Many lecturers and researchers enter the world of academia with a strong idea of what a socially just world might look like and an even stronger desire to explore why we are not yet living in one, and how we might get there. Over the years, academics have written countless books, articles, and papers on the subject of social justice. Amongst these, three main conceptions of social justice have developed: distributional justice, relational justice, and the capability approach.
Theories of distributive justice focus on the distribution of benefits and harms between people and try to decide on what basis these should be distributed in a socially just world. John Rawls is the major representative of the liberal egalitarian approach to distributive justice. He argued that distributive justice consists in the hypothetical agreement on the distribution of rights and resources people would make while being in the original position—before birth—and from behind the veil of ignorance—the state of not knowing who you will become. People in this position would want each person to have equal right to basic liberties that is compatible with liberty for all (the equality principle). Moreover, they would accept inequalities only when they are attached to offices and positions open to all in society through equal opportunity, and of the most benefit to the least well off in society (the social and economic inequalities principle).
American philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) in 1971
Relational perspectives see social justice as multi-dimensional, considering not only the economic domain but also to the cultural and political dimensions of justice. Consequently, these approaches look at how hierarchies of power and privileges and relationships of advantage and disadvantage—based on differences in class, ethnicity and race, faith, gender, sex, sexuality, age, disability and spices—affect people’s lives in just or unjust ways. The two major representatives of this current are Nancy Fraser and Iris Young. In her work, Fraser argued that social justice means aiming to create conditions which enable parity of participation into economic, cultural and political interaction for everyone. Young theorised injustice as composed of ‘five faces of oppression’ instead: (economic) exploitation, (social) marginalisation, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence.
American scholar, critical theorist and feminist Nancy Fraser (b. 1947) in 2008; and American political theorist and socialist feminist Iris Young (1949–2006)
The capability approach, whose main exponent is Amartya Sen, argues that social arrangements should aim to support and expand people’s capabilities—as in the freedom that people have to be and do things that are of value to them.
Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen (b. 1933) in 2012
In the contexts of these broad theoretical frameworks, social justice scholars have recently begun to address socially unjust policies and practices inside higher education (HE), and how to make it a more socially just environment for all. Research in this field has shown how academia has historically excluded—and still excludes—certain identity groups from accessing and progressing in their study and working environments. Nowadays, in Europe and North America, both students and academics in universities—especially elite institutions such as Ivy League universities—are mainly upper/middle-class, white, non-disabled, cis-males. This is especially true when looking at power positions in HE (see: Gasman 2015 Article Access).
Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA) is a well-known Ivy League university. The Ivy League is a group of eight elite universities in the Northeastern USA with a reputation for academic excellence, selective admissions and social elitism.
Once discriminated categories of people access universities, they have to deal with environments that harm them in different ways. For example, scholars in the USA have delved into fraternity and sorority culture, which enforces gender stereotypes and facilitates sexual harassment. Furthermore, HE institutions have been "called out" in the recent half decade for a lack in teaching students to reflect critically on social injustices.
The study of inequality in academia was then affected by the literature on intersectionality [see "What Is Intersectionality? A History & Concept"], and scholars started to look at intersectional discrimination in universities. Dr Ziada Ayorech contributed to the discussion by sharing her meaningful experience of being a Black woman with two children working in academia, showing the different types of discriminations that she had to deal with—induced impostor syndrome, gaslighting, lack of representation, internalisation of harmful socially constructed ideals—how these affected her, and how universities could tackle them.
In summary, social justice in academia is the study of and action on social injustices that happen in universities all over the world. The academics who dedicate their working lives to combatting social injustice in HE and use their research and voices to make universities more accessible and respectful places for each and every person regardless of their identity or background are activists, revolutionaries and change-makers.
Ayorech, Z. (2021, March 8). Intersectionality in Academia. The EDIT lab blog. https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/editlab/2021/03/08/intersectionality-in-academia/.
Casad, B. J., Franks, J. E., Garasky, C. E., Kittleman, M. M., Roesler, A. C., Hall, D. Y., & Petzel, Z. W. (2021). Gender inequality in academia: Problems and solutions for women faculty in STEM. Journal of neuroscience research, 99(1), 13-23. https://doi.org/10.1002/jnr.24631
Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education (p. 244). University of Michigan Press. https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/47415
Fraser, N. (2009). Social justice in the age of identity politics. Geographic thought: A praxis perspective, 72, 91.
Gordon, S. R., Elmore-Sanders, P., & Gordon, D. R. (2017). Everyday practices of social justice: Examples and suggestions for administrators and practitioners in higher education. Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.31274/jctp-180810-70
Jerrim, J., Chmielewski, A. K., & Parker, P. (2015). Socioeconomic inequality in access to high-status colleges: A cross-country comparison. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 42, 20-32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rssm.2015.06.003
McGinley, M., Rospenda, K. M., Liu, L., & Richman, J. A. (2016). It isn't all just fun and games: Collegiate participation in extracurricular activities and risk for generalized and sexual harassment, psychological distress, and alcohol use. Journal of Adolescence, 53, 152-163. 10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.10.001
Rawls, J. (2020). A theory of justice. Harvard University Press.
Sen, A. K. (2009). The idea of justice. Harvard University Press.
Van den Brink, M., & Benschop, Y. (2011). Slaying the Seven-Headed Dragon: The Quest for Gender Change in Academiagwao_566. https://repository.ubn.ru.nl/bitstream/handle/2066/95413/95413.pdf?sequence=1
Young, I. M. (2014). Five faces of oppression. Rethinking power, 174-195.
Eleonora Aiello is a current Masters student at King's College London studying MA Education, Policy Society. She has a completed undergraduate degree from Università degli Studi di Milano in International Studies & European Institutions. Her current work involves working with children & young people with disabilities in secondary education.