This study uses a post-disciplinary and synthetic methodology to explore how social research can contribute to helping those struggling against injustice. First, it reviews recent initiatives that have emerged from sociology and moral and political philosophy to reconnect normative inquiry with empirical social science. Second, applying Amartya Sen’s nonideal theory of justice, it brings these diverse initiatives together and develops a systematic proposal for social justice. It proposes that (1) injustice can be reduced through public reasoning in which people exercise practical reason on what constitutes injustice and what actions should be taken to remedy it; (2) all of us are agents of change whose reasoning and action have leverage in reducing injustice; and (3) theoretical concepts invented by academics can move public reasoning towards the reduction of injustice by affording people, including those struggling against injustice, with critical perspectives and discursive resources. Third, to increase the effectiveness of the proposal, it delineates three routes through which academics can contribute to making public reasoning more inclusive, interactive, and iterative: (1) as public intellectuals, academics can disseminate their normative and empirical research to the general public and make public reasoning more interactive; (2) through coalition-building, academics can help marginalised people come up with solutions to the injustices they face and help magnify marginalised people’s voices to influence public reasoning; and (3) through teaching, academics can cultivate normative consciousness amongst students coupled with their habit of developing refined opinions, using impartial spectators, and acknowledging the human rights of different others, all while working towards making universities more inclusive.

Amid the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that swept across the United States in May 2020, two black protesters engaged in a spirited discussion on a bridge in Charlotte, North Carolina. Along with many others, they were protesting racial profiling and police violence against black people. Their discussion concerned how they should advance the fight against racial injustice. Proposing more violent means to make their voices heard, one of the protesters, a forty-five-year-old, shouted, “It’s time to stand up! At this point, I am ready to die for what is going on!” His thirty-one-year-old companion roared back, “I understand! But this [violent means] ain’t the way!” and brought a sixteen-year-old into the discussion. Pointing to the teenage boy, who appeared somewhat puzzled, the older protester claimed, “He gotta stand up for what he gotta stand up for [even by using violent means].” However, the younger protester argued, “Putting yourself in harm’s way is not the way!” His voice breaking, the younger protester told the teenage boy that even though he did peaceful marches four years ago for the same cause, “it [a positive change] ain’t happening.” Shedding tears, he asked the teenage boy to “come up with a better way(McCarthy 2020; Pelletiere 2020).

I argue that social science—the study of dealing with institutions and the functioning of human society as well as the interpersonal relationships of individuals within it—can contribute towards this momentous task of “coming up with a better way.” My argument may strike readers as odd because contemporary social science has predominantly focused on describing and explaining real-world phenomena; it avoids explicit value judgements on whether the situation is right or just and does not put forth proposals for change (Gorski 2013; Sayer 2011; Vandenberghe 2017). This mode of practicing social science, however, was not typical until the end of the nineteenth century. Synthesising empirical analysis and normative argumentation, early social scientists, such as Adam Smith, Émile Durkheim, and Karl Marx, described what was happening and why it was happening and offered an ethical evaluation of the situation. They were not coy in presenting readers with something ethically important to consider when deciding how to act, and they provided a political direction towards which society should develop. Their works even prompted people to act to create an alternative, better future.

The past few decades have witnessed important initiatives to reconnect normative inquiry and empirical social science emerging from two distinct disciplines—sociology and moral and political philosophy. On the one hand, several sociologists have challenged axiological neutrality, demonstrated problems with the value-fact distinction, and called for critical reflection upon the normative dimension of academic research and social life. On the other hand, several moral and political philosophers have challenged the transcendental, ideal theories of justice that have dominated the discipline, and they have advanced nonideal theories of justice that draw on social science. These initiatives demonstrate that a synthesis of normative and empirical social scientific research is indispensable to producing practically relevant scholarly work; they also ignite a debate on how academic research should be positioned against the reality in which various manifestations of injustice persist and various people struggle against them.

This study supplements this debate by addressing how social research can help people, like the Black Lives Matter protesters in Charlotte, who are struggling against injustice.1 Evidently, tackling this critical question can never be done without firmly drawing on the invaluable contributions of these initiatives over recent decades. Thus, this study adopts a “post-disciplinary approach” (Sayer 2011, 14) which draws on relevant bodies of literature in both the social sciences and philosophy, and a “synthetic approach” which integrates various positions with the same orientation “dialogically and dialectically into a more encompassing framework” (Vandenberghe 2018, 52).

The remainder of this article is structured as follows. The next section reviews sociological and philosophical initiatives to reconnect normative and empirical research. The section also explores recent debates regarding to whom and how such research should be addressed to promote social change. The following section introduces an encompassing framework—the nonideal theory of justice developed by the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen (2006, 2009)—to bring the diverse contributions into dialogue. Extending his open-ended theory with the literature’s contributions on synthesising the normative and empirical as well as existing debates about public sociology, this study presents ways to reduce injustice, identifies who may be relevant agents to tackle injustice, and delineates routes through which social research can help those struggling against injustice.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, it was not unusual for scholars to serve as both social scientists and philosophers (Caillé and Vandenberghe 2015, 10). They described and analysed complex social realities and boldly engaged in ethical evaluations, proposing ways to make situations more just. For instance, in 1759, Adam Smith, now considered the father of modern economics, published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he evaluated the moral thinking of his time and developed a theory of sympathy to enhance human morality. Later, in 1776, he published The Wealth of Nations. Even in this work, while offering an integrated description of the workings of the market economy, Adam Smith did not evade a critical, ethical evaluation of it; he even occasionally advanced policy recommendations.2

This mode of practicing social science—synthesising ethical evaluation with descriptive empirical analysis—came under scrutiny in the twentieth century, resulting in the isolation of these formerly intertwined approaches. The first major impetus for this change was Max Weber’s call for axiological neutrality. According to this principle, “the social scientist should produce ‘empirical knowledge’ and not ‘value judgments’” (Werturteile; e.g., Weber 2012, 108) (Betta and Swedberg 2017, 447, n. 3). This is because “whenever the man of science introduces his own value judgements, complete understanding of the facts ceases” (Weber 2012, 347).3 Second, the separation of normativity from social science was accelerated in the twentieth century by the emergence of “logical positivism”. This philosophical movement upholds a falsificationist methodology and dichotomises “facts,” which “are based on unmediated sensory experience as rendered in logically coherent language,” from “values,” which “are subjective, emotional responses to the world” (Gorski 2013, 545). World War II also enhanced the appeal of logical positivism with its façade that “value neutral methods would more efficiently deliver ‘immediate’ results to support the war effort” (A. W. Rawls 2017, 395). Consequently, many social scientists began to aim at providing purely “scientific” results by describing and analysing their social reality while avoiding explicit value judgements.

Meanwhile, by the twentieth century, utilitarianism had become one of the most influential normative approaches in moral and political philosophy (Driver 2022; Sen and Williams 1982).4 With its practical applicability, utilitarianism was widely applied by policymakers. However, its limitations, exemplified by its acceptance of the violation of human rights of minorities, have invited critiques. One such critique was John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), which is regarded as the most important work on justice in the twentieth century. It depicted a utopian society in which each citizen’s conception of a good life is respected, enabling them to lead such a life. In so doing, John Rawls carried out idealisations—that is, “idealised assumptions, which make social reality appear significantly simpler and better than it actually is” (Valentini 2009, 332). As many philosophers began to follow John Rawls’s ideal theorising, the discipline began to eschew analyses of the real world, severely undermining its practical relevance (Farrelly 2007; Mills 2005; O’Neill 1993; Sen 2006; Wolff 1998).

Over the past few decades, this tide was reversed by two critical initiatives to reconnect normative inquiry and social science. First, several sociologists and philosophers made a concerted effort to challenge axiological neutrality, arguing that when social scientists identify an action of a certain type (e.g., a promise, a threat, a betrayal) and use “thick ethical concepts” (e.g., abusive, humiliating, compassionate), they do not first describe and then evaluate, but do so concomitantly (Abend 2008; Anderson 2004; Vandenberghe 2017). Attempts to use relatively value-neutral words were also shown to be problematic because social scientists often attend to morally loaded cases, for which the use of value-neutral words would yield imprecise and even misleading descriptions (Bhaskar 2014, 59).

The sociologists also emphasised that values are constitutive of the very fact that is observed and described because humans are evaluative beings, and lay normativity is ubiquitous (Gorski 2017, 2019; A. W. Rawls 2017; Sayer 2011; Vandenberghe 2017). People always evaluate and criticise others and states of affairs using moral language because of their concern about their and other people’s well-being, and because they have attachments and commitments that they have reason to value (Sayer 2011; Vandenberghe 2017). Thus, even in this regard, the avoidance of value judgements in describing social reality was claimed to produce an imprecise and misleading account. Even statistical data—which positivists regard as a more “scientific” method of describing facts—were argued to be inherently inseparable from value judgements because the way societies decide to draw the lines of statistical and demographic data is determined by people’s value judgements, not by objective biology (A. W. Rawls 2017, 393–94). As powerful people are the ones to draw the line of demarcation, “value-free” statistical research often ends up stigmatising and unduly blaming those who are already socially and economically disadvantaged, thus exacerbating existing inequalities (A. W. Rawls 2017, 393–94). Furthermore, the fact-value distinction was argued to be untenable because “facts and values are complexly entangled with each other in our interactions with the world” (Gorski 2019, 157). For instance, “the very fact that we value something at all—good food, say—will lead us to learn new facts about the world—about cooking techniques or restaurant locations, for instance. And these new facts may in turn act back on our values, leading us to prefer one cuisine or venue to another” (Gorski 2019, 157).

Having demonstrated that value-free research is not only impossible but also problematic, some sociologists call for social scientists to engage with normative inquiries explicitly and reflectively. First, Andrew Abbott (2018) calls for the creation of a normative subdiscipline of sociology which would enable sociologists to engage in depth with the canonical texts of sociological theories, and which would grow out of the systematic normative evaluation of empirical sociological problems. According to Abbott (2018, 159), such a subdiscipline would “provide an alternative (normative) position in the discipline,” which is currently characterised either by positivist “value freedom” or implicit value commitments without much critical reflection.

Another proposal is to create space where sociologists can learn moral and political philosophy and concentrate on normative inquiries related to society. Caillé and Vandenberghe (2017) propose making sociology a general social science, as its founders originally envisaged. Accordingly, they argue for training and forming a class of interdisciplinary sociologists by allowing them to learn moral and political philosophy and other social sciences. Similarly, Flores and Burg (2021) call for including moral and political philosophy in the sociological curriculum and affording students the opportunity to engage directly with activists to deepen their understanding of lay normativity.

Gorski (2017, 2019) proposes a critical social science that uses an analytical framework called ontic webs. Through the lens of ontic webs, a real-world phenomenon is considered as emerging and disappearing through a dynamic, weblike interaction between humans and nonhumans. Gorski’s ontic webs hold that such weblike interactions amongst tangible objects take place in an ontic manner in Heidegger’s sense: that is, “they include an element of ‘concern’ or ‘care’” (Gorski 2017, 439). Thus, Gorski (2017, 2019) argues that one can better understand a social reality by attempting to disentangle the relationship between the descriptive (the interactions amongst tangible objects) and the normative (human commitments that underlie the interactions). He asserts that his critical social science “would explicitly and systematically analyse and critique the relationship between normative and descriptive claims” in the real world (Gorski 2017, 442). Gorski’s critical social science differs from an activist social science, which starts with a normative commitment prior to and independent of descriptive claims and adheres to a certain preferred normative position (Gorski 2017, 442). Gorski’s critical social science is open-minded, acknowledges a complex combination of different normative positions comprising a social reality, and aims to contribute to an ongoing democratic debate on social issues and their normative significance (Gorski 2017, 2019). More recently, Gorski (2019) has delineated six ways to practice critical social science. Gorski (2019, 165) rightly points out that for those who deny the existence of structural racism in the United States, frontally challenging them with a lecture on the historical legacies of slavery may not work. Rather, a more effective way could be “to open with a first-person narrative and then gradually add more and more social context” or “to engage the person in question via a moral and theological language rather than a political or social-scientific one” (Gorski 2019, 165). Crucially, he draws attention to the necessity of paying close attention to the values of the target audience if critical social science is to contribute effectively to democratic debate.

Meanwhile, important attempts to reconnect normative inquiry and social science have also emerged from moral and political philosophy. As the critique against the dominance of Rawlsian ideal theories of justice intensified in the 1990s, many philosophers joined the debate over the merits and limits of ideal theories. Some philosophers have stated that ideal theories have the merit of showing us the ultimate goal towards which society should move (Osmani 2010; Robeyns 2008; Vázquez 2016) and thus help us critique unjust social realities (Freeman 2012; Robeyns 2012; Satz 2012; Valentini 2009). Others have argued that owing to the complexities in the real world, ideal theories not only have limited practical relevance (Farrelly 2007; O’Neill 1993; Sen 2006, 2009) but may also exacerbate injustice when directly implemented (Mills 2005; Robeyns 2008; Wolff 1998).

Encapsulating this debate, Ingrid Robeyns (2008) identified three layers necessary for normative social justice research: (1) ideal theory, (2) nonideal theory, and (3) action design and implementation. According to Robeyns (2008, 343–46), while ideal theory effectively presents a goal towards which society should develop, this is just a part of the chain driving justice-promoting change on the ground. It needs to be complemented by a second layer of nonideal theories that enable us “to make comparisons between different social states and evaluate which one is more just than the other” and “to guide our actions in order to move closer towards the ideal of the society” (Robeyns 2008, 346). Robeyns (2008, 349–52) further argues that in the third layer of action design and implementation, theoretical propositions need to be transformed into action strategies and policy proposals with the help of social scientists who have in-depth knowledge of empirical contexts. In this layer, she deems it necessary to communicate and implement strategies and policies to earn the support of relevant agents (Robeyns 2008, 349–52).

Equipped with knowledge from the debate encapsulated in Robeyns’s model, an increasing number of philosophers have developed nonideal theories of justice in recent years. These theories determine a problematic social reality as injustice through philosophical argumentation, diagnose its underlying causes with reference to social science, and propose morally permissible and potentially efficacious remedies to make a situation more just (e.g., Anderson 2017; Armstrong 2020; Owen 2020; Sandel 2020; Shelby 2016). In the field of global justice, Lea Ypi (2012) advocates for “activist political theory,” which requires a deep engagement with empirical social science and the identification of and interaction with “avant-garde political agents” (such as those involved in social movements, political parties, civic organisations, and individual politicians). According to her, activist political theorists can help bring about progressive political change by formulating a coherent and plausible normative view of the function and purpose of political institutions together with the avant-garde agents (Ypi 2012, 176; 2013, 131).

More recently, Ben Laurence (2021) expounded on the necessity of identifying the agents of change who tackle injustice while considering the target audience of theories of justice. In his view, most nonideal theories of justice denounce the organisations complicit in perpetuating injustice, such as governments and multinational corporations, and ask them to take action to remedy injustice (Laurence 2021, 109–16). However, this strategy delimits the justice-promoting potential of such research because those responsible for injustice are highly unlikely to listen to the denunciation and change their actions (Laurence 2021, 109–16). Thus, Laurence argues that theorists of justice will fare better by sharing their research with those suffering from injustice who might or already do form a social movement to address the injustice (Laurence 2021, 116–24). According to him, a nonideal theory, coupled with an ideal theory such as John Rawls’s (1971), needs to be shared with those suffering from injustice to guide them in conceiving clear ends to and effective means of their struggles (Laurence 2021, 134–42).

The discussion thus far highlights that despite emerging from the two different disciplines—that is, sociology and moral and political philosophy—initiatives to reconnect normative inquiry and empirical social science reach the same conclusion. First, the synthesis of the normative and the empirical is indispensable to illuminating highly complex normative social realities and to avoid producing misleading and practically irrelevant research. Second, engagement with interdisciplinary studies is crucial to actualise such research practice. Third, recent contributions (Gorski 2019; Laurence 2021) highlight the necessity of considering the target audience of the research to help it contribute to social change.

Undoubtedly, these invaluable contributions lay the basis for answering the central question of this study: how can social research help those struggling against injustice? To delineate an answer, I argue that the contributions must be integrated into an encompassing framework in tandem with systematic discussions of the following three issues: how injustice can be reduced; who may be relevant agents to tackle injustice; and what roles social research can play in the process.

I hold that the nonideal theory of justice developed by the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen (2006, 2009) can help achieve this. First, his theory is a quintessential framework that synthesises the normative and the empirical: it develops a systematic analysis of the issues of justice while maintaining high applicability to a variety of empirical contexts (Gaus 2012; Freeman 2012; Oberdiek 2012; Osmani 2010). His theory does this by avoiding the pitfall of being too detached from social reality, as the dominant mode of ideal theorising does, and instead concentrates on delineating an idealised procedure to help us consider ways to bring an actual situation towards greater justice. Second, Sen’s theory has the virtue of being open-ended, which enables scholars from diverse disciplines to develop their own frameworks to consider social justice issues of their own interest (Bonvin, De Munck, and Zimmermann 2018; Qizilbash 2016; Robeyns 2017). As this study intends to capitalise on relevant contributions from diverse disciplines with “post-disciplinary” and “synthetic” approaches, deploying Sen’s theory as the foundation to address the research question is appropriate.

Accordingly, the following section introduces Sen’s theory of justice, focusing on his theorisation of ways to reduce injustice. This is followed by a discussion on who may be relevant agents of change, and the critical roles that academics play in the process of reducing injustice.

According to Sen, there are two historical approaches to theorising justice: “transcendental institutionalism” and “realisation-focused comparison” (Sen 2009, 7; emphasis in the original). The former is exemplified by the works of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Rawls and “is not directly focused on the actual societies that would ultimately emerge” but is focused on “perfect justice” by “identifying just institutional arrangements for a society” (Sen 2009, 5–6). As such, this approach makes idealised assumptions about noninstitutional features such as people’s behaviour and their social interactions. Meanwhile, the latter approach was taken by Adam Smith, the social choice theorist the Marquis de Condorcet, and Karl Marx, who “were often interested primarily in the removal of manifest injustice from the world that they saw” (Sen 2009, 7). It focuses on “comparisons of society that already existed or could feasibly emerge” and carefully analyses “the actual behaviour of people, rather than presuming compliance by all with ideal behaviour” (Sen 2009, 7).

By taking the realisation-focused comparison approach and drawing on his social choice work, Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970), Sen develops a theory of justice that enables us to make comparisons between different social states and evaluate which is more just than the other (Sen 2009, ix-xii). His theory holds that, in practice, such comparisons can be made through public reasoning, which he broadly conceptualises as people engaging in democratic debate. His theory holds that people’s engagement with public reasoning will lead to identifying what constitutes injustice and how it can be remedied to realise a less unjust situation. Thus, his theory does not advance any conceptualisation of injustice a priori but emphasises the importance of the agency and self-determination of the people on the ground (Sen 2012, 332).6

Unlike transcendental institutionalism, which attempts to rank “every political and social arrangement in comparison with every other arrangement,” Sen’s theory accepts evaluative incompleteness (Sen 2009, 87–113). Essentially, he holds that people can arrive at partial agreement by recognising evidently problematic situations, such as extreme poverty, famine, and violence against women, as injustice in public reasoning, while leaving incommensurable claims for justice aside (Sen 2009, 12–15). His theory even accepts that people can reach such an agreement based on plural or different reasons (Sen 2009, 394–95). This means that people with very different values can consensually identify a situation as unjust by disregarding their different judgements on other issues; for example, right-wing libertarians and left-wing Marxists would agree to the injustice of being deprived of the right to one’s own product, despite their varied judgements on other issues (Sen 2009, 13–14).

Having introduced Sen’s theory, the following section discusses whom Sen considers relevant agents to reason and act for reducing injustice.

In Sen’s theory, all of us are considered relevant agents who have leverage in reducing injustice. First, Sen’s theory adopts the capability approach in the assessment of justice (Sen 2009, xi, n.1). The capability approach is a broad evaluative framework whose core proposition is to assess states of affairs by focusing on people’s capabilities; that is, what people are effectively able to be or do (Nussbaum 2000, 2006; Sen 1985, 1992, 1999). This approach considers people’s capabilities to be determined by both institutions (such as electoral systems and economic redistribution arrangements) and social interaction (which is considerably regulated by social norms and cultures). The adoption of the capability approach in his theory departs from the transcendental institutionalist approach to justice, which assumes that once institutions are rightly arranged, people enjoy a decent range of capabilities and thus, justice is achieved. In contrast, Sen’s theory proposes that it is imperative to transform both institutions and people’s behaviour to reduce injustice or to tackle the capability deprivation that people suffer (Sen 2009, xi-xii). Sen acknowledges that to transform institutions, the key agents are politicians, who have the power to carry out institutional reform through legislative routes (Drèze and Sen 2014, 243–75). However, he also considers other people (activists, media, educated professionals, and the general public) relevant agents who can critically reflect on entrenched social norms, act against them, and form critical public opinion through campaigns and casting ballots, pressuring politicians to enact new legislation (Drèze and Sen 2014, 243–75). As Laurence (2021) rightly points out, depending on the context, some agents have more leverage than others in bringing about injustice-reducing change. However, Sen’s theory reminds us that while all of us are agents who can contribute to change (no matter how slight the leverage may be), there is no magic bullet to eliminate injustice outright. Thus, diverse groups of people need to come together for social change.

This understanding of all of us as agents of change is further expounded on in Sen’s unique concept of public reasoning as people’s exercise of practical reason. In developing his theory, Sen explicitly states that he draws on an “essentially Rawlsian” concept of public reasoning as “a good conceptual base” for his theory to make a comparative assessment of states of affairs (Sen 2006, 228). In fact, the Rawlsian concept of public reasoning in its original form is highly idealised, as it takes place “within a framework of what he or she sincerely regards as the most reasonable political conception of justice, a conception that expresses political values that others, as free and equal citizens, might reasonably be expected to endorse” (J. Rawls 1997, 773). The Rawlsian concept of public reasoning is also restrictive in that it applies only to “political discussions of constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice” and “public political forums” such as discourses of judges, government officials, and political candidates (J. Rawls 1997, 767–68).

Notably, Sen develops this Rawlsian concept into a pragmatic one by terming people’s exercise of “practical reason behind what is to be chosen and which decisions should be taken” as public reasoning (Sen 2009, 106). More concretely, Senian public reasoning is “a valued ability of a group of people . . . to speak to each other, to discuss pros and cons, to scrutinize together” (Sen 2012, 334). Senian public reasoning takes place not in a restricted domain but in a variety of spheres, as it is reasoning and discussion through media, public meetings, “conversations with others on relevant subjects,” and even “agitation, demonstration, and campaigning . . . when people connect with each other through speech” (Drèze and Sen 2014, 259).

Senian public reasoning significantly overlaps with the sociological theory of lay normativity, according to which people exercise practical reason to decide on what action they should take and to evaluate their and others’ actions using moral languages (Sayer 2011; Vandenberghe 2017). Crucially, sociologists underscore that in the face of complex and muddled social reality, people experience difficulty making considered value judgements and usually end up exercising practical reason in a piecemeal fashion (Sayer 2011; Vandenberghe 2017).

The political scientist James Fishkin (2009) expounds on why lay normativity works in such a way. He differentiates “raw opinion,” which one holds by default, from “refined opinion,” which can be developed only by having one’s raw opinion “tested by the consideration of competing arguments and information conscientiously offered by others who hold contrasting views” (Fishkin 2009, 14). According to him, most people have demands on their time other than deliberating upon global and social justice issues from different perspectives, and people usually interact with like-minded people in everyday life (Fishkin 2009, 2–3). People are also exposed to misinformation and manipulation by the powerful, who try to promote their cause and vested interests (Fishkin 2009, 3–6). Thus, lay normativity does not always lead to a refined opinion, which is crucial for public reasoning to work towards reducing injustice. Sen is aware of this possibility and thus advances a way to address these constraints on public reasoning, which I will discuss in the following section.

Sen’s theory advances a set of theoretical concepts to allow for informed public reasoning to take hold. First, Sen advances the concept of open impartiality, which refers to “the procedure of impartial assessments [which] can, and in some cases, must, invoke judgements, among others, from outside the focal group (beyond the nation state boundary) to avoid parochial bias” (Sen 2009, 123). Unlike closed impartiality, adopted by John Rawls’s “justice as fairness,” open impartiality in Sen’s theory allows for people to deliberate injustices that are global problems and to gain insights from other societies about potential solutions to their problems (Sen 2010).

Second, by building on Adam Smith’s concept of impartial spectators, Sen’s theory (2006, 233; 2009, 123–26) transforms this open impartiality into a reasoning device usable for people in public reasoning. The concept of impartial spectators was originally developed by Adam Smith to counter our disposition of self-love, which leads to partial and parochial value judgements (A. Smith 2020, 69–113). Crucially, Adam Smith (2020, 83–84) asserts that our self-love prompts us to wallow in sorrow and inconsequential misfortune; for example, we might dwell on a curable minor injury while trivialising the enormous sufferings of other people, such as ongoing massacres on a distant continent. Adam Smith also reminds us that we mostly interact with like-minded people, such as family, friends, and coteries, who are highly sympathetic to our misfortune (A. Smith 2020, 83–84). Thus, our value judgements rarely become impartial (A. Smith 2020, 83–84). To address these problems, Adam Smith (2020, 95–97) proposes that we test our value judgements in the eyes of others, such as our enemies, who are highly critical of us; our rivals, who have little sympathy with our misfortunes; third parties, who have no vested interests in promoting our well-being; people on a foreign continent, who are not acquainted with us; and underprivileged people, who face far more undeserved suffering than we do.

Concurring with Adam Smith’s proposition, Sen’s theory advocates for critically scrutinising our value judgements and actions in “the eyes of the rest of mankind” as a thought experiment when we engage in public reasoning (Sen 2009, 126). Sen offers British human rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft as an exemplary user of impartial spectators. She supported the French Revolution and defended the rights of both men and women, including those enslaved in the United States at the time of the American Revolution, when a vast majority of people regarded such reasoning as too unconventional (Sen 2009, 114–16, 161).

Third, Sen’s theory advances the concept of human rights as a resource for public reasoning, as the concept enables people to exercise their practical reason more critically (Sen 2009, 357–58). Sen conceptualises human rights in this way: “every person anywhere in the world, irrespective of citizenship, residence, race, class, caste, or community, has some basic rights which others should respect” (Sen 2009, 355). In an interview, Sen elaborated on the critical role of the concept of human rights in reducing injustice by referring to an empirical example from Pakistan to suggest the condition in which people’s engagement in public reasoning works towards reducing injustice (Tasioulas and Sen 2018). The example dates from several years ago, when the Taliban occupied the Swat Valley and introduced a strict dress code for women (Tasioulas and Sen 2018). Even though Pakistani law did not allow the Taliban to whip women who violated the dress code, people in the country initially remained silent about the situation. Thereafter, an NGO staff member from Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission videotaped a whipping scene and showed it on Pakistani cable television as a violation of human rights. According to Sen, the NGO staff member’s invoking of human rights helped the Pakistani people to perceive the whipped women as humans like themselves, to consider the women’s suffering to be undeserved, and to form a critical public opinion to drive the government to act to reduce the injustice (Tasioulas and Sen 2018).

Sen’s proposition of theoretical concepts as resources for public reasoning corresponds with the crucial insight by Gorski (2019, 167); that is, the invention and circulation of new concepts such as “sexual harassment” helped people to see things that they previously overlooked or ignored and contributed to moving public reasoning towards the reduction of injustice. I argue that this is the first route by which academics can help those struggling against injustice. Theoretical concepts invented by academics make the general public’s exercise of practical reason more critical and become a discursive resource for those concerned about injustice to problematise the status quo effectively.

However, there is a caveat. The way theoretical concepts work in practice is highly complex and dynamic. Anthony Giddens’s “double hermeneutics” holds that theoretical concepts do not simply obtain currency in everyday life; they also have two-way relationships with lay concepts, circling in and out of the lifeworld into academia and back, with both domains being profoundly intertwined (Giddens 1982, 1–17). Recent sociological studies illuminate the upshot of this two-way relationship. When theoretical concepts and theories with ambiguous normative pronouncements penetrate into the lifeworld, they can be misappropriated by agents (such as politicians, the media, and activists) to advance their cause against the theorists’ original normative orientation (Brandmayr 2021a, 2021b; Malier 2021).

Thus, it is crucial not only for theorists to develop normatively unambiguous concepts and theories to reduce injustice, but also for the theorists and their disciples to continue to engage in public reasoning to clarify the normative message that the theories and concepts originally intended to convey. This suggests that public reasoning needs to be considered not as a static outcome in the form of public opinion but rather as an ongoing process. The following section discusses the importance of this perspective.

For Sen, public reasoning is a dialogue amongst a variety of interlocutors. While Sen considers balloting and majority rule to be what constitutes public reasoning, “the central issues in a broader understanding of democracy (as public reasoning) are political participation, dialogue, and public interaction” (Sen 2009, 326). As such, Senian public reasoning as a process of dialogue has two tenets. First, it must encompass diverse voices, and dissent from marginalised sections of society must be heard (Sen 2009, xiii). Second, it must be interactive and iterative amongst people with diverse values. For Sen, even to reduce the injustice of sectarian violence in India, what is required is “the ability of inclusive and interactive political process . . . to subdue the poisonous fanaticism of divisive communal thinking” (Sen 2009, 352).

Although Sen does not explicitly theorise how public reasoning can become more inclusive, interactive, and iterative, he leaves a clue by citing an example of public reasoning that successfully overcame entrenched social divisiveness: the advancement of women’s rights in England in the early twentieth century. On the one hand, John Stuart Mill’s publication of The Subjection of Women in 1869 invigorated public reasoning by offering the reading public a critical perspective on the rights of women. On the other hand, suffragists’ movements amidst social conservatives’ opposition substantially contributed to moving public reasoning towards the promotion of women’s rights. Converging from different corners of society, the social research and the social movement made public reasoning more inclusive, interactive, and iterative, and eventually transformed public opinion in support of the cause (Drèze and Sen 2014, 260).

Although such a critical role of social movements is undeniable, not all movements are conducive to reducing injustice. Today, we witness a growing number of far-right movements gaining popular support, even in established democracies in North America and Europe. The problematic of this populist shift is that the movements dehumanise people with weaker social standings, work towards depriving them of human rights, and further threaten their already fragile participation in public reasoning (AlJazeera 2023; British Broadcasting Corporation 2022; Blühdorn, Butzlaff, and Haderer 2021; Lütjen 2022; Schuessler 2021; Swyngedouw 2022). In the face of these situations, Sen might argue that people must critically scrutinise their claims and values with the view of impartial spectators and human rights. However, people rarely do so because, as Adam Smith (2020, 91) admitted, using impartial spectators “requires his [or her] utmost and most fatiguing exertions.” Therefore, people usually end up confirming their partial judgements based on their long-held beliefs; the dominant discourse operating within the classed, racial, and gendered power structure; and anthropocentric thinking (Blühdorn, Butzlaff, and Haderer 2021; Maldonado 2022; Lütjen 2022; Swyngedouw 2022). In reality, people are also tempted to cherry-pick information to confirm their judgements rather than to critically scrutinise them (Fishkin 2009; Lütjen 2022).

This gap between Sen’s theory and the social reality might give readers a sense of despair. However, by building on the Senian tenet of public reasoning as an ongoing process, and by focusing on the roles of academics, I now suggest ways to reduce this gap. To this end, I capitalise on the invaluable contributions discussed previously, other relevant sociological and political theories, and the literature of public sociology. The following section lays out three routes through which academics can help reduce injustice by making public reasoning more inclusive, interactive, and iterative.

First, academics can help make public reasoning more interactive by disseminating their normative and empirical research to the general public (Burawoy 2005, 2021; Gorski 2019; Feagin 2001; Feagin, Mueller, and Elias 2009; Nichols 2017; Nickel 2010). Through this route, critical social scientists can debunk misconceptions about certain social groups and practices by elucidating matters of ethical import currently overlooked or deliberately concealed by those in power (Gorski 2019; Sayer 2011). Similarly, theorists of justice can elucidate a problematic situation as a manifestation of injustice, reveal what causes the unjust status quo, and offer solutions for how it can be ameliorated (Laurence 2021; Ypi 2012). In essence, their research must aim to afford people critical perspectives that are necessary for people to refine their opinions, use impartial spectators, and acknowledge the human rights of different others. Academics can pursue this route by writing blogs, websites, and op-eds and by serving as public intellectual commentators for the media (Burawoy 2005, 2021). Academics can also publish articles in open-access journals and accessible books, and they can hold public lectures in nearby communities (Nichols 2017).

Despite the potential to help people refine their opinions, use impartial spectators, and acknowledge different others’ human rights, this route has some limitations. First, academic research not only may stop short of effectively reaching the general public, but also may be misappropriated by powerful agents to promote their injustice-exacerbating causes (e.g., Burawoy 2021, 67–75). Second, as academics are by no means impartial spectators, their research may stop short of accommodating critical perspectives indispensable to informing injustice-reducing public opinion (e.g., L. T. Smith 2021; Truman, Mertens, and Humphries 2000). Further, despite differences in terms of tenure and financial and other securities, most academics are relatively privileged. Thus, their research can be vulnerable to biases against marginalised people, such as the working poor, the homeless, indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities (e.g., Baker 2009; Barnes 2003; Lynch and O’neill 1994). Although marginalised people can significantly enrich public reasoning with their critical perspectives, their inclusion tends to be minimal or nominal. Crucially, this route stops short of making public reasoning more inclusive, despite its urgency. As such, the route needs to be complemented by another that can bring the critical perspectives of marginalised people into public reasoning to encourage people in society at large to refine their opinions, to use impartial spectators, and to acknowledge different others’ humanity.

The second route is to make public reasoning more inclusive by bringing marginalised peoples’ voices into public reasoning and by helping to form critical public opinion to reduce the injustices that marginalised people face. Pursuing this route may take the form of collaborative research to propose solutions to the problems that marginalised people face, such as poverty, discrimination, and poor educational provision, then to later pressure governments, those responsible for the injustice, and the public to take action by utilising research data (e.g., Archbald et al. 2019; L. T. Smith 2021, 123–61; Truman 2000). As Ypi (2012) and Laurence (2021) proposed, theorists of justice can help marginalised people clarify their interests, values, and goals and equip them with normative vocabularies and empirical information. Critical social scientists can provide marginalised people with relevant empirical information to help them analyse their problems more holistically (Gorski 2019, 164). Critical social scientists can also highlight the values, agency, and interests of marginalised people through ethnography, and then disseminate their research findings amongst the wider public to magnify the voices of marginalised people (Gorski 2019, 164).

In pursuing this route, it is indispensable for both academics and marginalised people to engage in the thought experiment of impartial spectators. The strategy will help them realise injustice-reducing change through strong coalition-building. On the one hand, academics, with the view of impartial spectators, must stay open-minded by admitting that academics are fallible. Academics should also remember that marginalised people have critical perspectives due to their firsthand experiences of injustice, and marginalised people are capable of advancing opinions which may shatter the academics’ preexisting beliefs and assumptions (e.g., Archbald et al. 2019; Lynch and O’neill 1994). As such, academics have to be willing to give away their authority over the research’s design and funding to the marginalised people themselves when necessary (e.g., Dockery 2000). On the other hand, with the view of impartial spectators, marginalised people should not blindly respect academics but rather be mindful that their unique perspectives count and can enrich the way other people, including academics, engage in public reasoning.

To nurture a strong coalition and influence public reasoning to reduce injustice, it is also very important for academics to impart research skills and resources to marginalised people in their collaborative research. This strategy will cultivate future researchers and leaders amongst marginalised people. These people can then take the lead in identifying and solving community problems and mobilise to influence public reasoning in favour of the marginalised communities’ causes (e.g., L. T. Smith 2021, 145–61).

Last but not least, the third route by which academics can help reduce injustice is through teaching (Burawoy 2021, 195–97; Feagin 2001, 13–14). To make public reasoning more iterative, teaching should aim at developing students’ “normative consciousness”; that is, their capacity to assess normative assumptions that underlie both scholarly work and everyday life and to develop their own normative positions (Flores and Burg 2021). Given that academics have their own bias, and that universities can be complicit in perpetuating injustice, teaching to cultivate students’ normative consciousness must be coupled with cultivating the students’ habits of refining their opinions and using impartial spectators. As the first step towards this end, academics can introduce students to the broad concept of human rights as follows: “every person anywhere in the world, irrespective of citizenship, residence, race, class, caste, or community, has some basic rights which others should respect” (Sen 2009, 355). Teaching human rights can be facilitated by establishing a normative subdiscipline in sociology (Abbott 2018) and developing an interdisciplinary curriculum (Caillé and Vandenberghe 2015; Nichols 2017). Teaching must also expose students to opinions different from their own in relation to an issue, train the students to listen to others’ opinions with respect, and encourage the students to advance their own opinions. Such a teaching method will help students acquire the habit of refining their opinion, using impartial spectators, and attempting to reach a sensible consensus with others who hold very different views.

In addition, it is crucial to provide youths from marginalised communities with more opportunities to attend university—for instance, via scholarships and affirmative action (Burawoy 2021, 190–92; Feagin 2001, 13; L. T. Smith 2021, 149–50). Such university reform would help bring more critical and diverse perspectives to classrooms and facilitate the cultivation of a normative consciousness amongst students that is conducive to reducing injustice. This is because the firsthand interactions amongst diverse students would prompt the students to regard people with different values and experiences as humans like themselves and better understand why differences of opinion amongst humans emerge. For this mutual understanding and learning to take place, academics need to facilitate the creation of a safe and open space for students to engage in dialogue. In order to not disadvantage students with minority opinions and values, academics need to stay open-minded by critically scrutinising their values and assumptions with the view of impartial spectators. Although conducting such critical teaching is a challenge given the current state of universities, to make public reasoning iterative, the importance of such teaching cannot be underestimated. After the academics of the current generation pass away, those students who have undergone a critical education will be able to continue to influence the values of those around them and take the lead in invigorating public reasoning towards reducing injustice.

This study has explored how social research can help those struggling against injustice. By reviewing initiatives to reconnect normative inquiry and empirical social science, it shows that synthesising the normative and the empirical is indispensable to illuminating the highly complex, normative social reality and to producing practically relevant research. This study suggests that to deepen synthetic research practices, it is necessary to engage with interdisciplinary studies. Further, to contribute towards social justice with one’s research, it is important to consider the target audience of said research. In this article, I combined these contributions and developed a systematic proposal for social justice in line with Sen’s nonideal theory of justice. According to this proposal, (1) injustice can be reduced through public reasoning whereby people exercise practical reason on what constitutes injustice and how it can be remedied; (2) all of us are agents of change whose reasoning and action have leverage in reducing injustice; and (3) theoretical concepts invented by academics play an important role in making people’s exercise of practical reason more critical and systematic. Building on the third proposition, I have argued that the invention of normatively powerful concepts is the first route through which academics can help those struggling against injustice.

Extending Sen’s view of inclusive, interactive, and iterative public reasoning with the contributions discussed in the previous section and with the literature of public sociology, this study has delineated three more routes for academics to help those struggling against injustice. The first proposed route is the dissemination of research to the general public. This has the potential to make public reasoning more interactive by affording the general public critical and diverse perspectives. The second proposed route is to conduct collaborative research with marginalised communities to devise solutions to the problems they face and, using research data, to pressure the general public and other stakeholders to act. Through this route, academics can magnify marginalised peoples’ voices in public reasoning, thereby helping to make public reasoning more inclusive. The third proposed route is teaching, which aims at cultivating students’ normative consciousness while enriching their habits of refining opinions. This involves using impartial spectators and acknowledging the human rights of different others. Through this route, academics can nurture behaviours that foster injustice-reducing democracy to help make public reasoning more iterative.

Having developed the above proposals, I must admit the limitations of this study. First, the proposals are applicable only to functional democracies. It is impossible for the proposals to work in societies such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where even a slight attempt to critically engage in public reasoning results in long-term imprisonment or capital punishment (British Broadcasting Corporation 2023; Lee and Joo Kim 2023). This said, the recent democratic uprisings in China and Iran show a silver lining: even in nondemocratic societies, people can stand up to engage in public reasoning critically and openly, and they often reason with the view of impartial spectators and human rights.7 In this globalised world, academic research can infiltrate nondemocratic societies through the internet or when youths from these societies pursue university degrees in established democracies. Thus, it seems that the proposals are not completely irrelevant to galvanising injustice-reducing change in nondemocratic societies.

Second, I admit that the four routes proposed in this study are not exhaustive. There will be other effective routes for academics to contribute towards helping those struggling against injustice. My hope is that this study will inspire many other scholars, students, and activists to reflect upon the matter, inform their actions, and encourage them to discover more routes in response to unfolding circumstances.

No doubt, reducing injustice through public reasoning is a thorny road. However, as many sociologists have shown, values are changeable with continuous communication and interaction. As Sen elucidates, the most conspicuous historical manifestations of injustice, such as slavery and the subjugation of women, have been significantly reduced through public reasoning. Moreover, there exist numerous invaluable resources across different disciplines from the present and past to tap into and actualise the injustice-reducing potential of public reasoning. Thus, this article concludes with the proposal that academics must continue to engage in public reasoning across disciplinary boundaries to make it inclusive, interactive, and iterative. This will contribute towards helping those like the Black Lives Matters protesters in Charlotte who struggle against injustice. Perhaps then, a sixteen-year-old boy will not be left alone with the momentous task to “come up with a better way.”

The author is grateful to two anonymous reviewers whose comments on an earlier draft significantly improved this article.

To publish this article, the author received funding from Kushiro Public University of Economics, Japan.

The author declares that no competing interests exist in the production and publication of this article.

1.

The disciplinary boundary between the social sciences and moral and political philosophy tends to blur when descriptive analyses of social reality synthesise with normative evaluation (Vandenberghe 2017). Thus, to facilitate the discussion, I use “social research” as an all-encompassing term to refer to any research that belongs to these disciplines.

2.

For instance, Adam Smith elaborated on the detrimental effects of jobs that require “performing a few simple operations” on the workers’ ability to participate in community life. Thus, he proposed that publicly funded schools provide these labourers with extensive learning opportunities (A. Smith 2003, book V, chapter I, part III, article 2d).

3.

Even though I present axiological neutrality in this generally understood manner, many sociologists suggest that Weber did not advocate forgoing all value judgements but seemed to affirm certain values (Betta and Swedberg 2017; Gorski 2017; A. W. Rawls 2017; Sayer 2017; Vandenberghe 2017). For instance, Vandenberghe (2017) points out that Weber explicitly affirms his own values in his encyclopaedic entries in Economy and Society and even deplores “petrification of the spirit” in bureaucratic science, thus underscoring the importance of value judgements (Vandenberghe 2017, 419).

4.

While there exist different versions of utilitarianism, its tenet is that “the ground of justification (for resolving the issues of justice) is human wellbeing, happiness, or utility. When the utility of different people conflicts, the criterion for bringing their interests into relationship with one another is that aggregate utility is to be maximised” (Barry and Matravers 2005, 482).

5.

Sen’s nonideal theory of justice was initially outlined in his paper “What Do We Want from a Theory of Justice?” (2006) and was further elaborated in The Idea of Justice (2009) and “Adam Smith and the Contemporary World” (2010). In 2012, at a symposium on The Idea of Justice held at Rutgers University, Sen responded to participants’ comments on his theory. He later contextualised his idea of justice, particularly his concept of public reasoning, in An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions (2014), coauthored by Jean Drèze. He further clarified his concept of public reasoning in an interview with John Tasioulas (Tasioulas and Sen 2018). This study draws on all these works to present Sen’s nonideal theory.

6.

In my view, Sen’s own conception of injustice is any situation that deprives people of basic capabilities and hinders them from attaining human flourishing as encapsulated in Gorski’s concept of ethical naturalism (Gorski 2013). This is because Sen strongly believes that “some of the basic capabilities will no doubt figure in every list of relevant capabilities (to be promoted as a matter of justice) in every society” (Sen 2004, 79). In addition, Sen’s implicit value judgements in describing empirical cases of injustice and his endorsement of human rights fit perfectly with this conception of injustice (Sen 2006, 2009).

7.

For instance, in December 2022, protesters against the Chinese government showed humane sympathy with Uyghurs who were killed in a deadly fire that could have been prevented if strict COVID-19 restrictions had not been in place. Importantly, the protesters neither dehumanised Uyghurs nor trivialised their tragic deaths (Che et al. 2022). The protesters rather identified the deadly fire as undeserved suffering inflicted upon humans like themselves and argued that the fire could have happened to themselves (Che et al. 2022). Similarly, many Iranian protesters make use of the vocabulary of human rights to advance the rights of women, even in the face of the brutal suppression of protests by the Iranian government (Rasmussen 2022). In this case, many men participate in the protests, even though their own rights are not at stake (Rasmussen 2022).

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