Built into the architecture of western societies and their socio-cultural and economic structures is a cumulative bias towards certain groups and worldviews over others. This bias resides in supposedly objective categories, knowledge, and laws that cloak the workings of power.
For example, this bias can be seen in a racially-slanted legal system, the sexual division of labour, wage inequality, and the guise of supposedly neutral government policies and decision-making. For those interested in social change, one particular method for engaging such power is "social justice.
Social justice is a term that seems common-sensical. Many of us are familiar with the term through the local political party the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ). Others may remember the term from various historical labour and civil rights battles or perhaps liberation theology in Latin America and other religious connections including the life of St Thomas Aquinas, Catholic social teaching, or ancient Hindu society.
For some social justice is a dirty term, an impediment to unrestrained economic growth as the sole purpose behind modern society. It suggests a redistribution of resources. As such, most neoliberals and neoclassical economists-not to mention moral relativists-recoil at its claims to scientific and intellectual relevance. Their criticism is often that social justice is about brainwashing people rather than good education.
Yet their ideas are as man-made, politically biased and brainwashing as any social justice discourse. Anthropologists are often advocates of social justice. This is an outcome of their research. As the rich and powerful are generally loath to be subjects of anthropological research, anthropologists often do long-term research with the less powerful. This type of fieldwork means anthropologists are well-placed to offer perspectives on social justice.
Many take issue with organisations that propose and dictate a singular notion of social justice. That sort of paternalistic, top-down approach anthropologists consider problematic. Any definition should be open to contribution, modification, and change from below, not least because social justice issues are contextual, multiple and intersected. There is not one social justice issue; there are many.
If one dictates to others what social justice is then it becomes no different from other top-down, hierarchical relationships. It becomes about what small groups of the powerful deem important. In this sense, social justice is neither self-explanatory or to be mistaken for an older, narrower concept defined as the "distributive paradigm" that spoke of "colour-blind society."
Some key features of social justice anthropologists might include are self-reflexivity, critical listening, inclusive politics, social change, and teaching. Again, such a definition is not fixed in stone; it is to be tweaked and added to.
And this is the important point: political groups that speak about social justice in the singular can often exacerbate issues of social justice rather than solve them. The issues they deem need tackling will get tackled-say, workers' rights-but the issues of other groups will be ignored or deemed less important-say, women's or homosexual rights.
Social justice, then, is not something to be forced on people, but rather, it is a skill set for looking at problems of difference in society and offering potential solutions. In education terms, it is about producing problem-solvers, empathetic individuals who make connections to the world around them and propose solutions.
Anthropologists understand power through a variety of approaches. The simplest is that power is multi-dimensional and operates over us in visible, hidden and invisible ways. For example, visible power is about making and enforcing rules. Hidden power excludes groups and sets the agenda of legitimate discussion while invisible power is about shaping meaning, values, and what is normal.
In order to negotiate with power, groups and individuals must respond across all levels. By entering into the political process, the Movement for Social Change is a response and strategy to deal with visible power by building collective power.
Yet for social justice to work it also has to confront, engage and negotiate with hidden power by organising communities around common concerns and legitimising the issues of excluded groups, while on the invisible level it must build individual and collective power through popular education, empowerment and critical thinking that raises the consciousness, political awareness and collaboration between people to fight for and establish their rights.
Social change, then, isn't just about getting the Government to effect structural changes. It is also about getting into the hearts and minds of individuals, providing them with understanding of the workings of multiple, intersecting and concurrent power structures which are local but tied to non-local systems.
• Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine