Social Justice: A Life-or-Death Issue for the Profession

Feb 18, 2022

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[Note: Below is an excerpt from the lead editorial in the most recent issue of the journal Health & Social Work, co-published by NASW and Oxford University Press. The editorial was written by Christine M. Rine, PhD, associate professor, Department of Social Work, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. The journal Social Work is a benefit of NASW membership. It is available online or, at a member’s request, in print. Children & SchoolsHealth & Social Work and Social Work Research are available by subscription at a discounted rate for NASW members, either online or in print. You can find out more about the journals and subscriptions at this link.]


In seeking a definition of social justice commonly accepted across the profession, The Social Work Dictionary is an obvious place to start. Therein, social justice is “an ideal condition in which all members of society have the same basic rights, protections, opportunities, obligations, and social benefits” [R. Barker, The Social Work Dictionary, 6th Edition, 2014, p. 405]. This is quite similar to language in the preamble of the … Code of Ethics in explaining the primary mission of social work, which calls for “particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” These introductory interpretations of social justice provide a simplistic basis for the construction of meaning connoting utopian and egalitarian assumptions. However, they do not point to a theoretical foundation that moves beyond a superficial and one-dimensional annotation rife with imprecise language and unanswered questions. For example, the idea of equality is implied yet lacks description. It is unknown if this includes equality of wealth, opportunity, duties in society, or other individual benefits and expectations. Philosophical views of equality range from formal equality allotted among equals by strata, proportional equality where one’s due is based on their contribution, moral equality that assumes all are created and due equal, and the presumption of equality in which all benefit from equal distribution unless otherwise agreed to [G. Almgren, Health Care Politics, Policy, and Services, Springer Publications, 2017; R. Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality, Harvard University Press, 2000]. Although these are very concise descriptions, it is unmistakable that each of these philosophical conceptualizations of equality are superimposed on conservative, liberal, and radical political ideologies. Both conservative and liberal approaches rely on capitalist economic development with varying degrees of government constraint to produce wealth that will trickle down to reduce inequality. Alternatively, radical approaches advocate for massive redistribution of ownership and wealth [Almgren, ibid.; J. Finn & M. Jacobson, “Social justice” in Encyclopedia of Social Work, 2013]. Still, it is unclear where this places social work in perceiving and pursuing social justice.…