We agree that social justice is important, but do we understand what it means or how we can actively practice it every day?
20 February is World Social Justice Day. This year, the Library spoke to Dr Dorothee Hölscher from Griffith’s School of Human Services and Social Work about the complex nature of social justice and how we can all make a difference.
What do we mean when we talk about social justice?
This is quite a loaded question. We all seem to have a strong sense about injustice because we often feel when something is ‘wrong‘. Yet, the same cannot be said about social justice—we don’t feel it in the same way when something is ‘right‘. It seems to be much harder to settle on a shared understanding of social justice than human rights. Through my PhD research, I discovered that whilst social work is defined by a commitment to social justice, there was little agreement to its meaning.
I completed my PhD by publication, exploring different philosophers, including Nancy Fraser. Fraser talks about ‘abnormal justice‘—those times when a basic consensus or shared norm around a value or a principle, such as justice, doesn’t seem possible, and debates about justice attain a kind of ‘freewheeling character‘. She describes the central norm of justice as participatory parity, or equal participation, by which she means that anyone who is subjected to a particular governance system should have equal standing and equal say about it. In this way, equal participation becomes a standard by which we assess our practices and their outcomes, look at obstacles to justice, and look at factors that either hinder or enable social justice.
So, in short, social justice is so much more than treating people equitably. It is about what happens between people and the structures that humans create that prevent certain groups of people from realising their full potential. It is about teasing out what is happening in the person–structure interface and about trying to intervene in these spaces to make life more liveable for all members of society. It is about giving everyone a fair chance to be well and live a good life. And that is why I say social justice is like a Rubik’s Cube—it’s a process, it’s a standard, it’s a norm, it’s an explanatory tool and it has a ripple effect. It is quite complex, but it’s worth trying to come to terms with the different dimensions (cultural, economic, political) and levels in which injustices occur and in which justice can be promoted. Ultimately it is with this understanding that we all can seek to make a difference.
‘We increasingly appreciate that there will be no justice between humans in the absence of justice between humans and other forms of life.‘
Do the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals inform your research?
To me, questions surrounding the UN Sustainable Goals are key, particularly in the field of social work, where traditionally humans have been front and centre of our concern. The idea of sustainability adds an ecological dimension to our research. If we destroy our relationship with any life, especially through the depletion of resources and the destruction of habitats, injustice and polarisation between humans are bound to increase.
Also, on the cutting edge of the social justice debate, and related to the question of sustainability, is research into necropolitics. Achille Mbembe states that governance is not just about organising and managing (public) life, it is also about organising and managing death. To put it somewhat crudely, it is about whose lives are regarded as worth protecting, and for whom it is considered acceptable to die. I worry that, if we cannot figure out ways of living sustainably, we will end up accepting and, even if implicitly, condoning the death of others.
It is always enlightening to observe which kinds of people matter as individuals in public discourse and political decisions. Is it possible that it’s the far–away, poor, brown, and descendants of colonised peoples that tend to be disregarded? Why are these old patterns continuing? This is where I see one of the main fault lines along which societies are becoming increasingly polarised. We must be attentive to and reckon with the reasons underlying these kinds of dynamics.
Who has inspired you?
I greatly admire Nancy Fraser’s writing, however, the person who has made a particularly deep impact and continues to inspire me is Joan Tronto. Her democratic ethic of care is both political and practical. It is very much in the here and now, so I draw a lot on her when trying to figure out what to do in everyday life. As she stated in a 2009 interview:
‘An ethic of care is an approach to personal, social, moral, and political life that starts from the reality that all human beings need and receive care and give care to others. The care relationships among humans are part of what mark us as human beings. We are always interdependent beings.’
Meeting Tronto was a pivotal moment for me as she ‘walks the talk‘. I had become increasingly mindful that our environment can easily undermine any good intentions and disposition towards justice. This is where the ethics of care comes in. How we live up to certain virtues must be seen in context. Due to daily pressures and adverse circumstances, we don’t always live up to the standards we may be setting for ourselves and others. One day we may discover that we are not leading life in the way we imagined or set out to.
‘Aiming to succeed is very important, but failure is an inevitable part of life.‘
What advice would you give students?
Though failure is too harsh a word, I hope to instil in students the concept of ‘fail, fail again, fail better‘. Aiming to succeed is very important, but failure is an inevitable part of life. It has its beauty, as crazy as this may sound. Our Equity and Diversity course incorporates concepts such as care, self–compassion and cultural humility. Be gentle and kind to yourself, acknowledge when something goes pear–shaped, accept it, but then move on, learn from the experience, and try again. This is important when we chase such elusive goals as social justice at a time when the sustainability of life itself is under threat, but I think it is also a good maxim by which to live in other respects—in relationships, work and study.
Given the complexity of social justice, how can we integrate it into our lives?
We all have some scope, some sphere of influence, to raise our voice not only for ourselves but for others over whom we have influence or power (such as children, co–workers, etc.). As Iris Marion Young writes, in Responsibility for Justice, nobody is exempt from responsibility for justice. Young encourages us to ask questions. Are we actively participating in certain regimes of injustice? Are we keeping quiet about it? Are we trying to do the right thing but only quietly, on the side, when nobody else is looking? Are we speaking out and acting against injustice where we see it, despite the possible repercussions this may have? What drives our decisions about what and what not to do?
These are really difficult decisions to make, but it is important to be as conscious about these kinds of things as possible. We can do this by honestly, openly and humbly engaging with each other, and especially with others, who have a different horizon from ourselves, as our critical friends.
This is where for me, the works of philosophers such as Nancy Fraser, Joan Tronto, and Iris Marion Young come together in very handy and practical ways—good understanding of what we mean by justice, good analysis of what’s going on and would need to change for the world to be more just, figuring out what it has to do with ourselves, and then finding spaces in which to make a real difference, no matter how small. And then, importantly, not just to do things because we expect to be effective, but because they are the right thing to do. Life becomes more enjoyable like this, but that’s just a bonus.
What led to the Community Service Award in 2020?
Due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told visitor visa holders and international students in April 2020 that it was time for them to return to their home countries. At Griffith, we found many international students couldn’t go home due to various reasons—no flights, families in dire straits, loss of income. During all the other challenges that the pandemic caused, we now had students in the classroom with no means to pay for their study fees, rent or food.
So, whilst our Vice Chancellor and other senior leaders had conversations with the Queensland Premier and became involved in national–level talks, on campus, academics, students and administrative staff came together to address the issue in the ‘here and now‘. Evolving into a shared project, we began calling individual students and started a food bank. Local and international students supported their peers wherever they could, with house calls and dinner invitations. There was a lot of advocacy work going on. Whilst we could not address all the hardships we witnessed or impact the underlying causes, I think it is one little example of how ordinary people, whether victims of or bystanders to a particular injustice, can come together to do something about it.
If the award can highlight the real difference that even limited efforts can make in the face of injustice, that would be a terrific outcome.
Social justice research
Read Dr Dorothee Hölscher’s research and learn more about the complexity, or the Rubik’s Cube, of social justice:
- Displacement: Historical and Contemporary Responsibilities for Social Work and Human Services (Editorial) (2021)
- Nancy Fraser and Participatory Parity Reframing Social Justice in South African Higher Education (2020)
- Caring for justice in a neoliberal university (2018)
- Subjectivities of survival: Conceptualising just responses to displacement, cross—border migration and structural violence in South Africa (2016)
- Considering Nancy Fraser’s notion of social justice for social work: Reflections on misframing and the lives of refugees in South Africa (2014)
- Encountering the Other across the Divides: Re—Grounding Social Justice as a Guiding Principle for Social Work with Refugees and Other Vulnerable Groups (2012)
Visit Griffith Research Online for more research on social justice.