Geography Social Justice
Marcia England
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0094


Originating from religious doctrine, social justice is concerned with ensuring equitable rights for members of a society regardless of identity, including such markers as race, class, gender, or religion. Endeavors of social justice focus on securing equal social status and economic and political rights for disadvantaged groups. While discussions may have historically concentrated on race, class, or gender, the conversation is expanding. Sexuality, housing status, and environmental vulnerability are now topics included in geographical studies of social justice. Academic research and social activism aims to combat those relegated to society’s sidelines. The term “social justice” incorporates a number of different social movements across the globe. As outcries grow for a more just society, academic and activists have increasingly began to search for tools to achieve that goal. Geographically speaking, socio-spatial justice is perhaps a more apt term. It is the spatial study of social-justice issues. Exploring the role of space in social interactions is one just one contribution that geographers have made in social-justice research and practice. Geographers have examined social justice in a variety of spatial contexts and with multiple lenses of analysis. Geography has added a spatial understanding of social-justice issues and can contribute a spatially focused way of combating inequalities.

General Overviews

Social justice has been an important area of inquiry in geography, and research continues to grow in this field. Academics and activists (often not separate categories) push for a more socio-spatially just society through their work and actions. Geographical work on the subject has increased since the late 20th century. Geographers continue to see social justice as an important area of study and to analyze many different aspects of the concept from the perspectives of identity politics, teaching, research, the environment, or needs of urban inhabitants. Voices from around the globe are being included into debates, and their contributions are valuable in the creation of a more inclusive and just discipline. Radical geographical work of the 1970s and 1980s broke ground on understanding spatial analysis of social issues. A key example of this is the work of David Harvey, who in 1973, with Social Justice and the City, ignited a resurgence of the examination of social justice in geography. Harvey 2009 (first published in 1973) led to work on the role of space and territory in equitable redistribution. Fraser 2009 expands Harvey’s framework and argues that both redistribution and recognition are key components of social justice. Using Harvey 2009 as a base, Smith 2000 incorporates moral philosophy, while Smith 1994 provides a cross-disciplinary overview of theory and empirics and their spatial elements. While social justice is an effort that many disciplines have taken up, the author of Soja 2010, as well as other scholars, argues that geographers lend a unique spatial lens to examinations of inequality. Tyler, et al. 1997; Miller 1999; and Barry 2005 provide more of a broad discussion of social justice in society and the need to address inequalities in social sciences.

  • Barry, Brian. Why Social Justice Matters. Malden, MA: Polity, 2005.

    Examines social inequality in the United Kingdom and the United States and its prevalence despite the dominant political party. Argues that this has to do with the ideology of personal responsibility and “equal” opportunity and that social justice requires transformation of all institutions.

  • Fraser, Nancy. “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition, and Participation.” In Geographic Thought: A Praxis Perspective. Edited by George Henderson and Marvin Waterstone, 72–89. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    Fraser discusses and problematizes two types of social-justice claims: redistributive and the politics of recognition and the polarization that results from those claims. Fraser argues that society needs both redistribution and recognition for a socially just society.

  • Harvey, David. Social Justice and the City. Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation 1. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

    This influential and groundbreaking book, first published in 1973, sparked the turn to social justice in late-20th-century geographical history. Exploring politics, capitalism, and space, Harvey analyzes city policies and how they relate to urban poverty. This is the backbone for “revolutionary” geography and is cited regularly decades after its release.

  • Miller, David. Principles of Social Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

    Miller provides social context to social justice in this book, arguing that implementation of social justice is just as complex as the societies that strive for equality.

  • Smith, David M. Geography and Social Justice. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

    This interdisciplinary book examines the relationship between geography and morality. It contains both theoretical frameworks from multiple fields and empirical case studies from around the world. Provides a broad survey of social-justice issues.

  • Smith, David M. “Social Justice Revisited.” Environment and Planning A 32.7 (2000): 1149–1162.

    DOI: 10.1068/a3258

    Building off Harvey 2009 (initially published in 1973), Miller discusses and problematizes politics of difference and its relation to social justice. Examines the preoccupation of geography with redistribution politics and posits why social justice should be endorsed, using multiple moral frameworks.

  • Soja, Edward W. Seeking Spatial Justice. Globalization and Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

    Soja argues that social justice is actually spatial justice due to the geographic nature of social acts, and he calls for basic human rights, using an equitable distribution framework.

  • Tyler, Tom R., Robert J. Boeckmann, Heather J. Smith, and Yuen J. Huo. Social Justice in a Diverse Society. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997.

    This book looks at the questions underlying social justice and examines examples of inequality in gender, pay, crime, and culture. The authors explore research on relative deprivation, distributive justice, procedural justice, and retributive justice.

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