Kevin P. Lyness (PhD)Associate Professor
Department of Applied Psychology
Social Justice Research
Social Justice in Family Therapy: A Brief Research Report
Kevin P. Lyness, PhD, LMFT
Director, Marriage and Family Therapy Program
A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a town hall meeting at the annual conference of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy listening to folks talk about social justice and what it means for our field. It seemed that even though people were using the same words—social justice—they seemed to be talking about different things. I also realized that I had not ever read anything in the family therapy literature actually defining social justice. As a professor of marriage and family therapy working for a university known for social justice, I wanted to promote a social justice stance in family therapy. But what does that mean? How do family therapists and students think about social justice?
Being a good academic, I decided to do a research project, and since I was coming from a social justice perspective, I chose a methodology that would give primary voice to the participants—I chose to do a short qualitative questionnaire. My primary question was “What does social justice mean to you?” I also asked people to share a story of their experience of social justice. I then sent this questionnaire to program directors of accredited MFT programs in both the United States and Canada, asking them to extend the invitation to participate to their students. I also asked program faculty to complete the survey. I received sixty surveys from around the country (respondents came from twenty-two states). About two-thirds of the respondents were students, evenly split between master’s and doctoral programs, while the remaining respondents were faculty. About 70 percent were female and about 70 percent identified as White, European, or Caucasian. Other ethnicities identified were African American, Latina, Asian and Asian American, Native American, and Middle Eastern. Through a process of coding statements and then looking for patterns, I found five general themes that encompass social justice for marriage and family therapists.
- The first has to do with targets (i.e., who should be considered in social justice). Social justice should apply to all people, but particular focus was placed on groups that experience oppression, discrimination, and bias, who are denied access to resources, and who have less social power. Specific mention was made of gender, race, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, age, class, ability and health status.
- The second focuses on the outcomes of social justice (i.e., what should social justice result in). The primary outcomes were equity and equality, fairness, and access to resources; groups experiencing oppression should be afforded equity and fair access to resources and power. In addition, many felt that one consideration of social justice should be giving a voice to those groups who have been denied that opportunity. Finally, many felt that social justice should be about correcting injustices.
- The third involves an action orientation. Social justice is an active process of fighting for justice. For some, this action orientation was rooted in a service orientation (this was particularly true of those coming from a religious orientation). This action orientation was not just external, however. Many respondents talked about the need to look internally, to match words to action, and to “practice what you preach.” These respondents particularly talked about awareness and responsibility.
- The fourth involves the systems where social justice operates. Not surprisingly, many mentioned the societal or cultural level, that social justice should be part of cultural change. In addition, many mentioned family policies and that political action should be taken. Not only is social justice a societal concept, but for many it also operates at the interpersonal level—it isn’t just about changing society or policies, but is about personal interactions and actions.
- The final theme has to do with the origins of social justice. While this was the least mentioned theme, several respondents talked of social justice as being a moral and ethical issue—it is what is right. Respondents also felt that social justice is about the common good—that equity and fairness at these multiple levels benefit all of us. So, to simplify, for marriage and family therapists social justice is an active process of fighting for equity and fairness for all who experience oppression and injustice at multiple levels for our
One of the participants in the study:
“I was overwhelmed by the complexity and immensity of the social injustices I encountered or observed in the city. But I also saw how one person’s actions could have a ripple effect that positively affects others. I ultimately sought to live my life in the same way, to make small differences in the lives of individuals so that positive changes in them could lead to positive changes in others.”
–Asian American female student