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A Genealogy of Social Justice: Britain, 1834-1914

posted on 2013-04-17, 00:00 authored by Michael Strand

This dissertation develops a genealogy of the meanings of social justice as they first appeared and evolved in Britain between 1834-1914. Applying a maximal interpretive framework to discursive data drawn primarily from theoretical texts, and paring this with a policy analysis of the social reforms passed by the British Parliament that together constituted the '19th century revolution in government,' I argue that social justice acted as a moral coordination device for social reformers, MPs, and liberal intellectuals during this period, justifying and motivating state-based collective actions whose purpose was to sustain the belief that society (modeled here as a historicized 'matrix' of social orders that feature justifiable and state-sanctioned forms of social inequality) was socially just. Thus, the policy initiatives implemented in Britain during this time, and still resonant in societies imprinted by the meanings and institutional forms assumed by social justice (like public health, a professional civil service, public education, and welfare policies like health insurance, old age pensions and workmen's compensation), are interpreted as the collateral effects and institutional markers that resulted from concerted efforts to sustain this shared belief in a root moral meaning.

My argument develops a purposive (or 'why') based account of the development and introduction of social policy paradigms that stands in contrast to approaches rooted in either political ideology or in social policy modeled as the rational response to social problems as 'brute facts.' In contrast to the former, I argue that political ideologies are subsumable as offshoots of the meaning of social justice understood as an encompassing moral logic; in contrast to the latter, I use counterfactual analysis to demonstrate the moral basis of the 'rationality' dictating the rational response to social problems. Instead, I conclude that the moral purpose of social reform — emergent during cultural moments given over collectively to 'why'-based reflexive moral questioning — functions (ceteris paribus) as the key variable in the motivation and internal diversification of social policy paradigms.

From this analysis, I develop an explanatory model for the effects of moral meanings derived from the genesis of shared normative categories; this offers a way of fostering mutually binding social critique that departs from the principles of communicative action; I contribute a new argument for the role that social justice meanings play in general processes of institutionalization; I also offer a moral and evaluative counterweight to contemporary neo-Polanyian understandings of the 'amoral market' in economic sociology; finally, I identify endogenous mechanisms for theorizing macro-cultural change (like rationalization) as part of non-derivative cultural processes.


Date Modified


Defense Date


Research Director(s)

Lynette Spillman

Committee Members

Erika Summers-Effler Mustafa Emirbayer Robert Fishman Omar Lizardo


  • Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Level

  • Doctoral Dissertation


  • English

Alternate Identifier



University of Notre Dame

Program Name

  • Sociology

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