Abstract: Connecting Ideals to Actions: How Definitions of Social Justice Influence the Civic Engagement of Undergraduate Students (Society for Social Work and Research 22nd Annual Conference - Achieving Equal Opportunity, Equity, and Justice)

Connecting Ideals to Actions: How Definitions of Social Justice Influence the Civic Engagement of Undergraduate Students

Thursday, January 11, 2018: 3:15 PM
Marquis BR Salon 14 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Nicolaus Espitia, doctoral student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Richard Rodems, doctoral student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Katie Richards-Schuster, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Suzanne Pritzker, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Houston, Houston, TX

A focus on social justice has been a central component of social work practice.  Despite the centrality of the concept, there has been uneven understanding about what social justice means and even less understand of how these definitions link to actions and practices.  Especially in college settings, social justice can connote different ideas- from activism, to mobilization, to service, to voting. This paper presents research focused on an undergraduate social justice minor housed in a school of social work.  In particular, this paper answers two specific research questions: 1) How do undergraduate student enrolled in a social justice oriented academic minor define social justice? 2) How do these definitions influence the type of social activities undergraduates participate in?


Drawing on a mixed method approach, we developed a survey using closed and open ended questions to gather information about students, their activities, course work, prior experiences, current voting practices, and perspectives on definitions of social justice.. The survey was administered to currently enrolled minors as well as recent alumni via email from January 2015 through January 2016 (N=75). The survey included an opened ended question asking respondents to define social justice. These definitions were then coded using an inductive approach guided by grounded theory. Common themes within the definitions were identified and labeled. The coding process resulted in the emergence of two specific types of social justice definitions. Additionally, respondents identified what activities from a civic engagement scale they considered to be social justice actions and activities in which they were participants.  Regression analysis was used to examine the relationship between conceptions of social justice and actions taken by students.


The results suggested that students viewed social justice through two lenses: (1) type of approach (utilitarian; transformational); (2) level of approach (internal & external).   Utilitarian approaches defined social justice as a tool/utility to create equal access and equal opportunity.  Transformational approaches viewed social justice as a form of knowledge, awareness, and critical consciousness.  Internal approaches saw social justice as an activity to change opportunity or consciousness of individuals.  External approaches defined social justice relative to a larger societal or social change objective.  Student actions were defined by what activities they currently engage in and what actions they perceive to be social justice.  Actions ranged from voting and political engagement, researching and understanding social issues, engaging in service, organizing around issues, developing action projects, raising social identity awareness, and engaging in dialogue around identity and issues, as examples. Responses were then linked to definitions to explore patterns and relationships between ideals and actions.


Social work’s focus on the grand challenge of equity and social justice calls for research to understand how students define social justice and how those ideals link to action. As schools of social work learn how students define social justice they can also examine how different definitions of social justice influence what activities they participate in and can allow schools to develop interventions to promote life long activism.