhancing social justice for your students? If yes, how?