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Social Justice

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‘Social justice … is neither the exclusive terrain of social welfare nor of crime control. Indeed, the boundaries between these two domains tend to be mobile and porous’ (Book 1, Social Justice: Welfare, Crime and Society, p. 168). Explain and illustrate this with reference to examples drawn from at least two chapters from Book 1.

According to Newman & Yeates (2008) Social Justice is a device that can be called upon to challenge particular forms of inequality or unfairness and can mobilise people in order to bring about change. It is a social construction and, because therefore it is something that is learned, it is open to contestation and change. Social Justice is concerned with the powers that define what is “normal” in terms of population, people and/or groups and which are “deviant” in some way. Because ideas of social justice are contestable, populations can join together to change social injustices, although some of the methods employed are viewed by the state as “civil disobedience”. The state is not only concerned with social justice, but with governing populations.

By making problems that may have been sites for social justice movements less accessible, governments may make it harder for those movements’ claims to be heard. Further, when considering claims of social injustice it is important to remember that some problems that sit alongside the major issue may be hidden, as invariably calls for justice focus on one particular injustice. This essay will consider how social welfare and crime control work towards social justice, but how the boundaries between them are blurred. To do this we will consider two examples from Book 1 of the course text, these being council estates in the Uk and also the issue of common resources within the world.

Social welfare and crime control are two of the responses that societies form to overcome social injustice. Social welfare includes the creation and maintenance of social wellbeing by way of social supports, for example by tackling poverty and discrimination by promoting the redistribution of wealth or by promoting social inclusion. On the other hand, crime control aims to create and maintain social stability, order and security by addressing the behaviour of those who are perceived to be a threat to those values. Those who advocate a social welfare approach believe that it is possible to work towards a better society and that dissent and protest are integral to moving towards this. Those who advocate an approach from the perspective of crime control believe that it is necessary to protect society from harm by utilising control and regulation. However, it is also the case that the relationships between the different policies, practices and processes of change are not clear cut, but are entangled. They interact with and against each other in positive reinforcing ways and negative destructive ways.

In recent decades in the United Kingdom the “council estate” has increasingly been seen as a “problem place” housing “problem populations”. The first council estate was in Boundary Street, London, on the borders of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green in 1890. Legislation was passed in 1919 to encourage councils to build by offering subsidies. Between then and the start of the Second World War the was a huge push to build “homes fit for heroes” and publicly funded housing grew from 1% to approximately 10% of the total national housing. Mass housing programmes were commenced o enable slum clearance and the post Second World War boom led to major projects, including high rise buildings. Such building of estates reflected political and policy-making concerns to provide better housing to white working class families, but this in fact led to further segregation of minority groups.

This is a pattern that recent governments are trying to remove by such initiatives as the “Right To Buy” scheme and Section 106 agreements which require property developers to provide a certain amount of affordable and/or social housing, often in the same location as the homes that will be for sale. Part of the result of the Right to Buy scheme was that council house building declined substantially and the prospect of residing on a council estate is now often one of gloom, as demonstrated in Lynsey Hanley’s book “Estates: an Intimate History (2007)”. Council estates are portrayed as suffering from many of society’s problems, including alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, high crime rates, unemployment (with its associated reliance on welfare benefits) and high levels of teenage pregnancy. Hanley’s book, and indeed other representations within the media of council estates portray them as “estates from hell” and that there are strong connections between these housing estates and crime, particularly youth offending.

In examining how the council estate has gone from being a source of national pride when they were “homes fit for heroes” returning home from the frontline in World War 1 and replacing bombed housing in World War 2, to what are often described as “ghettos” in the media, it is important to understand the considerable levels of stagmitisation of those residents within such estates, which in turn exasperates the problems that the residents might face. However, the issues that surround council estates are complex. There have always been references to “problem areas”, such as Whitechapel in the 1880s, and poverty appears to be a common denominator. As such, contemporary negative responses are a manifestation of historical processes. In terms of the “problem populations” such terms as “sink-estates” separate individuals, or even whole communities, from “normal” society and degrade and even blame them for their own poverty. The myth of marginality devised by Perlman (Perlman, 1976) presents people living in poverty as hopeless and deficient and surplus to society.

With economic resources are scarce for those living on estates, they have developed both a range of coping skills and also other strategies that deal with political struggles for better resources, welfare support and community facilities, whilst fighting against stigmatisation and negative labelling. The underclass that is portrayed is shown as a distinct and homogeneous group, and as such “problems” are defined and policies developed to target and “cure” them. People are demonised and become feared and disrespected. This would seem to be an infringement of human rights, in denying those disaffect ted a voice, and when they protest they are seen to be rebelling and offering up resistance – in other words having too much voice.

This in turn leads to social welfare input and crime control policies being shaped according, where focus is emphasised on the problems of poor people, rather than the experiences of poor people. Focus is thus on lifestyles and behaviours, and therefore ideas of inclusion and exclusion reflect the translation of material disadvantage and need into cultural processes as arguments, for example by Fraser (1995), for redistributive dimensions of social justice are rejected as viable policy options. Because of the perceived threat of poor people, “problem populations” come under attack. Collisions between welfare and crime control are apparent where the acute unmet welfare needs are portrayed as behaviours and cultures, requiring control and careful management and result in the stigmatisation of poor people being reinforced.

Global slums are another area in which social welfare and crime control policies and issues collide and show how the concept of social justice is intertwined across both. They are clearly sites where there is huge concern about crime and disorder yet at the same time there is emerging understanding of how slums can be a source of progress and development through self-help.

The fastest growing areas of urbanisation are in the poor countries of the word and the process is accompanied by a massive expansion of slums, where are “characterised by overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure (Davis, 2006, pp 22-3). Nearly one billion people live in slums, which are portrayed by the media as dysfunctional yet at the same time they have been glamourised in the popular media. In fact, “the economic inequalities embedded within contemporary global urbanisation are more than ones of income and wealth” (Newman and Yates (2008). They are underpinned by significant inequalities in access to basic forms of public infrastructure. Much as we saw with council housing in the UK, slum dwellers have been, and are, seen as a problem population, underpinned by a “culture of poverty”.

These images of slum dwellers, and slums as problem places, undermines the importance of urban areas in economic development and contradicts the understanding that positive social welfare outcomes flow from positive economic growth, which in turn underpins global social policy. Slum dwellers are not understood as passive victims, but are actively responsible for managing their own lives with behaviour previously thought as dysfunctional being seen now to be a fundamental part of the solution. Thus there is much work taking place to mobilise the capabilities of slum dwellers to improve their living conditions and drive development forward. This may seem surprising given that urban slums are prime sources of inequality, which might lead us to expect policy responses based around social welfare provision, i.e. redistribution of wealth and promoting equality. The vision of emphasising capacity building is upbuilding but it is unlikely that selfhelp alone can improve things for the slum dwellers without redistribution and state guarantees, not only with regard to income and wealth but also with regard to common resources such as air and land.

To conclude then, social justice is made up of a number of components, two of which are social welfare and crime control. Both of these concepts work together with each other to lesser or greater degrees, in a variety of situations around the globe. In particular we have looked at two situations, council housing estates and slum dwellers and shown how social welfare and crime control are a feature of both and are interwined or entangled. We have also shown how the boundaries are “mobile and porous”, and may move quite dramatically over a period of time, as with “homes fit for heroes” becoming “sink estates” over less than 100 years. We have also considered how slum dwellers are perceived as a threat, yet are being encouraged to help themselves to a better life situation.


Cochrane, A. and Walters, R. (2008) “The Globalisation of Social Justice”, p.136 in Newman, J. and Yeates, N. (eds) Social Justice: Welfare, Crime and Society, Maidenhead, Open University Press.

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