Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Work


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Dr. Maryam Khan

Advisor Role

Co Supervision of Dissertation Advisory and Examination Committee

Second Advisor

Dr. Deena Manell

Advisor Role

Co-Supervisor of Dissertation Advisory and Examination Committee


Swimming Against the Tide: The Relational Praxis of Social Justice in Social Work


This qualitative research study explores the praxis of social justice by social workers who identify as practising social justice–oriented social work in southern Ontario, Canada. The research is set against the backdrop of the evolution of social justice in social work, its practice in the current neoliberal environment, and its continued significance in the profession. The project draws on critical and liberal social justice philosophies to ask the question: “What does social justice praxis look like in the context of contemporary social work?” This is a crucial question because as social justice has moved to the foreground of social work education and professional parlance, the theorization and specifics of social justice praxis remain particular to the historic, socio-geopolitical context in which it is understood and practised. There are few studies that connect both how social workers find meaning in the term social justice and how this understanding is operationalized in their everyday work.

Using a critical progressive postmodern lens, I employed a qualitative constructivist grounded theory methodology to uncover the political elements of social justice in both theory and practice Data were gathered from individual interviews with 20 experienced social workers who were recruited on the basis that social justice grounded their social work practice. The approach to this research is distinguished by an analysis that considers the context of the findings within the unique Canadian sociopolitical landscape and the evolution of professional social work in Canada, complemented by critical insights into the embodied experiences of the participants.

In this study, I found that social justice is conceptualized and applied as relational. The motivation to pursue social justice in practice is developed through early experiences of adversity coupled with having relationships with mentors or role models, both being significant for foregrounding social justice. Praxis is continued through a number of intersecting intrapersonal elements that connect the personal to the professional as conscious, intentional, and purposeful practice that points to reflexivity in the actions in the everyday work and lives of social workers. At a theoretical level, the analysis teases out the specific element of social justice theories that underscore that social justice is relational, and the need for recognition before the redistribution. In this study, Recognition theory by Axel Honneth is the bridge between social justice as a theory and practice

The everyday practices are interpersonal, complex, entwined, and grounded in relational approaches and skills. In contrast, social workers face hegemonic barriers and constraints that do not provide opportunities to make changes beyond the community level. These constraints also make them professionally vulnerable to loss of position and reputation through weaponizing of potential complaints to the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers. However, these social workers strategically manoeuvre around the barriers and constraints experienced in the neoliberal climate by using their professional and positional wisdom to advocate for both individual and local systemic change.

The research points to the need for a clear ideological theoretical framework, much-needed professional and educational support, and training for social workers who practise social justice. Lastly, social workers, the profession, and social work education need to go beyond seeing social justice as only relevant to macro practice.

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