May/June 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 5

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University of Tennessee Launches Center
for the Study of Social Justice

Stephanie A. Bohon, University of Tennessee

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(left to right) University of Tennessee Arts and
Sciences Dean Bruce Bursten, sociologist
Stephanie Bohon, best-selling author Jeremy Rifkin,
sociologist Scott Frey, and Vice President for
Research Brad Fenwick at the launch
of the Center for the Study of Social Justice
on November 10, 2009.

With the goal of shedding light on society’s most pressing social issues, the Center for the Study of Social Justice (CSSJ) at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville officially launched on November 10, 2009. The CSSJ is the first research center at the University of Tennessee to bring together the work of scholars in the social and physical sciences, law, humanities, and arts. The interdisciplinary center is also the only university-based research center in the Southeast dedicated to understanding social justice from a broad theoretical and methodological perspective. It is expected to produce path-breaking insights and to foster new forms of collaboration relating to the advancement of social justice research and theory and, of course, to make a difference in human lives.

The idea for establishing a center was first conceived by the sociology faculty at the University of Tennessee. University of Tennessee (UT) sociology heavily emphasizes social justice in its graduate and undergraduate curriculum. Graduate students are required to enroll in seminars that critically examine theories of social justice, and most of the sociology faculty and graduate students at UT are working in areas of inquiry intended to inform scholars and policy makers about what is fair, equitable, and beneficial for people. This focus was the basis for a full-force effort to create a physical and intellectual space on the Knoxville campus where faculty and graduate students from every discipline can come together to engage in creative problem solving.

Interdisciplinary Research

The CSSJ fosters research and teaching related to social justice that reaches beyond the boundaries of the UT Sociology Department. Currently, 63 faculty fellows representing 21 different departments and seven colleges are affiliated with the CSSJ. Through the center, researchers are now able to share their expertise, collaborate on projects, disseminate their work to a broader audience, and attract research funding.

"In the tough economic times we’re currently experiencing, all social problems that exist will likely only worsen," said Stephanie Bohon, a sociologist who co-directs the CSSJ along with environmental sociologist Scott Frey. Bohon also notes that, because of the continuing upsurge in poverty, unemployment, crime, and health problems, it is more critical now than ever that universities play a large role in collecting and analyzing data on the human condition and to provide science-based methods of evaluating resources and the effectiveness of specific approaches on proposed solutions.

[B]ecause of the continuing upsurge in poverty, unemployment, crime, and health problems, it is more critical now than ever that universities play a large role in collecting and analyzing data on the human condition and to provide science-based methods of evaluating resources and the effectiveness of specific approaches on proposed solutions.

"Through the CSSJ, the university can contribute to the body of knowledge that measures the impacts of the environment, the economy, and the political system on people’s lives," CSSJ Co-Director Scott Frey noted. "However, it is not sufficient to do this from a single disciplinary approach. Social justice issues require increasingly sophisticated interdisciplinary understandings of their complexity in order to effectively weigh in on solutions to the persistent social problems that have detrimental effects on individuals and groups."

Issues to Be Tackled

Although the Center is open to scholars at the university working in all areas of inquiry related to social justice, the CSSJ has identified several key issues of immediate importance: Environmental justice and disaster response; racial and ethnic justice; immigrant and refugee rights; basic income; and gender justice. By creating teams of scholars with diverse training around these topical areas, the Center has been able to respond quickly to problems as they emerge. For example, several CSSJ faculty and graduate students are already examining the response to a recent Tennessee Valley Authority fly ash spill in which 1.1 million gallons of sludge were dumped on Kingston, TN. Another team of CSSJ faculty and graduate students from sociology, entomology, architecture, social work, education, public health, and anthropology are examining racial differences in housing choice and housing practices in order to develop racially sensitive training programs to reduce home-borne risks for childhood asthma.

Although the Center’s research and public policy work engages primarily faculty and graduate students, undergraduate students and members of the larger campus community also benefit from the center’s presence. In addition to research, the CSSJ has engaged the University of Tennessee and the Knoxville community in many lively and thought-provoking conversations through lectures, workshops, panel discussions, and film series on health disparities, poverty, mountain-top removal in mining, the legal system, and environmental sustainability. At its official launch, best-selling author and noted environmental policy expert, Jeremy Rifkin, provided the keynote address in which he laid out his plan for rebuilding the U.S. economy in a more environmentally sustainable way. Sociologists Domenico Parisi, Mississippi State University, and Mark Hayward, University of Texas-Austin, also shared their expertise on poverty and health disparities with the Knoxville community through CSSJ initiatives.

University of Tennessee Arts and Sciences Dean Bruce Bursten said he is very pleased that CSSJ has been established: "The center promises to be an intellectual and translational force in taking basic research in social justice and using it to make a difference in society. The multidisciplinary nature of the Center will mirror the college’s goal of fostering critical thinking across disciplines to advance human knowledge and to make a difference in the human condition."

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