The interpretation of social justice, equality and inequality in social work

A view from the US

Authored by: Michael Reisch

The Routledge Handbook of Social Work Theory

Print publication date:  July  2019
Online publication date:  June  2019

Print ISBN: 9780415793438
eBook ISBN: 9781315211053
Adobe ISBN:


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Social justice has been a central normative component of social welfare and social work for over a century (Reamer, 2013). The Code of Ethics of the US National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2017) explicitly states that the pursuit of social justice is an ‘ethical imperative’. The International Federation of Social Workers (2014) makes a comparable assertion on its website: ‘Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work’. Yet the definition of this central tenet of practice is ambiguous, inconsistent and often in conflict with other goals, including social equality for excluded and marginalized populations (Reisch, 2008). To date, the profession has unsuccessfully attempted to resolve this conceptual and practical conflict despite repeated efforts by theorists from diverse ideological perspectives. This chapter explores the evolution of this conflict and its implications for contemporary social policies and social work practice.

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