Social justice is about equality and fairness between human beings. It is ideas of how to behave which are embodied in laws and institutions that are contested and changed over time. Not everyone will agree with the legal notions of what is ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ and so certain views, and the laws that maintain and reinforce them, can actually lead to injustice and social harm. Struggles for equality have led to changes in welfare and crime control policies and this this essay will look at some of the evidence that is used to bring about such changes and will demonstrate that while statistical data is considered more reliable in demonstrating the extent and impact of inequality, it is best illustrated through peoples experiences.
Social scientists have long attempted to analyse and measure inequality by focussing on the material inequalities of income and wealth. One way this is done is through statistical measures such as the ‘Gini Coefficient’ which measures the spread of income inequality between countries at different times. In 2007 The Equalities Review reported that the Gini Coefficient for income in the UK has been falling slowly over the early years of the century, reflecting a reverse in a time span of just under three years (John Clarke, pg: 36). While this is a useful comparative tool it measures only a specific form of inequality and income is not the only material assets that can be distributed unevenly. “…We are looking at social divides far more important than those reflected merely by income….poverty and wealth are fundamentally about being excluded from society or included in it” (Dorling et al, in John Clarke, pg: 38).
When the Dorling Study looked at the distribution of wealth as well as income it reported that income inequalities grew rapidly in the UK in the late twentieth century, and that geographical areas are increasingly dominated by wealthy or poor residents with a decline in social mixing (John Clarke, pg: 38). Such data forms part of ‘political arithmetic’ – the surveying of populations to categorise and assess them – and is one way of making inequalities visible and contestable. However, these two studies show a very different story because they were measuring different things, so while quantitative data is a powerful tool, alone it is not enough to give a full picture. Charles Booth conducted a study combining statistics with scientific observation of the poor with the aim of challenging the ‘overdramatised’ claims about the depth of poverty in London at the time. His study revealed there was more, not less, poverty than was being reported (John Clarke, pg: 39). This further demonstrates that statistical date by itself is not enough and that more qualitative evidence is needed.
Experiences of justice and injustice can be found in people’s everyday experiences and it is qualitative evidence that allows us to consider these issues within a more human, emotionally-connected context. An extract from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (Extract 1.1, Newman & Yeates, pg.: 7), allows us to gain an insight into his life whilst living under apartheid and experiencing discrimination and disadvantage because of the colour of his skin. While personal accounts are considered ‘soft’ evidence as they are naturally subjective, and can therefore be biased or inaccurate, his autobiography is nevertheless an account of inequality at a time when ‘Jim Crow’ laws existed. This therefore could be felt to be a representation of the views of much of the population, regarding what was just and unjust (based on those Jim Crow Laws) – views Mandela (and many other Black South African people) did not share. Social scientists suggest that a person’s sense of justice is socially created; that it is not something they are born with, but something that is learned from relationships with others and shaped by individual values and beliefs.
This is how ideas of what is ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ can be seen as changeable (Newman & Yeates, pg.: 8). Often these new ideas are the result of the experience of those facing or experiencing discrimination, people who are viewed as the ‘problem population’, at a high cost to them. Nelson Mandela and others were labelled as terrorists during apartheid and their fight for equality resulted in many facing criminal charges and imprisonment. Even when the ‘Jim Crow’ laws were abolished a large number of Black South Africans continued to carry the weight of this burden decades later as they applied for jobs and mortgages, disadvantaged by still having the criminal records resulting from these unjust laws. It took another 55 years for a Bill to be passed which gave official pardons to those convicted of disobeying racist laws (The Guardian newspaper in Newman & Yeates, pg.: 9). This provides a great example of how individuals can contest and change notions of social justice and the laws that previously supported them.
Welfare states have been shaped by many social movements and interventions of different types seeking to establish greater socio-economic security, justice or equality. A recognisably strong force has been the working class, whose demands on the state for protection from unemployment, sickness and old age led to the state being concerned with ‘distributive justice’. This occurs by taxation and by the provision of schooling, health care and other public goods that everyone has access to on an equal basis regardless of income or wealth. For John Rawls ..” equality did not mean that everybody has to be treated exactly the same with no regard to individual differences or talents. Provided that everybody had equal access to basic freedoms….., some kind of unequal or different treatment was permitted so long as it maximised the welfare of the worst off” (Newman & Yeates, p:16). By looking at the qualitative evidence in the Surveillance DVD it is evident that welfare policies create opportunities for the government to ‘police’ people by promoting certain types of behaviour (i.e. unemployment benefit being conditional on actively looking for work), looking for deviations from these policies, resulting in punishments including withdrawing benefits or services and/or issuing criminal proceedings.
In the subject of safeguarding children (Chapter 2) practitioners can be seen monitoring the development of young children by watching over the parents and ensuring they are behaving in ‘the correct way’. Failure for parents to act in a way the ‘experts’ deem best could result in them being subject to formal safeguarding measures (which impose more family norms) or even losing custody of their children, as was the case for Michelle. With both the police and social workers being involved in the safeguarding of children there is now a blurred relationship between welfare and crime control policies. Rather than the state creating social well-being by redressing inequality and other forms of social harm it is creating and maintaining social order by exercising control over people.
Distributive justice has been criticised by feminists such as Nancy Fraser, who suggests that social justice is not just about redistribution, but about recognition as well (Newman & Yeates, pg.: 17). A lack of recognition and ‘cultural domination’ tend to happen to groups that are already economically disadvantaged and this in turn can lead to material inequalities. During apartheid black people were exploited and they experienced extreme poverty.
This poverty, and the poor quality of life it produced, aggravated their exclusion from social groups. Today there are certain jobs, such as caring for others, that are considered gender specific, so when Allan (Beth Widdowson, pg.: 72) became a carer for his mother he received little social recognition and few economic rewards. Lack of recognition and respect can create the conditions in which different forms of discrimination and abuse may flourish, and social harms occur. An example of this can be found in the dangers and vulnerabilities of being a ‘hidden’ worker where many people are unaware of their rights or are reluctant to assert them. Nick Bloomfield’s docudrama film, Ghost (Figure 3.7, Beth Widdowson, pg.: 80), offers insight into the disadvantages a particular group of workers faced at a particular time, specifically when illegal Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morcombe Bay. Such experiences are unlikely to be reported in official statistics on occupational harm, yet they are clearly a significant source of profound suffering and harm to the individual, the wider community of interest, and society as a whole.
In conclusion then while quantitative evidence is a valuable resource to help bring about change, it cannot provide the full picture. Social justice has often been highlighted and fought for primarily by those experiencing discrimination, and in order for people to understand the injustice and inequality they face qualitative evidence is vital. We’ve also seen how social welfare and crime control policies are entangled, and that qualitative evidence is useful in demonstrating the adverse effects these tensions can have on welfare policies.
Duff. V, Langa. M, McCoy. L, Neal. S, Pinkney. S, Yeates. N, Introductory Course Companion, The Open University, 2008, Milton Keynes
Newman. J, Yeates. N (editors), Social Justice, Welfare, Crime and Society, The Open University, 2008, Milton Keynes
The Open University, DD208 Welfare, crime and society, DVD 1, Surveillance welfare crime and society, 2008
I struggled with this essay so much that I called the learning support team at the OU yesterday to discuss the consequences of me not submitting anything for this TMA. I understand the stuff I am reading, I am just having trouble putting it into words. Perhaps I would benefit from an essay writing course. Or perhaps I am just struggling with the course content because while I find it interesting I am not very passionate about it. It is not what I expecting to be studying in a psychology/criminology course.