Social Justice Research

, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 395–411 | Cite as

Toward More Interesting Research Questions: Problematizing Theory in Social Justice



The majority of research in social justice, indeed in all of social science, is incremental, has received few citations, has garnered little attention in the public, and can be viewed as dull and uninteresting by both academics and lay readers. Although often well versed in a variety of methodological techniques for testing research questions, we rarely receive explicit guidance in how to construct them in a way that is interesting, useful, and pushes theory forward. A novel “problematization” approach for constructing interesting research questions has been proposed by Alvesson and Sandberg (Constructing research questions: doing interesting research. Sage Publications, London, 2013). In this essay, I introduce the problematization method to social justice scholars in a comprehensive review and critique that identifies the benefits and limitations of the approach. Then, to provide a cursory illustration of the method in practice, I problematize the domain of retributive justice, attempting to identify potentially interesting directions for future research inquiry.


Research methods Theory Retributive justice Problematization 


  1. Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2013). Constructing research questions: Doing interesting research. London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  2. Aquino, K., & Reed, A., I. I. (2002). The self-importance of moral identity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1423.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aristotle. (1976). The ethics of Aristotle: The Nichomachean ethics (J. A. K. Thompson, Trans., H. Tredennick, Revised). London: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  4. Barry, H., & Tyler, T. R. (2009). The other side of injustice: When unfair procedures increase group-serving behavior. Psychological Science, 20(8), 1026–1032.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bastian, B., Jetten, J., & Fasoli, F. (2011). Cleansing the soul by hurting the flesh: The guilt-reducing effect of pain. Psychological Science, 22, 334–335.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bastian, B., Jetten, J., Hornsey, M. J., & Leknes, S. (2014). The positive consequences of pain: A biopsychosocial approach. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(3), 256–279.Google Scholar
  7. Braithwaite, J. (1998). Restorative justice. In M. Tonry (Ed.), The handbook of crime and punishment (pp. 323–344). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Brockner, J., Senior, D., & Welch, W. (2014). Corporate volunteerism, the experience of self-integrity, and organizational commitment: Evidence from the field. Social Justice Research, 27(1), 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Budner, S. (1962). Intolerance of ambiguity as a personality variable. Journal of Personality, 30(1), 29–50.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Carlsmith, K. M., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). The paradoxical consequences of revenge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1316–1324.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Corley, K. G., & Gioia, D. A. (2011). Building theory about theory building: What constitutes a theoretical contribution? Academy of Management Review, 36, 12–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Davis, M. S. (1971). That’s interesting!: Towards a phenomenology of sociology and a sociology of phenomenology. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 1, 309–344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dutton, J. E., Dukerich, J. M., & Harquail, C. V. (1994). Organizational images and member identification. Administrative Science Quarterly, 39(2), 239–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Exline, J. J., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Hill, P., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Forgiveness and justice: A research agenda for social and personality psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7, 337–348.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Funk, F., McGeer, V., & Gollwitzer, M. (2014). Get the message: Punishment is satisfying if the transgressor responds to its communicative intent. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin40(8), 986–997.Google Scholar
  16. Greenberg, J. (1982). Approaching equity and avoiding inequity in groups and organizations. In J. Greenberg & R. L. Cohen (Eds.), Equity and justice in social behavior (pp. 389–435). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 814–834.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
  19. Janoff-Bulman, R., Sheikh, S., & Hepp, S. (2009). Proscriptive versus prescriptive morality: Two faces of moral regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 521–537.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Jost, J. T., Chaikalis-Petritsis, V., Abrams, D., Sidanius, J., van der Toorn, J., & Bratt, C. (2012). Why men (and women) do and don’t rebel: Effects of system justification on willingness to protest. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 197–208.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Lerner, M. J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion. New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Liviatan, I., & Jost, J. T. (2011). System justification theory: Motivated social cognition in the service of the status quo. Social Cognition, 29, 231–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Mentovich, A., Rhee, E., & Tyler, T. R. (2014). My life for a voice: The influence of voice on health-care decisions. Social Justice Research, 27(1), 99–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Okimoto, T. G., & Wenzel, M. (2008). The symbolic meaning of transgressions: Towards a unifying framework of justice restoration. In K. A. Hegtvedt & J. Clay-Warner (Eds.), Advances in group processes: Justice (Vol. 25, pp. 291–326). Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.Google Scholar
  25. Okimoto, T. G., & Wenzel, M. (2009). Punishment as restoration of group and offender values following a transgression: Value consensus through symbolic labelling and offender reform. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 346–367.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Okimoto, T. G., & Wenzel, M. (2010). The symbolic identity implications of inter and intra-group transgressions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 552–562.Google Scholar
  27. Okimoto, T. G., & Wenzel, M. (2011). Third-party punishment and symbolic intragroup status. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 709–718.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Okimoto, T. G., Wenzel, M., & Hedrick, K. (2013). Refusing to apologize can have psychological benefits (and we issue no mea culpa for this research finding). European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(1), 22–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Oswald, M. E., & Stucki, I. (2009). A two-process model of punishment. In M. E. Oswald, S. Bieneck, & J. Hupfeld-Heinemann (Eds.), Social psychology of punishment of crime (pp. 173–191). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  30. Parris, C. L., Hegtvedt, K. A., Watson, L. A., & Johnson, C. (2014). Justice for all? Factors affecting perceptions of environmental and ecological injustice. Social Justice Research, 27(1), 67–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Rothmund, T., Baumert, A., & Zinkernagel, A. (2014). The German “Wutbürger”: How justice sensitivity accounts for individual differences in political engagement. Social Justice Research, 27(1), 24–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sabbagh, C., & Schmitt, M. (Eds.). (2014). Handbook of social justice theory and research. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  33. Sabbagh, C., & Vanhuysse, P. (2014). Betwixt and between global and domestic forms of justice: The Israeli case over time. Social Justice Research, 27(1), 118–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (2001). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Smith, J. R., & Louis, W. R. (2008). Do as we say and as we do: The interplay of descriptive and injunctive group norms in the attitude–behaviour relationship. British Journal of Social Psychology, 47(4), 647–666.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Tetlock, P. E. (2002). Social-functionalist metaphors for judgment and choice: The intuitive politician, theologian, and prosecutor. Psychological Review, 109, 451–471.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Waytz, A., Dungan, J., & Young, L. (2013). The whistleblower’s dilemma and the fairness–loyalty tradeoff. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(6), 1027–1033.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Wenzel, M., & Okimoto, T. G. (2014a). Retributive justice. In C. Sabbagh & M. Schmitt (Eds.), Handbook of social justice theory and research. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  39. Wenzel, M., & Okimoto, T. G. (2014b). On the relationship between justice and forgiveness: Are all forms of justice made equal? British Journal of Social Psychology. doi:10.1111/bjso.12040.
  40. Wenzel, M., Okimoto, T. G., Feather, N. T., & Platow, M. J. (2008). Retributive and restorative justice. Law and Human Behavior, 32, 375–389.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. West, C., & Zimmerman, D. (1987). Doing gender. Gender and Society, 1, 125–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Wevodau, A. L., Cramer, R. J., Clark, J. W., I. I. I., & Kehn, A. (2014). The role of emotion and cognition in juror perceptions of victim impact statements. Social Justice Research, 27(1), 45–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Worthington, E. L. (2006). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  44. Wright, S. C., & Baray, G. (2012). Models of social change in social psychology: Collective action or prejudice reduction, conflict or harmony. In J. Dixon & M. Levine (Eds.), Beyond prejudice: Extending the social psychology of intergroup conflict, inequality and social change (pp. 225–247). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UQ Business SchoolThe University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

Personalised recommendations