Social Justice – Introducing the Prosocial


One criticism of social researchers is that they are pretty good at identifying the problems but get shy when asked to advance ideas about how to resolve them.

Social justice: What kind of society do we want to live in – the 10bn online course section and Social Futures event on Tuesday 28th Feb are designed to get you thinking about what some of the thorny issues and social evils are today and how we might begin to respond to them.

The word prosocial means to be in the interests of society. This basic idea goes to the heart of what research and teaching in universities is for, it also goes to the core of many political ideas and ideals and evokes a utopian and imaginative engagement with many issues and the question of how we can create societies that work best for all.

To unleash such an imagination is both exciting but also potentially tyrannical – if you were ruler for a day or a decade what plans would you have to make the world better? And what would you do with those who didn’t want to follow your plans? How do we maximise benefits, recruit people to a cause and really address social problems?

One immediate problem lies in realising that most proposals about what the core problems and social evils are, and what to do about them, are frequently divisive – are we experiencing higher levels of national debt because we helped the banks after the crisis or because we spent too much on social security? If poverty and malnutrition are global problems is the answer greater transfers of wealth and capital from massive corporations perhaps, or to leave the poor alone in the hope that they will devise entrepreneurial plans to get themselves out of their situation? Is the latter response genuine or simply a way of protecting the wealth of the few?

Is war, peace or something else the answer to state violence on civilian populations? What, less damaging, arrangements do we think will work and why?

Can we begin to think about locating not simply what is problematic but also ask how the political, economic and social systems we inhabit are productive of, but also reproduce, these problems?

How can we begin to challenge the harms, damage and violence that aspects of our social and economic systems do to many people today?

Today’s economic, political and social environments undermine everyday social life as notions of the shared, the public, the municipal and common space have been fundamentally challenged. In this sense the idea and value of what is ‘social’ has been attacked.

One interesting development in recent years has been the way that rising global inequalities have generated outrage at the level of reward for those already doing well – whether this be particular individuals or corporations.  The rise of the Occupy movement and ideas of the 1% and 99% have generated straightforward ideas and terms to focus on what needs changing in broad ways that have seen significant buy-in from publics across the globe. Thinking more broadly, what might we do to help reduce inequalities, anger, violence, human suffering and promote care, development, happiness, joy, togetherness, community safety and meaningful modes of economic existence?

With social and policy thinking often fixed on notions of the anti-social it appears timely to consider the value and limits of the social itself, of the kinds of mechanisms for community participation and self-realisation amidst these powerful social and economic forces. In this context we can and should ask – what do universities and their students have to contribute to discussions about a better world and how we might achieve it today?

Professor Rowland Atkinson, Research Chair in Inclusive Society, University of Sheffield

The full article and further resources about Prosocial can be found on the 10bn online course


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