Sociology Justice
Michael Strand
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0179


Since at least the time of Plato’s Republic, justice has been a close companion to all critical analysis of social life, not least because speculation about the just society has often been synonymous with the study of society in a more descriptive sense. Indeed, the concept of “society” has itself had a normative meaning much longer than it has had a descriptive one. Sociology, of course, changes that relationship as a scientific discipline dedicated to describing the reality of social life independent of how we want it to be. However, the apparent fragmentation of the sociology of justice is living testament to the difficulty still presented by studying justice empirically instead of normatively. Emile Durkheim tried to resolve the normative and descriptive difference (see Classical Sociology of Justice) by arguing that what justice means is nothing less than what social groups, as quasi-natural entities, require in order to maintain solidarity. The normative becomes empirical in Durkheim’s analysis, though not all would agree that his equating of justice with solidarity makes the sociology of justice any easier to do. Social psychologists have arguably done the most to advance the contemporary sociological study of justice, aided by testable propositions, the power of experimental methods, and the fact that the meaning of justice as an affect carries far less ambiguity than its philosophical, cultural, or institutional meanings. The role that justice plays in social movements and public opinion owes much to the social psychology of justice. Yet for all of its strengths, social psychology is often criticized for lacking historical and cultural depth and for limiting justice to a micro phenomenon. Drawing from concepts such as institutions, orders of worth, practices, and discourse, other sociologists have attempted to fill the gap, revealing the dynamic role that justice plays in a variety of contextual settings. In many respects, the study of justice, both inside and outside of social psychology, is more vital and significant than it has ever been. And yet, a normative ghost still haunts the sociology of justice in two senses. First, the meaning of justice is still in many respects imported from philosophy and its effort to completely define ideas (e.g., “what is justice?”). Philosophers still hold court over the study of justice in the public eye. However, with more reflexive analysis of philosophical principles and the effort to give ideas a history and a context rather than a definition, the relationship could be changing. Second, achieving justice in society through the empirical analysis of society remains, for many, the very lifeblood of sociology. This presents a different set of challenges for efforts to treat moral ideals such as justice empirically and therefore muddied by psychology, history, culture, and context. Attunement to multiple perspectives and exhortations over time on justice seems requisite for developing the sociology of justice as a field dedicated to revealing the many ways in which the justice world works.

General Overviews

Overviews of justice that engage with sociology, or any other social science, are considerably lacking in comparison with the number of overviews that take a philosophical point of view. This is a testament to the continued dominance of philosophers over the study of justice. Philosophical overviews often emphasize the distinction between utilitarianism and deontology, or the difference between a morality of outcomes versus a morality of duties and principles (Sandel 2009, Sandel 2007). Other treatments engage with themes that overlap with sociological topics, particularly distributive justice (Roemer 1996), reciprocity (Johnston 2011), and critical theory (Pereira 2013). Importantly, however, a general overview of the sociology of justice is yet to be written.

  • Bierhoff, Hans, Ronald Cohen, and Jerald Greenberg, eds. 1986. Justice in social relations. New York: Plenum.

    This edited volume is rich in discussion of experimental methods for studying justice, particularly from a social-psychological, formal and game-theoretic standpoint.

  • Cohen, Ronald, ed. 1986. Justice: Views from the social sciences. New York: Plenum.

    Features chapters written about justice from the standpoint of each social science. Rytina’s chapter “Sociology and Justice” is an important and useful overview, with a discussion ranging from classical theory to social movements.

  • Johnston, David. 2011. A brief history of justice. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444397550

    Johnston’s book is probably most significant for its narrative focus, capturing how alternative theories of justice in the Western philosophical tradition grow out of one another. His claim that justice is essentially a matter of reciprocity should be of interest to sociologists.

  • Kolm, Serge-Christophe. 1996. Modern theories of justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    A philosophically oriented and slightly technical discussion of themes in distributive justice, Kolm’s book relates these to many issues of interest to sociologists. He concludes that justice consists of justifications about social entities that have been made amenable to considerations of justice.

  • Pereira, Gustavo. 2013. Elements of a critical theory of justice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137263384

    Directly informed by social theories of justice, Pereira’s book provides an excellent dissection of the “recognition versus redistribution” dispute. The critical theory of justice is unique in its emphasis on rooting critical standpoints in everyday moral experiences.

  • Roemer, John. 1996. Theories of distributive justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Roemer’s overview covers the full range of different theories of distributive justice. While technical in focus, it relates philosophical themes to core sociological issues such as inequality and poverty.

  • Sandel, Michael, ed. 2007. Justice: A reader. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A user-friendly edited volume of primary works drawn from major theorists of justice, this book includes contributions from philosophers, economists, social activists, and journalists. Sandel weaves together problem-centered discussions with philosophical analyses.

  • Sandel, Michael. 2009. Justice: What’s the right thing to do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

    A provocative and readable introduction to major themes in the philosophy of justice, Sandel’s book displays his mastery at relating abstract philosophical principles to particular moral puzzles.

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