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Volume 5, Number 1

Spring 2007

On-Line Resources for Teaching an Introductory Social Justice Course


Jacqueline Keil
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Kean University


    This paper is intended to be a resource for teaching courses in social justice, particularly those offered in the social sciences at the undergraduate level.  While most of the literature about teaching and social justice identify social justice as being an emphasis in a course focusing on some other substantive area (e.g., education, history, math), here I describe teaching it explicitly as a social justice course in sociology.  First, I describe the relationship between social justice and sociology and give an overview of the structure of an undergraduate sociology course I teach, Introduction to Social Justice. Second, I describe how the class addresses the concept of social justice and identify free on-line resources, all with links valid as of May 19, 2007, that have positively affected student interest, comprehension, and participation.

Sociology, Social Justice, and Course Overview

    Not surprisingly, much of the literature on teaching and social justice draws upon the work of Paulo Freire, who "generated a process whereby learners stand back from the familiar in order to perceive it in a more critical light (Mayo, 1997: Para. 3)."  This emphasis on looking at the familiar in a critical light is possible in a variety of disciplines, therefore much has been written on adopting such an approach when developing and teaching courses in a wide range of subjects.  More surprising about the teaching of social justice literature is the absence of an examination of teaching it explicitly as a social justice course. Here I focus on teaching social justice as a course in sociology, a discipline ideally suited for addressing this topic.

    Social justice has been identified as an important theme for sociological teaching and research.  Former president of the American Sociological Association (ASA) Joe Feagin devoted his published presidential address to the topic of social justice and the pressing need to restore it to importance in teaching and research (Feagin, 2001).  The 2004 ASA annual meeting focused on "public sociologies,"  a theme with an emphasis on civil society and one that Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, saw as having much in common with the human rights movement since both involve discussions and debates about race, class, gender, environment, free markets, violence and politics (Robinson, 2004). 

    These themes that connect sociology and the human rights movement are central for the course presented here, Introduction to Social Justice. This course is a sociological examination of the existence of social injustices in the US, and other nations, and the various collective efforts to remedy them. In this respect, the course is like other sociology courses that focus on social problems like poverty, racism and sexism and the various movements that challenge them. 

    But the course does differ from standard sociology courses so the focus here is on the beginning section of the course that makes it relatively distinct.  This part of the class concentrates on describing the social scientific approach to studying social justice, laying the groundwork for developing a better understanding of the activism necessary to create a just society, and using an intellectual exercise and classic social theory to start considering the features a just society would possess.

    An additional feature of this course is introducing students to the wealth of social justice resources and readings available online including journalistic accounts of current events and trends not written exclusively for an academic audience.  The motivation for including such articles was to design a course to facilitate sociological thinking for all students, including those who will not be going on to graduate school, by showing students how sociology can be connected to mainstream works written for larger audiences. Also, assigned articles in the course make direct, clear connections about how social injustice affects students' lives, families, and communities.

    Finally, and related to the above, I wanted to encourage students to participate in engaged learning meaning, according to Nagda et al. (2003), students are leaving class and continuing to think about and discuss the course material outside the classroom setting.  Nagda et al. (2003) argue that engaged learning in turn leads to democratic sentiments, something important for teaching and achieving social justice.  Given this, these articles from various sources are intended to encourage students to connect with the material and think about course content outside the classroom.

A Sociological Examination of the Concept of Social Justice

    More of a focus later in the course but discussed very early on is how working to achieve social justice requires activism and overcoming pessimism.  In other words, working to achieve justice means adhering to the optimistic belief that a better world is possible, something especially important to keep in mind when obstacles to achieving social justice seem insurmountable.

    To reinforce the importance of idealism as well as activism for achieving a just society, one of the first articles students read focuses on the political apathy of young people in the United States (A Politics for Generation X available at <
articles/1999/a_politics_for_generation_x>  link  In a social justice course, it is important to have a frank discussion about the extent to which youths, including people in the classroom, are not engaged in political life and why.  Students connect strongly with this article since most are not interested in politics. 

    The article identifies economic insecurity and feelings that the political system is "rigged" to favor the economically well to do as important factors that can help us to understand political apathy.  Even though the article was published in 1999 and focuses on an earlier generation than that of most students, it creates the opportunity to discuss the political economy and how apathy and its associated lack of political participation can lead us to question the extent to which a society is democratic.  Here, the emphasis is on getting students to recognize that while the right to vote freely is an important feature of democracy, it is necessary but not sufficient for ensuring a democratic distribution of power.

    Next, the class examines what it means to study social justice sociologically.  The sociology of social justice involves analyzing the extent to which a category, or categories, of people is oppressed and how.  More specifically, the sociological approach to studying social justice means using the tools of social science to develop an awareness and understanding of how rewards (e.g., economic resources and decision making power) are distributed and then determining if the system of distribution systematically works to the advantage of members of social categories and the disadvantage of members of other social categories. 

    However, this description of what it means to study social justice could be used to describe what it means to study social stratification.  While there is overlap in the subject matter of courses in social justice and social stratification, a course in social justice requires including an evaluation of whether or not the social structure, its dynamics, and the outcomes are just.  Therefore, the study of social justice requires developing criteria for evaluating the extent to which a society, or any other social organization, is a just or fair one.

    To begin thinking about such criteria, the class works with an assigned reading about a well-known political philosopher in the area of social justice, John Rawls (The Enduring Significance of John Rawls available at <>link.   The article includes a description of Rawls' intellectual exercise that involves using the veil of ignorance to develop a just society.  While the focus of the article is philosophy, it is very useful for helping students to understand social justice as well as sociological concepts like oppression and empathic understanding. 

    Basically, the logic behind the veil of ignorance is this: if ordinary people are assigned the task of developing a blueprint for a just society, they will do so when they are told they can be placed in any social position in that society.  According to Rawls, a just society is one in which people would be willing to be placed in any social position, so when people are trying to develop a just social organization they will do so when they have no idea where they would be placed in the social organization.  Asking students to participate in such an intellectual exercise made for some very interesting discussions not only at the time of the exercise but throughout the semester.

    A less abstract, more concrete way to discuss the criteria used to evaluate the extent to which societies and social organizations are just or unjust is to focus on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights available at <>link.  Reviewing this document as well as its socio-historical context introduces students to the principles of a just society and standards by which social organizations can be evaluated.  These topics of criteria and evaluations continue in the discussions of social theory. 

   This section of the course begins with Karl Marx’s analysis and critique of capitalism as an unjust system as well as his work on alienation.  A very useful site for teaching Marx and other social theorists is the Dead Sociologists' Index available at <> link.  Here, students can access the original works of social theorists as well as excerpts from Lewis Coser's Masters of Sociological Thought.

    An article about outsourcing, The Best Job in Town available at <
articles/2004/the_best_job_in_town>  link is useful for discussing Marx's analysis of capitalism in The Manifesto of the Communist Party and his continued relevance for understanding current events.  This article focuses on the movement of white-collar jobs to India and facilitates discussions of globalization as well as false consciousness.  Initially, students usually frame outsourcing as an issue of Indian workers taking jobs away from Americans.  However, when the class addresses the topic using Marx’s theoretical framework, students develop an understanding of outsourcing with social class, class interests, and class relations at the center of the analysis.

    Next the course focuses on Emile Durkheim's concept of a just society as being a meritocracy in which inheritance is non-existent and some degree of conflict is permissible since it can lead to readjustments in the social contract.   In addition to excerpts at the Dead Sociologists' Index, students read a very short article about rising college tuition costs, The Tuition Crunch available at <
articles/2004/the_tuition_crunch  link  The article focuses on how a college education is increasingly out-of-reach, especially for low-income students, due to rising costs.  Needless to say, students are very interested in talking about rising tuition costs, but the article is useful, too, for critically evaluating the extent to which the US is or is not a meritocracy.  Since this article makes clear that low-income students are at a disadvantage and high-income students are at an advantage, students can see the logic behind Durkheim’s critique of inheritance since it undermines merit by giving advantages to those with money rather than talent.

    The final classic social theorist discussed in the course is Max Weber. While Weber did not clearly outline a vision of what would constitute a just society, he did identify concerns about the trends of his times and these are the focus of this section of the course.  Using materials from the Dead Sociologists' Index, students focus on his analysis of authority and bureaucracy, his concerns about alienation in the face of growing centralization and the ‘iron cage’.  These topics are then linked a discussion of social justice and injustice in relation to power, democracy, and fascism.

    To supplement discussions of the Weber, students watch selections of Leni Riefanstahl's Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. This film is useful for discussing the centralization of power and is useful later in the course, too, when the class addresses C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite and the concerns he addresses in this work about the features of mass society – little interest in and knowledge of politics among non-elites thereby making them more susceptible to manipulation by non-elites. Using an actual fascist propaganda film is a useful tool for teaching students how techniques of manipulation operate and for reinforcing the importance of political engagement.

Course Improvements

    One major weakness in the section of the course described here is the absence of social theorists like W.E.B. DuBois and Harriet Martineau.  On-line resources I plan to use when incorporating these social theorists include the one I use currently, the Dead Sociologists' Index, as well as articles on DuBois available in Volume 3 of Sociation Today at <
sociationtoday/v31/outline5.htm>link  and Martineau resources available at the New School's The History of Economic Thought <> link  which has a Martineau page with a summary of her work, links to her works, and resources for learning more about her.

    Another feature to be included in order to improve the course is on-line video.  For example, in order to facilitate discussion about Rawls' veil of ignorance, I plan to incorporate the case of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.  Using one video produced by the US War Relocation Authority <>link  and another by the US Office of War Information <>link, students can see the government’s presentation and justification of relocating Japanese Americans into camps.  While clearly useful for discussing propaganda and racism, these videos should help students to understand the veil of ignorance by asking them to consider whether or not they would support such a policy if there were a chance they would be placed in such a social context as a Japanese American.

    These videos are available on the moving images section of the  Internet Archive website <>link, a great resource for online videos relevant to social justice and sociology.


    Von Soest et al. (2000) note how "research suggests that faculty experience discomfort, difficulties, and resistance to course content that combines cultural diversity and social justice (p. 465)," especially since such topics are conducive to heated debates.  My experiences with teaching Introduction to Social Justice have been different.  Students actively participated in class discussions, incorporated material from other classes, and made links between assigned readings and current events.  All of this indicated to me that at some level they were engaged learners.

    However, in some ways the course is just like any other.  Ideally, this would be a course that would draw a disproportionate number of students who were politically aware and active, but this is not the case.  The course is a lower level elective meaning there are a number of students, majors and non-majors, who enroll since they were looking for a relatively easy elective.  Also, on the first day of class I have asked students to write about what they think the course will be about and many think it is the same thing as a criminal justice course meaning they might be drawn to the course for reasons other than an interest in social justice.  Despite all of this, most students indicate some level of engagement with the course. 

Other References

Coser, Lewis A. 1977. Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context (2nd Ed.). Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Feagin, Joe R. 2001. "Social Justice and Sociology: Agendas for the Twenty-First Century." American Sociological Review 66: 1-20.

Mayo, Peter. 1997. "Paulo Friere, 1921-1997." Convergence. 30: 4-8. Retrieved October 10, 2004, from Wilson Web database.

Nagda, Biren, Patricia Gurin, and Gretchen Lopez. 2003. "Transformative Pedagogy for Democracy and Social Justice." Race Ethnicity and Education. 6: 165-191.

Robinson, Mary. 2004. "Public Sociologies and Human Rights: Finding Common Ground." Retrieved October 30, 2004, from American Sociological Association Web site: <>

Von Soest, Dorothy, Robert Canon, and Darlene Grant. 2000. "Using an Interactive Website to Educate About Cultural Diversity and Societal Oppression." Journal of Social Work Education 36: 463-479.

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