Introduction to Social Justice in Social Work

Social workers are passionate about serving others. They apply this passion to advocating for vulnerable groups of people like children, seniors and those with disabilities. Because of this, social work is tied to social justice, which often leads efforts to protect the rights of the previously mentioned groups.

This article discusses what social justice is, why it’s important, and how social justice applies to the social work field.

What Is Social Justice?

Social justice has to do with the belief that all people should have equal rights and opportunity. However, there is a lot of confusion about what exactly this means. To more fully understand social justice, it helps to examine its history.

Howard University

School of Social Work


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The online Master of Social Work program from Howard University School of Social Work prepares students for advanced direct or macro practice in culturally diverse communities. Two concentrations available: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice. No GRE. Complete in as few as 12 months.

  • Concentrations: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice
  • Complete at least 777-1,000 hours of agency-based field education
  • Earn your degree in as few as 12 months

University of Denver

Graduate School of Social Work


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Customizable pathway options include Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations


History of social justice

The concept of social justice has religious roots, originating in 1843 from the Italian philosopher and priest Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, according to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a nonprofit educational organization. ISI notes that the Catholic Church formally adopted “social justice” as part of its teaching through Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, “Quadragesimo Anno.” These early discussions of social justice addressed the growing gap between the rich and poor after the industrial revolution and into the progressive era.

After the Great Depression, the social work profession experienced a shift in priorities and adopted a social justice focus. In his Social Work Today article, “Keeping Social Justice in Social Work,” Dr. Frederic Reamer explains how many social workers “worked primarily in public welfare agencies and other social programs begun under the New Deal and designed to address society’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.”

The idea of social justice received more attention after John Rawl, an American political philosopher, published “A Theory of Justice” in 1971. Its guiding principle was that people have “an equal right to the most extensive system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.” Rawl’s ideas and theories of social justice have continued to be pertinent in economics and politics. For example, the United Nations and The International Forum for Social Development mention Rawl’s justice ideas throughout the 2006 publication, “Social Justice in an Open World: The Role of the United Nations.”

Definition of social justice:
Social justice is a type of justice rooted in the idea that all people should have equal rights, opportunity and treatment.

Definition of social injustice:
Social injustice is when actions are taken that infringe upon a group’s rights, marginalize their opportunities or treat them unfairly.

Why Is Social Justice Important?

Social justice promotes fairness and equity across many aspects of society. For example, it promotes equal economic, educational and workplace opportunities. It’s also important to the safety and security of individuals and communities.

According to the National Education Association (NEA) Diversity Toolkit, “The absence of social justice results in social oppression.” The NEA notes this could be in the form of “racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism.” It also suggests the following strategies for promoting social justice:

  • Concentrate on diversity
  • Confront the implications of oppression
  • Learn and address the attitudes and behaviors that sustain oppression
  • Adopt an inclusive mindset

Social workers apply the above strategies to advance growth and change among vulnerable groups, such the senior, LGBTQ, homeless, veteran and refugee communities.

Issues in social justice

Social justice issues span many areas. The Pachamama Alliance, an organization that advocates for indigenous and nature rights, says social justice issues can stem from prejudices in areas such as race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, education and mental or physical ability. Social workers must engage these issues as they promote social development and change.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) notes five areas of social justice priorities: voting rights, criminal justice/ juvenile justice, environmental justice, immigration and economic justice. Other common social justice priorities are related to health care, education and workers’ rights. While liberals and conservatives feel differently about social justice issues and how to address them, social workers are committed to addressing the social injustices they encounter.

What Is Social Justice in Social Work?

Social justice and social work cannot be separated. Social workers use their strong communication and empathy skills to relate with patients undergoing stress and trauma, which could be related to social injustices. They ensure people are treated with respect and promote social justice within schools, hospitals, community centers, nursing homes and more.

According to the NASW’s Code of Ethics, “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” The NASW lists social justice as one of the social work profession’s core values, which include:

  • Service
  • Social justice
  • Dignity and worth of the person
  • Importance of human relationships
  • Integrity
  • Competence

Each value is tied to an aspirational ethical principle. For social justice, the ethical principle is “Social workers challenge social injustice.” The Code of Ethics expands upon this principle:

Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people.

Social workers engage in social justice because they have to be attentive to the environmental and societal factors that contribute to people’s struggles. Reamer explains this in his Social Work Today article, writing about how social workers understand “that individual clients’ struggles with problems such as clinical depression, anxiety, domestic violence, substance abuse and poor health often stem from significant social and economic problems associated with poverty, unemployment, unaffordable housing, inflation and other environmental problems.”

Careers in Social Justice

Aside from social work, there are several other careers in social justice. If you’re looking for ways to help individuals and communities address injustices, you may want to consider the following social justice careers: 

  • Mental health worker: Related closely to the field of psychiatric social work, a mental health worker or counselor provides treatment and support for those who are experiencing mental or behavioral problems. Mental health workers evaluate clients’ mental health, develop treatment plans and goals and work with clients to assist them in their recovery. They may also conduct outreach to help community members recognize signs of destructive behavior. Most mental health counselor positions require at least a bachelor’s degree, but many require a master’s degree as well.
  • Victim advocate: A victim advocate provides assistance to victims of crimes throughout the criminal justice process. They advocate on behalf of victims and ensure that their rights are not violated. Responsibilities may include offering emotional support, providing resources and referrals and assisting with criminal justice forms. Some schools offer certificate programs specifically focused on victim advocacy. 
  • Community developer: Community developers—sometimes referred to as community service managers—are responsible for coordinating community-wide programs that support public well-being. This may include identifying necessary programs and planning and managing outreach activities. Community developers often work for nonprofit organizations or government agencies. This position incorporates elements of macro social work, as it focuses on implementing large-scale solutions to community injustices. 
  • Lobbyist: Lobbyists represent certain political interests and work to sway politicians to vote for legislation that favors these interests. Lobbying may be considered a social justice career if you are representing legislation that seeks to address community injustices. To become a lobbyist, it may be beneficial to earn a degree in political science, journalism, law, communication or public relations. It can also be helpful to have work experience relating to the specific issues you want to represent. 
  • Lawyer: Lawyers represent individuals and businesses on a variety of legal issues, including disputes related to social justice. As a lawyer, you’ll advise clients, conduct research on legal problems and present facts to a court. In most states, lawyers need to earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree and pass a bar exam before practicing. If you’re interested in both social work and law, you may want to consider a dual Master of Social Work (MSW) and J.D. degree. These types of dual degrees are designed to provide you with an understanding of how legal policies affect complex social issues.

Resources for Further Learning

Regardless of what type of social work career you wish to pursue, if you decide to become a social worker, social justice will likely be an integral part of your work. Below are resources related to social justice in social work. How will social justice be part of your social work career?

Web resources


Last updated: March 2022