Theories of Social Justice Essay

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Justice, in its many guises, is a fundamental principle ensuring order in social groups ranging from small, intimate circles of friends to large, diverse societies. Its counterpart, injustice, arises when expectations about distributions, procedures, or interactions are unmet. Such unmet expectations stimulate the potential for change, both trivial and profound. The study of social justice in social psychology has focused largely on individual perceptions and responses, while sociological concerns about social justice pertain to issues of income inequality, racism, sexism, etc.

Drawing on the work of philosophers, social psychologists examine three types of justice. Distributive justice pertains to the fairness of the allocation of rewards or burdens to a circle of recipients. Rules of distributive justice include equity, equality, and needs. Procedural justice captures the fairness of decision-making procedures, emphasizing rules about suppressing bias, ensuring consistency and accuracy, allowing for representation by or giving voice” to those affected, and the like. Interactional justice refers to fairness in the treatment of individuals within a group. Demonstration of respect and truthfulness are key aspects of interactional justice. On an abstract level, all types of justice should reflect the impartiality of decision-makers, rely upon a consensus of those affected, and promote collective welfare. Formal definitions, however, ignore the subjectivity that characterizes what individuals perceive as fair, and that injustice responses depend on more than simply the experience of unfairness.

Focusing on perceptions of injustice, theories posit individual level and contextual factors that stimulate cognitive and comparison processes that give rise to evaluations of injustice. Perceived injustice is distressing, which motivates individuals to redress the injustice through actions or by changing cognitions about the situation. Models of responses to distributive injustice presume that material self-interests drive perceptions and reactions; subsequent formulations suggest other motivations, including (self-interested) social concerns with gaining the regard of group members and a moral sense of justice that captures concerns for others. Regardless of underlying motivations, empirical evidence generally demonstrates that individuals disadvantaged by some type of injustice are more likely to feel angry and to attempt to redress the injustice than are those advantaged by injustice. Yet how individuals react also depends upon the extent to which situational circumstances facilitate or inhibit responses to alter the distribution, procedure, or treatment.

A key factor quelling responses to distributive injustice is the perception that a distribution decision was made fairly, i.e., that procedural justice existed. The field of organizational justice, in particular, focuses on how the three types of justice combine to affect the perceptions and responses of workers within organizations. The organizational context also draws attention to the role of observers in assessing injustice that befalls another person, such as a co-worker. Skarlicki and Kulik (2005) argue that models appropriate for examining perceptions of and responses to personal injustice may be extended to understand how and why third parties may take action to rectify others’ injustices.

Observers, people unaffected or even advantaged by an unequal distribution of societal resources or particular procedures, may act individually or collectively in a manner to ameliorate a situation that sorely disadvantages others. Their perceptions, like those who suffer injustice personally, are also subjective and underlie the potential for conflict between social groups. Social justice encompasses distributions of resources, opportunities, and rights based on promoting human dignity and collective welfare and disallows distributions, procedures, or treatments that are biased by the decision-maker or recipients’ gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or social class (wealth). Income inequality, sexism, racism, and the like raise the specter of injustice by highlighting the evaluation of the distribution of resources to a group or the treatment of group members based on their (subjectively devalued or presumed inferior) characteristics. Debates over the distribution of societal goods (e.g., health care, jobs, housing) and societal burdens (e.g., hazardous wastes, taxes) to different groups in society also constitute issues of social justice. Social movements, while caused by many factors and requiring resources and organization, may rally individuals with cries of injustice and signal actions to redress injustice. Social psychological theories contribute to an understanding of not just what disadvantaged individuals are likely to perceive, feel, and do, but also of the conditions under which people who benefit from current societal procedures and distributions are likely to step beyond their own self-interests to effect social change and ultimately create a more consensual notion of justice.


  1. Hegtvedt, K. A. (2005) Doing justice to the group: examining the roles of the group in justice research. Annual Review of Sociology 31: 25-45.
  2. Skarlicki, D. P, & Kulik, C. T. (2005) Third-party reactions to employee (mis)treatment: a justice perspective. Research in Organizational Behavior 26: 183-229.
  3. Skitka, L. J., Bauman, C. W., & Mullen, E. (2008) Morality and justice: an expanded theoretical perspective and empirical review. Advances in Group Processes 25: 1-27.

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