Social Justice Usage
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, p. 240.
Objective: The perception that some things are factual and not informed by social or cultural interpretations; a universal truth outside of any particular framework. A person or position that is seen as objective is seen as having the ability to transcend social or cultural frameworks and engage without bias or self-interest.
New Discourses Commentary
According to the Theory of Critical Social Justice, objectivity is impossible to obtain and, in fact, might be something that it is even wrong to pursue. As a kind of ideal, objectivity refers to the state of not being influenced by biases, personal feelings, or opinions in the statement of facts, and it is the relevant ideal of the sciences, which see truth as something that should be approached and known as objectively as possible. That is, objectivity is what’s “out there,” as compared to the subjective, which is what’s in our heads.
In practice, because objectivity is an ideal, objectivity is approached (or achieved) by attempting to identify, minimize, and control for as many potential sources of bias, personal feelings, opinions, or interpretations as possible. Critical Social Justice Theory sees this as a myth that’s used to marginalize other ways of knowing and uphold dominant systems of power. Thus, advocates of Critical Social Justice do not even attempt to be objective in their assessments; indeed, the subjective “lived experience” of oppression is the only valid epistemology they accept.
The Theory of Critical Social Justice rejects that objectivity is possible at all. This is because it is both critical and postmodern in its orientation, and thus it isn’t merely a statement that all humans are limited by our subjective perspectives and the biases that shape them. It makes a much more profound and radical statement about truth, reality, and knowledge that denies that it is possible to control for or minimize biases at all. It sometimes goes further and insists that controlling for and minimizing biases creates a particular kind of bias. That bias, as with science, would be classified as white, Western, masculinist, Eurocentric, colonialist, imperialist, and any number of other similar epithets, depending on the aspect of Theory making the accusation.
These beliefs stem from the idea that white, Western men (who are straight, able-bodied, etc.) created the ostensibly “unbiased” or “value-free” objective perspective to suit their own interests and within their own set of cultural biases (see also, positivism). In saying that objectivity isn’t possible or even desirable, advocates of Critical Social Justice are indicating that because they believe bias to be fundamentally inescapable, only by including more biases can we have any hope of getting to a clearer picture of reality or—more accurately—a more comprehensive constellation of knowledges and truths (see also, standpoint epistemology).
In general, critical theories begin with the assumption that our biases pervade everything, and these biases are the product of dominant ideologies having control over the thinking of society. This control is referred to as “hegemony,” and the nominal objective of critical theories is to expose the unexamined assumptions and biases of these dominant hegemonies and increase people’s awareness of them (see also, critical consciousness). The hope is that becoming aware of these ideologies will lead people to reject them and try to fundamentally remake society or its structures, institutions, and systems in a way that is less “oppressive.” In such a view, objectivity is impossible and is a kind of myth that the dominant perspective uses to fool itself into believing it can know the truth (see also, internalized dominance), which it will then enforce through policy, culture, and so on, in ways that serve the interests of its chief beneficiaries.
Postmodern thinking is in some ways similar to this but also much different. This view sees knowledge as a social construction that may or may not have much to to with reality at all. The same general idea was espoused by the most famous French postmodernist, Michel Foucault, who believed that “regimes of truth” or “epistemes” exist throughout history, setting up cultures and maintaining discourses that validate certain ideas as true or as knowledge and not others. These are intrinsically political projects in which power and knowledge function as a single entity, power-knowledge, and gets applied through what he referred to as “biopower,” which can be understood as the combined political and epistemic authority of what is believed to be the truth (especially as produced by science). For the postmodernists, truth and knowledge are cultural products that are embedded within narratives and justified by “metanarratives,” and thus the entire postmodern project is not merely skeptical of objectivity but radically skeptical of it, believing it is utterly inaccessible to any human except by accident. That is, postmodern thinking is radically subjectivist but also sets the scene for group-based thinking, insofar as groups can be linked to cultures and cultural traditions (see also, racial knowledge and identity politics). As wrote the American postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty, “We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that the truth is out there.”
Critical Social Justice is the Theoretical inheritor of both of these intensely and radically skeptical lines of thought. It therefore takes the position that objectivity isn’t possible and anyone who believes they are being objective or that people or human methods (like science) can be objective is mistaken. Not only are they mistaken, though, but they are also in possession of a false consciousness about the “realities” of knowledge (see also, positivism) that is either self-serving, as with internalized dominance, or against one’s own interests, as with internalized oppression. More specifically, for example, white, Western men who believe science or various modern and Western legal proceedings are the most objective way to settle certain kinds of factual or legal questions are believed merely to be upholding a system that promotes their interests and their ways of knowing. People outside those groups who feel the same are upholding systems that are believed to oppress them.
This belief comes from the claim (common in some ways to both the critical theory and postmodern lines of thought) that there is no such thing as “value-free” knowledge. Put otherwise, this worldview believes that knowledge, being a cultural product (and particularly one that is produced and made use of by elites in society), always encodes the values of the culture that produced it (e.g., including rationality). Because of the influence of critical thought, there will always be elements of self-interest for the dominant classes in society in these values, as that’s what cultural values are and how they function. Thus, since all knowledge encodes cultural values, no knowledge can possibly be objective. As a result, Theory tends to see objectivity with tremendous suspicion, to the point where it believes that seeking or claiming objectivity is a catastrophic error and major blind-spot of those seeking or claiming it.
Since they believe that objectivity is impossible and undesirable, even in principle, advocates of Critical Social Justice thought will insist that making use of biases provides more and better knowledges than attempting to control for or minimize them. This is an idea that could, in some sense, have some merit, at least in theory, as adding biases might help us to better understand what is and is not influenced by them, but this misses the point of the Theory of Critical Social Justice and is not their way. That rationale would still be believing there is objectivity that is possible, which is rejected entirely. Instead, the goal would just be to have a multitude of different “knowledges” and “truths” about different groups’ “realities” all existing simultaneously (see also, multiple consciousness, kaleidoscopic consciousness, and multiculturalism). This, quite obviously, provides no clearly defined means to resolving differences of opinion when these “knowledges,” “truths,” and “realities” don’t align.
For this problem, Critical Social Justice has a number of remedies, primarily standpoint epistemology and privileging certain types of subjective “knowledges,” namely lived experience according to social position and the related idea of counterstories, with which they might “decolonize” our curricula and knowledge systems (see also, ways of knowing). In brief, where objectivity as an ideal requests that we defer to external, objective reality (as in the sciences) or social normativities (as in some cases of law, e.g., the “reasonable person standard”) to settle disputes of this kind, the Theory of Critical Social Justice advocates that we privilege whichever perspectives are most informed by oppression, marginalization, or trauma and whichever have been most marginalized and excluded by the existing dominant systems. That is, not all subjective experiences are equally valid; the more oppressed their subjects or marginalized they are, or have been, the more valid and important they are considered. One might notice that there are few better ways for virtually guaranteeing that knowledge claims will not be objective and are likely not to reflect reality very well.
Bias; Biopower; Colonialism; Counterstory; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical theory; Decoloniality; Discourse; Dominance; Episteme; Eurocentric; Exclusion; False consciousness; Foucauldian; Hegemony; Identity politics; Ideology; Imperialism; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Kaleidoscopic consciousness; Knowledge(s); Lived experience; Marginalization; Masculinism; Metanarrative; Multiple consciousness; Narrative; Normativity; Oppression; Other; Position; Positivism; Postmodern; Power-knowledge; Privilege; Racial knowledge; Radical; Realities; Reality; Science; Social construction; Social Justice; Standpoint epistemology; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; Trauma; Truth; Truth regime; Value-free; Ways of knowing; Western; White
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, p. 53.
One of the key contributions of critical theorists concerns the production of knowledge. Given that the transmission of knowledge is an integral activity in schools, critical scholars in the field of education have been especially concerned with how knowledge is produced. These scholars argue that a key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective, neutral, and universal. An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that objectivity is desirable or even possible. The term used to describe this way of thinking about knowledge is that knowledge is socially constructed. When we refer to knowledge as socially constructed we mean that knowledge is reflective of the values and interests of those who produce it.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, pp. 21–22.
This chapter explains what culture and socialization are and how they work. We introduce the relationship between being an individual and being a member of multiple social groups (such as race, gender, and class). The chapter explains how important it is for us to understand that our ideas, views, and opinions are not objective and independent, but rather the result of myriad social messages and conditioning forces.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, p. 41.
In order to understand the concept of knowledge as never purely objective, neutral, and outside of human interests, it is important to distinguish between discoverable laws of the natural world (such as the law of gravity), and knowledge, which is socially constructed. By socially constructed, we mean that all knowledge understood by humans is framed by the ideologies, language, beliefs, and customs of human societies. Even the field of science is subjective (the study of which is known as the sociology of scientific knowledge). For example, consider scientific research and how and when it is conducted. Which subjects are funded and which are not (e.g., the moon’s atmosphere, nuclear power, wind power, atmospheric pollution, or stem cells)? Who finances various types of research (private corporations, nonprofits, or the government)? Who is invested in the results of the research (e.g., for-profit pharmaceutical companies, the military, or nonprofit organizations)? How do these investments drive what is studied and how? How will the research findings be used? Who has access to the benefits of the research? As you can see, these are not neutral questions—they are always political, and they frame how knowledge is created, advanced, and circulated. Because of this, knowledge is never value-neutral.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, pp. 50–51.
Many influential scholars worked at the Institute, and many other influential scholars came later but worked in the Frankfurt School tradition. You may recognize the names of some of these scholars, such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse. Their scholarship is important because it is part of a body of knowledge that builds on other social scientists’ work: Emile Durkheim’s research questioning the infallibility of the scientific method, Karl Marx’s analyses of capitalism and social stratification, and Max Weber’s analyses of capitalism and ideology. All of these strands of thought built on one another. For example, scientific method (sometimes referred to as “positivism”—the idea that everything can be rationally observed without bias) was the dominant contribution of the 18th-century Enlightenment period in Europe. Positivism itself was a response and challenge to religious or theological explanations for “reality.” It rested on the importance of reason, principles of rational thought, the infallibility of close observation, and the discovery of natural laws and principles governing life and society. Critical Theory developed in part as a response to this presumed infallibility of scientific method, and raised questions about whose rationality and whose presumed objectivity underlies scientific methods.
STOP: From a critical social justice framework, informed knowledge does not refer exclusively to academic scholarship, but also includes the lived experiences and perspectives that marginalized groups bring to bear on an issue, due to their insider standing. However, scholarship can provide useful language with which marginalized groups can frame their experiences within the broader society.
Revision date: 5/12/20