Working Papers

Social Justice and Social Movements

What Is The Field Of Social Justice About?

Social psychologists have a long history of interest in the basis of people’s cognitions, attitudes and behaviors in social interactions. Why does a concern about people’s feelings and actions in social settings lead social psychologists to study social justice? Studies show that judgments about what is “just”, “fair”, “deserved”, or something one is “entitled” to receive are a central social judgment which lies at the heart of people’s feelings, attitudes, and behaviors in their interactions with others. Perceptions of injustice are closely related to feelings of anger (Montada, 1994; Shaver et al, 1989) and envy (Smith, Parolt, Ozer and Moniz, 1994), to psychological depression (Hafer and Olson, 1992; Walker and Mann, 1987) and to moral outrage (Montada, 1994). Further, judgments of fairness are significantly related to people’s interpersonal perceptions (Lerner, 1981), political attitudes (Tyler, 1990; Tyler, Rasinski and McGraw, 1985) and prejudice toward outgroups (Lipkus and Siegler, 1993; Pettigrew and Meertons, 1994).

People’s actual behavior is also strongly linked to views about justice and injustice. A wide variety of studies link justice judgments to positive behaviors such as willingness to accept third-party decisions (Tyler, 1990); willingness to help the group (Moorman, 1991; Organ and Moorman, 1993); and willingness to empower group authorities (Tyler and Degoey, 1994). Conversely, other studies link the lack of justice to sabotage, theft, and on a collective level, to the willingness to rebel or protest (Greenberg, 1990; Moore, 1978; Muller and Jukam, 1983). In other words, how people feel and behave in social settings is strongly shaped by judgments about justice and injustice.1 Such justice judgments are of special interest to social psychologists because justice standards are a socially created reality. They have no external referent of the type associated with physical objects. Instead, they are created and maintained by individuals, groups, organizations, and societies.

In addition to being important because it addresses central social psychological questions, social justice is important because its predictions are counterintuitive, and contrary to the prevailing selfinterest models which dominate the social sciences. Since the “rational” view of the person that currently informs and influences much of social science and public policy assumes that people are motivated by self interest, not by concerns about justice, departures from this rationality are both theoretically and socially important.

Social justice research shows that people’s feelings and beliefs are not consistent with the feelings that would be predicted by self-interest theories. A self-interest model predicts that those who receive more compensation for their work will be more satisfied. However, this prediction is not borne out by the data. Instead, people’s satisfaction is linked to whether or not they feel that they are receiving fair compensation. Those receiving fair compensation indicate greater satisfaction than those receiving higher, but unfair, levels of compensation (Walster, Walster, and Berscheid, 1978).

Social justice research on behavior also reflects departures from a self-interest or rational choice model. For example, people are willing to punish others who act unfairly even at a personal cost to themselves. Further, in situations of unequal power, social exchange theory predicts that people with greater power will use their power to achieve unequal gains. Research suggests that they do, but that their behavior does not fully exploit their power advantages (Guth, Schmittberger, Schwarze, 1982; Ochs and Roth, 1989). Instead, their behavior seems to reflect a concern for fairness. The failure of advantaged people not to fully press their resource and power adva