Social Justice

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Social Justice Psychology has been referred to as The Fifth Wave of Psychology.

But what is Social Justice?

It wasn’t until the 1970’s that issues like race, cultural differences, and gender equality began to fall under the term. Before this, the term primarily referred to equity and fair economics. But Psychologists’ current use of the term has shifted Social Justice to refer to an individual virtue rather than a collective endeavor (Thrift and Sugarman, 2019).

If Social Justice is an individual virtue, that means change can be enacted through individual interventions (i.e., personal therapy, charity donations, attending book groups, installing solar panels, and helping people adjust to difficulties associated with Social Injustice). The unstated assumption within this view is that it inadvertent supports the cause of the unjust structural systems and suggests they can be ignored and, thereby, perpetuated.

This is an integral part of the Fifth Wave of Psychology dialogue because the history of psychology has previously contributed to social injustice. For instance, the suffering and subjugation of women were explained by hysteria, racial discrimination was justified by the inferior measured intelligence of people of color, homosexuality was condemned and classified as a mental disorder in the DSM, non-Western families were described as “enmeshed,” and the negative impact of poverty on childhood academic achievement has been recast as a lack of self-discipline or as deficits in other internal characteristics (Morrill).

Morrill continues to note that not only are structural problems obscured in these explanations, but they are replaced with interpretations that exclusively place responsibility on individuals or individual characteristics. This perverts the call to action and needs for collective reform on a systematic and corporate level.

Thrift and Sugarman argue:

“Psychologists’ endorsement of social justice may not only disguise the social and political sources of many mental health problems…. But also further bolsters the neoliberal ideal of individuals as self-responsible, competitive, enterprising, risk-seeking, adaptable individuals who bear sole responsibility for their circumstances, who do not require or even eschew government support, and whose freedom is manifested. By their capacity for choice.”

To balance this potential pitfall of The Firth Wave of Social Justice within the field of Psychology, I propose, it is essential to recall the foundations of Feminist therapy. In this view, concerns are personal and political; therefore, treatment is committed to addressing diversity, gender, and sexism by acknowledging the individual AND encouraging social change.

In a recent Psychology Today article, Feminist therapy was explained in detail. The author suggested feminist therapy exists to empower those who feel silenced or oppressed by majority cultures in society by honoring and elevating their voices. That means identifying skills and strengths to help clients recognize and embrace their power. It, the author continues, is based on the understanding that individuals are affected by and struggle with societal norms and must learn to look to themselves as the experts in their own unique identity. This is accomplished by reframing the client’s problems in the context of societal views rather than just their behaviors.

Feminist therapy aims at enriching and enlightening every one’s lives by hopefully encouraging social activism in a positive direction.


Feminist Therapy | Psychology Today.

What Does Social Justice Really Mean for Psychologists?.

Thrift, E., & Sugarman, J. (2018, September 13). What Is Social Justice? Implications for Psychology. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. Advance online publication. (Link)

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