What is Justice in social theory? What sociological and anthropological theories relate to philosophical reflections on justice and fairness?

The founders of sociology and anthropology were deeply interested in justice related issues: they reflected on legal, economic, social and interpersonal aspects of (in)justice and offered macro- and micro-level interpretations of the causes and outcomes of (in)justice and (un)fairness. However, the closer we come to current academic theorizing, concepts have been articulated more clearly and moved away from interpretations. “Justice” and “fairness” disappeared from social theoretical vocabulary and were replaced by ‘objectively measurable’ concepts like inequality, stratification, social capital and in/exclusion.

While sociologists are usually interested in ‘what is’, this is not to say that social theorists or philosophers are not interested in reflecting about ‘what ought to be’. In this paper we outline how different challenges to abstract European moral reasoning have attempted to develop grounded theories of justice. We focus on theories that analyze structural forms of (in)justice, as well as theories that engage with the perspectives of those who are marginalized.

Different theories of justice emerge from different standpoints and classic liberal theory has emerged from the standpoint of the white, male, able-bodied property owner, i.e. one that is partial and is historically embedded in values of independence and freedom. On the other hand different and more critical approaches emphasize a) how justice is determined by the relations we have with others and by the fact that we depend on the other; b) how considering different standpoints helps to stay critical of generalized understandings of justice; c) the dominance of the national as the frame of thinking and researching in social theory. We view race, gender, abled-ness, and sexuality as processual and relational rather than as given attributes and shed light on how these social relations fundamentally shape people’s empirical experiences of injustice and the deeply contested relation between the law and justice.

Starting from the position that: ‘A theory of justice and fairness is most plausibly [….] understood as a social construction or contract, rather than a timeless truth.’ (ETHOS Project Application, p.20) it emerges that critical social theory is very valuable. The purpose of applying critical social theory is to analyze the significance of dominant understandings generated in European societies in a historical context, to examine how vulnerable categories of people occur and are represented in the real world, and how such representations function to justify and legitimate their domination.


By Bridget Anderson, Claudia Hartman and Trudie Knijn
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D5.1
Find the full publication at: https://ethos-europe.eu/publications