Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

15732 Testing a Model for Social Empathy and Social Justice: Implications for Immigration Policy

Friday, January 13, 2012: 11:30 AM
Constitution E (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
M. Alex Wagaman, MSW, Doctoral student, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Jennifer Mullins, MSW, Doctoral Student, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Elizabeth A. Segal, PhD, Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Karen E. Gerdes, PhD, Associate Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Cynthia Lietz, PhD, Assistant Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Background & Purpose

Social empathy calls for using insights and understanding of people's lived experiences to inform public policy. The development of social empathy can move us toward social justice and action. This is particularly critical in today's anti-immigrant climate. Critical theorists argue that dominant groups are less likely to consider what life is like for those who are subordinate (Glick, 2008; DeTurk, 2001). This lack of understanding by those who are native to the United States and part of the dominant culture demonstrates minimal social empathy and may contribute to public policies that reflect anti-immigrant sentiments. This study tested a model for social empathy, which can lead to social justice.

Research Hypothesis

This study sought to test a theoretical model of social empathy. It was hypothesized that high subscale scores on measures of empathy, contextual understanding, and social responsibility would result in high social justice subscale scores.


Data were collected in the Fall of 2010 from students at a large Southwestern university using Qualtrics, an online survey tool. A 61 item instrument using a 6 point Likert scale was used to measure a) social justice, b) contextual understanding, c) social responsibility, and d) empathy. The sample consisted of 353 participants, 77% of whom were female. Eighty-one percent of the sample was between the ages of 18 and 25, and over 27% were social work majors. Latino (24%), White (68%) and African American (8%) participants were included in this study (data from other racial/ethnic groups were not included due to small sample sizes). Multivariate regression was used with mean scores of a social justice scale consisting of 4 items (=.72) as the dependent variable. The independent variables included subscale mean scores for contextual understanding (4 items, =.71) and social responsibility (6 items, =.82). Also included were mean subscale scores for components of an empathy measure affective response, emotion regulation, and self-other awareness.


The final model explained 42% (R2=.44, adjusted R2=.42) of the variance in social justice scores (F=33.27 (8, 338), p<.05). The results of this study indicate that the social empathy model (which includes empathy, contextual understanding and social responsibility) for achieving social justice holds for this population of university students, and that increases in any of the identified components in the model resulted in increased social justice scores. These results did not vary significantly by ethnicity or gender.

Conclusion & Implications

As social workers, we are uniquely positioned to bring together different groups, illuminate others' experiences, and enhance familiarity. The profession stands at the crossroad between those who are marginalized and those who are in power, and often is the only link between the two. This model for social justice provides a framework to build social empathy and enhance communication between groups. These skills are particularly important in understanding the issue of immigration and the needs of both those who migrate and the communities in which immigrants live.

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