Social Justice – Whose Responsibility?

Professor Amanda Fulford

There’s an awful lot of talk about social justice that seems to fill our newspapers, airwaves, and social media content. It has become a buzzword, and simultaneously lost its meaning.

Like many such concepts, it is slippery, and difficult to define. When we do try to talk about it, we often articulate it in very broad terms; fair or equal access to wealth, opportunities and privileges within society. As such, we tend to think of the responsibility for social justice as situated within government, and with large institutions responsible for public health, schooling, housing, transport, employment, access to food etc.

We also find it easier to talk about examples of social injustice. We can see how social injustice impacts on our friends, families, colleagues and communities, perhaps because of our proximity, and how we experience living together with others at local and personal levels.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought such injustices very close to home, as we were deeply connected in different ways with the inequities it triggered. And these injustices were profoundly social ones: our elderly relatives were physically prevented from any social contact with us as their care homes locked down, and carers and relatives were locked out. Some of our children struggled to access online education to connect with teachers and peers for lack of suitable technology. And those we loved died alone in hospital

Theories of justice abound, many of which can be traced to broader moral systems. For the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, justice could not be separated from the demands of utility (as expressed in the theory of utilitarianism: the right thing to do is what produces the most good).

In the American political philosopher John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, acting justly is based on decisions about fair distribution: justice is fairness. These theories, together with the social teachings have been influential in the shaping of social policy. However, in thinking about social justice – and where we consider the responsibility for it to lie – we might re-consider what makes justice ‘social’.

Etymologically, the concept of the ‘social’, from the 14th century, is rooted in the idea of being devoted to one’s home life. The emphasis is on the proximity of companionship – a closeness to home. Given this, there is a way that we can understand social justice as being less the responsibility of governments to put policies in place, and to deliver interventions to ‘level up’, and more about our relationships and daily encounters.

At the recent launch of Edge Hill University’s Education for Social Justice Research Network, colleagues came together to consider the place of the ‘social’ in social justice. We looked to understand what is at stake in this concept if we focus our attention towards ourselves, and our immediate relations with others. This has significant implications for thinking about social justice as both constitutive for, and characteristic of, the ways in which we individually conduct ourselves. Social justice is in many ways, self-reflexive; is my responsibility. It places a tremendous onus on us in relation to our actions, but also to our language and to the ways we are in relation to each other. It is in this sense both my obligation, and my gift.

Amanda Fulford is Professor of the Philosophy of Education at Edge Hill University, and co-chair of the Education for Social Justice research network.

Lockdown and Educational Inequality: Some Reflections

In 1970, Basil Bernstein famously wrote that education cannot compensate for society.

Bernstein may have been writing fifty years ago, but recent reports on the impact of school closures on disadvantaged children and young people resonate with his conclusions. Despite decades of government rhetoric about inclusion, the empirical reality of social inequality has been exposed by the pandemic. Elena Magrini (2020), describes the impact of school closures as a ‘learning loss’ that will likely have greatest impact on the most disadvantaged children. The result is a likely widening of the ‘education gap’.

To their credit, the government has responded to this educational crisis through a commitment to provide disadvantaged children with laptops, tablets and 4G routers. This is to be welcomed. However, the practical challenges of providing on line education raises some pressing additional questions about equality and inclusion in late modern societies.

In 1992 Gilles Deleuze wrote that social inclusion is determined by possession of the ‘Password’. Nikolas Rose (2004) developed these ideas in his work Powers of Freedom.  Rose draws attention to ‘circuits of inclusion’ which require constant proof of ‘legitimate identity’. Rose provides examples; computer readable passports, driving licenses with unique identification codes, social insurance numbers, bank cards. Each card provides the bearer with a virtual identity and access to certain privileges. Governments, employers, insurance companies and banks can all utilize databases to monitor individuals, provide or deny access to training, benefits or credit. To achieve an admissible existence in postmodern societies of control requires access to these circuits of inclusion, which leads us back to the issue of educational citizenship and access to educational inclusion in the lockdown.

The problem is summed up by Tom Middlehurst of the Schools, Students and Teachers Network (SSAT) in an interview for the Guardian where he states that,

‘The kinds of parents who will be having discussions and making the effort with home schooling are likely to be “middle class parents”

In other words, those that have the ‘digital’ capitals and the ‘passwords’ that provide access to computers, on line learning, reliable broadband provision and technological skill amongst other things. For young people and their families outside of these groups it is questionable if panicked provision of lap tops and routers will enable access to wider educational inclusion in a meaningful and enduring way. What is required is a sea change in policy that leads to universal, sustainable and equitable provision for learners and families. It shouldn’t take a national emergency to refocus debate on issues of social justice and educational inclusion.

Dr Francis Farrell is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Edge Hill University.


Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Artistic Methodologies for Social Justice

One of I4P’s tentpole events at the Festival of Ideas, the Artistic Methodologies for Social Justice Symposium, took place on 1st June 2018. It was organised by Dr Victoria Foster, an Associate Director of I4P and author of Collaborative Arts-based Research for Social Justice (Routledge, 2016).

The aims of the afternoon were to explore the power of the arts to effect change through highlighting inequalities and encouraging people to see the world from different angles. Victoria opened the event by speaking about her experience of art and the subtle but profound impact this has had on her everyday life. She argued the potential of the arts to be used as a way of producing knowledge about the social world and went on to play a rap video from Measuring Humanity, a programme of research led by one of I4P’s external members, Dr Marisa de Andrade, who was unable to attend the event.

This suggested that the standard ways of measuring health and wellbeing do not capture the essence of lived experience, particularly of ‘hard to reach’ and BME communities, and that artistic approaches may be more insightful.

Dr Barnaby King spoke about an arts-based research project that he and Victoria are working on at a local community farm that is drawing on a variety of artistic methods including creative writing, mindful movement, photography and natural sculpture, to explore participants’ experiences of nature and growing food in ways that challenge mainstream, intensive farming methods.

This was followed by Dr Amy Bonsall’s presentation of her work on Shakespeare in Malawi. Amy, from the international theatre organisation Bilimankhwe, fascinated the audience with her tales of working on Shakespeare plays with local people and the process of translating material into Chichewa. She described how incredibly knowledgeable local young people were about Shakespeare and how the work provided a different narrative of these capable young people from the stereotypical ‘AIDS orphans’ one that is so familiar in the Western world.

Dr Katy Goldstraw, I4P’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, discussed an AHRC project, Taking Yourselves Seriously, which explored artistic methodologies for social cohesion. She described the artist-led activities in a school and in the community that invited participants to think about their identity and the space and place where they live.

During the break, the group had a guided tour of Gergana Ganeva’s exhibition of art produced by images created by survivors of trafficking and modern slavery. She described some of the harrowing stories that lay behind the images and stressed the importance of providing an opportunity for the participants in this arts-based research project to be able to represent themselves in such personal and meaningful ways.

After the break, artist Eva Brudenell guided the symposium’s participants through an artistic activity that involved designing a manifesto and poster via a paper folding technique. She regaled the group with colourful examples of political art which provided plentiful inspiration.

Participants enthusiastically busied themselves with this creative endeavour and, in the reflective discussion that closed the symposium, discussed how they would be able to use the technique with the groups that they work with, including students and community groups. The reflective discussion incorporated insightful thoughts on power relations in research and how artistic methods might mitigate or reproduce these, depending on the motives of the protagonists. The symposium, then, raised some challenging, critical issues as well as being an enjoyable and relaxed summer afternoon.

Dr Victoria Foster is a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences and I4P Associate Director (External Networking) here at Edge Hill University.