Abstract: In Pursuit of Social Justice: Cambodian American Social Service Providers' Fight for Change (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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In Pursuit of Social Justice: Cambodian American Social Service Providers' Fight for Change

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Valley of the Sun D, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Meghan Orr, MSW, Social Worker, California State University, Long Beach, Long Beach, CA
Kristina Lovato, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Suzie Weng, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, California State University, Long Beach, CA
Background and Purpose

According to Rawls (1999), society should pursue social justice by distributing resources to those who have the greatest need. The capabilities perspective adds to Rawls’ distributive justice approach by integrating dimensions of human dignity, self-determination, and well-being.The pursuit of social justice by Cambodian American social services providers is a prime example of the capabilities perspective. There is a long history of Asian Americans fighting for social justice through community preservation and political action such as the pan-Asian American movements of the 1960’s. Though there is some research on social programming and the well-being of Cambodian Americans today, there is very little research on the role of Cambodian American social service providers in pursuing social justice, or what methods they use to engage their communities in these pursuits.


The guiding research questions for this study were: 1) Why did Cambodian American social service providers fight for social justice in the Cambodian American community? and 2) How did Cambodian American social service providers go about fighting for social justice? A case study approach was used to answer “how” and “why” questions.

This study used purposive and snowball sampling to recruit 20 Cambodian American social service providers who worked at Cambodian American ethnic agencies that ranged from 3 to 20 years. Data were collected through field notes. Data analysis was guided by the constant comparative method by Glaser and Strauss (1999). Step one involved open coding and unitizing of all categories that emerge. Step two sorted and recategorized units. Step three compared units to ensure fit with their category. Step four repeated steps two and three as needed until the categories told a story. Step five consisted of theme development from the categories.


Findings show that Cambodian providers foster social justice by: 1) promoting social responsibility to serve the community; 2) advancing cultural capital, cultivating Cambodian culture, and remembering history for future generations; and 3) creating social networks which serve as protective barriers from social isolation.

Conclusions and Implications

Overall, the findings from this study demonstrate that Cambodian American social services providers fought for justice by promoting the fair distribution of benefits, resources and responsibilities among Cambodian Americans through their cultural activism and a strong commitment to promoting the well-being of the community. This advocacy is rooted in ethnic identity and self-determination, contributing to the empowerment of themselves and their community. Findings from this study contribute to an important body of research on the Cambodian American community and will benefit overall efforts in supporting community-led social justice in Asian American communities.


Aguirre, J. A., & Shoon Lio. (2008). Spaces of Mobilization: The Asian American/Pacific Islander Struggle for Social Justice. Social Justice, 35(2), 1–17.

Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1999). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Chicago: Aldine Transaction.

Morris, P.G., (2002). The capabilities perspective: A framework for social justice. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 365-372.

Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.