Thursday, February 26, 2009

Social Justice Curriculum Review Proposal

I was charged by our curriculum review committee to develop suggestions for additions/revisions to our curriculum in order to expand and deepen our attention to the question of how social justice can be integrated into the professional practices of clinical psychologists. Before considering specific suggestions, I have found it important to compose an incomplete conceptual review on “social justice,” which could be fashioned into a framework for our department’s approach to the training students in the intersections of professional psychology and social justice.

It is my impression that, unexamined, these words, “social justice,” have come to be wielded as an ideological force in academia; reified into an instrument of self or group interests, the polemics surrounding the construct obfuscates the complex strata of meanings, implications, and contestations surrounding this relatively recent idea. These dynamics appear to lead to the suppression and marginalization of people and ideas not consistent with the unexamined ideology, and a paradoxically fascist system of stultified discourse and the fa├žade of unified righteousness (on both sides of the polemic). One need look no further than our experiences as individuals and as a department in recent years, when we feel the terror incited by a facile, self-serving use social justice rhetoric; the effectiveness of this strategy was founded in its capacity to silence discussion and dialogue and to isolate and divide the community. And, we know from further experience, these practices continue into today. I invite us to wonder, then, what our students experience within our system as they relate to questions, to questioning, on issues related to social justice.

Constructing Social Justice
I propose that the construct, “social justice” at this time and place will never be reduced to a foundational, unitary meaning, neither by philosophers’ bests efforts nor by well meaning struggles for rational consensus. A review of the literature on the topic of social justice reveals unresolved, contentious philosophical and pragmatic theories within and between various disciplines, which for the most part precede psychology’s interest (Fraser, 1997; Fraser & Honneth, 2003; Habermas, 1984, 1990; Miller, 1999; Powers & Faden, 2006; Rawls, 1971; Sen 1999; Warnke, 1993). Social justice as a topic emerged in parallel fashion among twentieth century philosophers of justice and political science, as well as feminists and multiculturalists from various disciplines. Late in the century, discourses aimed at defining the parameters of social justice have spread to the social, health, and mental health and environmental sciences. The “linguistic turn” in the sciences, the intersections of multicultural theories with identity politics, the collapse of socialism, postcolonial developments, and globalization have all contributed to the immediacy and volume of multivocal calls for social justice in academe. In disciplines such as ours, this historical intersection of social values with pre-existing scientific values heightens our awareness of the fragility of our normative frameworks and contributes to schisms.

In the next few pages, I will argue for a social justice framework that is politically egalitarian while also sensitive to the claims of the identity politics of difference (Fraser & Honneth, 2003; Powers & Faden, 2006), and for the protection of specific, necessary conditions for the construction of principles of justice for our time. Suggestions for curriculum changes will follow these arguments.

Engagement with the fascinating, multifaceted, and justifiably contentious literature on social justice reveals an ephemeral ideal, rather than a universal, stable or imminent law, one that is ever in the process of earnest fabrication by social beings (e.g., us) out of the stuff of (a) history, (b) economics, (c) politics, (d) values, (e) cultures, and (f) dreams (Habermas, 1984; Miller, 1999; Warnke, 1993).

Hermeneutically-influenced theorists on justice propose that appeals to justice or social justice must be adjudicated not on the singular basis of universal principles, but rather on the promise or actuality of dialogic negotions under conditions of equal valuation of voice and access for all stakeholders (Fraser, 1997; Habermas, 1990; Warnke, 1993). They propose that any rational understanding of the concept of justice requires, at minimum, engagement with (a) through (f) above; that is, reflexivity and active, unrestrained social debate of every person living under the effects that concept. In this post-foundationalist time, they assert that justice is only ever a temporary, incomplete, contextually-informed, negotiated heuristic, which can only be justified in democratic societies by means of ongoing processes of open debate and deliberation among its human creators (Fraser, 1997, 2003; Habermas, 1990; Warnke, 1993; Young, 1990, 2000). There are no guarantees that this conversational social construction of justice will not be dominated by those who are more materially, ideologically, and/or rhetorically powerful, which would thereby obstruct free expression and exclude less powerful or culturally consonant voices (Warnke, 1993). For this reason, Habermas and Fraser each inject their version of the requirement that, in order to be rational and productive, justice conversations be unrestricted and unconstrained by power differentials (open, free & equal) (Warnke, 1993). The current popular proliferation of dialogue practices can be viewed as timely emanations from social and historical context shared with these philosophical justice discourses (Cissna & Anderson, 1994; National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation).

Further, most philosophical discourses on justice attempt to grapple with questions of distributive justice. Indeed, no matter whether one believes that distributive justice should figure into our definition of a just society, there is research evidence suggesting a near universal abhorrence of the enormous global disparities between the poor and the wealthy (Powers & Faden, 2006). Frankly, there is no ignoring these global economic discrepancies today when considering issues of justice. For example, the significant global economic discrepancies have risen to the top of development agendas for United Nations (with its Millennium goal of eradicating poverty by 2015) and the World Health Organization (Herzman, 2009; United Nations, 2000). International research such as that published in the 2007 series from The Lancet, suggest that poverty breeds poverty; people living under economic deprivations are unable to develop the skills necessary for participation in a democratic society, emerging or longstanding (Grantham-McGregor, Cheung, Cueto, Glewwe, Richter, Strupp, & the International Child Development Steering Group, 2007; Sen 1999). APA’s Public Interest Directorate began the twenty-first century by securing the organization’s Resolution on Poverty and Socioeconomic Status, which, among other things, committed the profession to supporting “public policy and programs that insure adequate income, access to sufficient food and nutrition, and affordable and safe housing for poor people and all working families” (American Psychological Association, 2000).

Political philosopher, Nancy Fraser (1997), has argued that justice relies on changes that balance citizens’ needs for both “recognition” and “redistribution” and Her concept of recognition is embodied by what we have come to know as the expectations of achieving multicultural awareness and sensitivity to differences between and similarities within groups. A banner of movements of identity politics, recognition focuses on celebration and empowerment of oppressed groups. The theory of social justice developed by I. M. Young (1990, 2000) has had a strong influence on counseling psychologists’ conceptualization of social justice (Speight & Vera, 2004; Vera & Speight, 2003); Young’s model fits into the recognition category. However, the social justice implications of recognition alone tend toward balkanization instead of democracy, and recognition advocacy typically elide not only socio-economic differences but also cultural customs that are oppressive to subgroups within cultural groups.

With her pairing of recognition with Redistribution, Fraser revisits and reinvigorates the socialist emphasis on economic equality, arguing that a society that houses both extreme poverty and extreme wealth institutionalizes barriers to full participation in the democratic process for its members; it is the byproducts of economic deprivation that keep the poor cut off from the democratic promises of freedom, equality, health and happiness: (a) poor social, cognitive, and physical development; (b) poor educational resources; (c) poor academic and vocational potential; (d) increased risks for health and mental health problems; (e) inadequate access to services; etc. (Farmer, 2005; Grantham-McGregor, et al., 2007). In order to achieve the purpose of eliminating poverty, what is considered necessary is solidarity across cultural groups, regardless of differences in recognition status, which means putting unique group interests (identities) aside, if only temporarily. Historically, political efforts to promote redistribution as an objective has minimized or erased other oppressive kinds, and this is still a risk. These two constructs of recognition and redistribution, according to Fraser, are necessary procedures in the construction of a just society; however, they are also incommensurable, and dialectically instable (Fraser, 1997; Fraser & Honneth, 2003). Recognition and redistribution are each founded on principles of inclusion and equality of voice for all stakeholders in the dialogic construction of justice in a democratic society (Warnke, 1997).

Thus, I argue that an integration of some form of commitment into our curriculum might begin with a framework incorporating these two concepts of social justice, recognition and redistribution. We could argue that our diversity curriculum addresses recognition; what is needed to embrace our engagement in educating psychologists in social justice is the integration of principles of redistribution into the curriculum along with an introduction to the redistribution/recognition model, as well as other important works on social justice from within the social sciences and psychology. Still, Fraser’s conceptualization provides only a pragmatic framework (do not dictate an outcome) from which assure that (a) through (f), above, are considered. The other necessary component is the provision of multiple opportunities for active engagement in reflection and debate on (construction of) what social justice can mean in professional psychology.

American Psychological Association (2000). Resolution on poverty and socioeconomic status. Retrieved January 26, 2008 from

Cissna, K. N. & Anderson, R. (1994). Communication and the ground of dialogue In R. Anderson, K. N. Cissna, and R. C. Arnett, The reach of dialogue: Confirmation, voice, and community. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Farmer, Paul (2005). Pathologies of power: Health, human rights, and the new war on the poor. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fraser, Nancy (1997). Justice interuptus: Critical reflections on the ‘postsocialist’ condition. NY: Routledge.

Fraser, Nancy & Honneth, Axel (2003). Redistribution or recognition? A political-philosophical exchange. London: Verso Press.

Grantham-McGregor S, Cheung YB, Cueto S, Glewwe P, Richter L, Strupp B, & the International Child Development Steering Group (2007). Developmental potential in the first 5 years for children in developing countries. The Lancet, Volume 369, Number 9555, 60-70.

Habermas, J. (1990). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hertzman, Clyde (2009) World Health Organization’s Vision statement of the Knowledge Network for Early Child Development, Commission on Social Determinants of Health. Retrieved January 26 2009 from

Miller, David (1976). Social justice. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Miller, David (1999). Principles of social justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation. Fostering a world of conversation, participation, and action. Retrieved October 10 2008 from

Speight, S. L. & Vera, E. M. (2004). A social justice agenda: Ready or not? The Counseling Psychologist, 32, 109-118.

United Nations (2000) Millennium Development Goals. Retrieved August 12 2008 from

Vera, E. M. & Speight, S. L. (2003). Multicultural competence, social justice, and counseling psychology: Expanding our roles. The Counseling Psychologist, 31, 253-272.

Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Young, I. M. (2000). Inclusion and democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Warnke, G. (1997). Justice and interpretation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment