Social Justice in Action: Family Science as a Community of Scholarship and Activism

Kevin Roy, Ph.D., Associate Professor; Jessica N. Fish, Ph.D., Assistant Professor; Amy Lewin, Psy.D., Associate Professor; Elaine A. Anderson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita; Department of Family Science, University of Maryland, College Park
/ NCFR Report, Fall 2021

Kevin Roy et al
Clockwise from top left: Kevin Roy, Ph.D.; Jessica N. Fish, Ph.D.; Elaine A. Anderson, Ph.D.; and Amy Lewin, Psy.D.

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In Brief

  • Family Scientists must practice scholarship and activism when committing to social justice that promotes health and well-being for all families.
  • Social justice action results in responsive Family Science that increases the discipline’s relevance and helps to reduce family inequity.
  • To dismantle privilege based on structural racism, we must include NCFR, our professional community of practice.


A call to action is presented to create a more justice-based, action-oriented discipline of Family Science. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948) and the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) ethics statement (Public Health Leadership Society, 2002; Thomas et al., 2002) are used as guiding principles for the call to use knowledge for action. We recommend action in five areas based on the work conducted in the Family Science discipline: research, theory, education, policy, and practice. Family Scientists must assume the dual roles of scholar and activist and reject a stance of neutrality in their commitment to social justice and equity that promotes health and well-being for all families. Such action could result in a more responsive Family Science, driven by social justice, that increases the discipline’s relevance to the public and ultimately helps reduce family inequity.

What does it mean to create a more justice-based, action-oriented Family Science, one that rejects a stance of neutrality and instead leverages the power of science to address systemic inequities that oppress families? To encourage the dismantling of structural inequality and racism, we include NCFR as our community of practice and our professional organization. We believe that the growing antiracism movement, as well as the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, mandates a more socially conscious and actionable Family Science beyond translation, dissemination, and application.


A Justice-Based, Action-Oriented Family Science

A growing network of scholars are currently organized around issues of social justice and action within NCFR (e.g., through the Social Justice Network focus group) and through special issues and special collections in Family Science journals (e.g., James & McGuire, 2019; van Eeden-Moorefield, 2018). These movements challenge Family Scientists to infuse social justice into their research, teaching, and practice. Even with the recent shared call from three NCFR journals (Family Relations, Journal of Family Theory & Review, Journal of Marriage and Family) for papers on race and social justice, the discipline lacks a mandate to use knowledge for action and also a clear commitment to advocacy and activism related to its basic and applied science (Allen & Henderson, 2017; Bengtson et al., 2005; Leslie, 2020).

We are scholars affiliated with a school of public health, and our own Family Science scholarship has become less neutral, incorporating the explicit values and action orientation of public health. In this way, our research and practice begin to inform each other in iterative ways—research questions largely come from practical needs, and research findings inform and guide changes in practice and policy (Ammerman et al., 2014).

The centering of action is also an explicit value of the code of ethics that articulates the values and beliefs of the discipline and guide public health research and practice (Thomas et al., 2002). The 12 ethical principles include the mandate to use knowledge for action: “People are responsible to act on the basis of what they know. Knowledge is not morally neutral and often demands action. Moreover, information is not to be gathered for idle interest” (Public Health Leadership Society, 2002, p. 3). The principles also address the importance of community empowerment in both the generation and use of knowledge, and of translation of information into action: They explicitly articulate the need for values of equity and social justice to serve as a guide in the design, implementation, and use of research. Such clearly stated values show how racism harms the health of families (Phelan & Link, 2015; Trent et al., 2019; Williams et al., 2019) and how explicit and intentional antiracist research can use praxis in critical race theory (Ford & Airhihenbuwa, 2010; García & Sharif, 2015; Thomas et al., 2011). A recent example of a nonneutral, responsive, and action-oriented commitment is the declaration this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2021) that racism is a “public health threat.”

We urge Family Scientists—particularly those who have yet to do so—to embrace these principles by engaging in activism (taking action to bring about concrete changes in families’ lives) and, perhaps more centrally, in advocacy (empowering marginalized people and families to become leaders who shape Family Science in service to health equity and justice) (Letiecq & Anderson, 2017). Doing so requires a responsive and action-oriented Family Science. We identify here ways for Family Scientists to be less neutral and to explicitly incorporate elements of social justice mandate into our work.



The current moment calls on us to revisit the values, ethics, and principles that guide our discipline, research, practice, and praxis (Leslie, 2020). We offer five potential strategies to consider in our efforts to create a more just and action-oriented science:

  1. Embrace the core values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 (United Nations, 2014; see also Anderson & Letiecq, 2015). The declaration represents five core human rights that can become part of our professional mission: human dignity; nondiscrimination; civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; and solidarity rights.

  2. Reframe research and theory with justice-oriented frameworks, such as community-engaged research. Family Science has a unique ability to traverse the translational continuum from basic to applied science, given our links with Extension, couple and family therapy, and Family Life Education. Justice-oriented frameworks extend the capacity for translational research by centering scholarship that recognizes and seeks to eliminate the inequalities that exist among families. The success of such frameworks also requires that our metrics of faculty promotion and student progress value the complexity and time commitment of creating and maintaining relationships with community partners and scholarship-activism or scholarship-advocacy.

  3.  Revise curriculum and pedagogy. Family Science students typically fulfill diversity and inclusion requirements with coursework that narrowly and categorically focuses on specific “groups” of families (e.g., Black families, LBGTQ-headed families). Instead, such courses should require critical examination of broader systemic inequities of power and resources for families, the history of those inequities, and how they are perpetuated by existing beliefs, values, practices, and policies. We recommend that education about community-engaged research be part of the required methods curriculum for all students during their training programs. Family Science faculty must explicitly teach students how to identify community stakeholders and to build and maintain mutually respectful, collaborative relationships with them. Furthermore, students should be versed in “family health literacy,” with skills to effectively communicate with clients, partners, and policymakers to clearly provide intervention initiatives and strategies to ameliorate social injustices (Braun, 2011; Rudd, 2007).

  4. Transform translation, dissemination, and implementation. NCFR members can support scholarly response with concrete actions in public settings and offer our expertise to families as advocates or activists in concert with strategic partners. NCFR as an entity, as well as individual scholars, could consider authoring and cosigning amicus briefs as one example of an important policy action in which Family Science can translate research knowledge to encourage movement toward social justice. As the premier professional association for understanding families, NCFR has a responsibility to leverage its international platform to assist in the translation and dissemination of science in service to pressing issues of social justice and equality, particularly when issues are brought to the fore via social events and public discourse. The swift coordination of ideas, science, and energies amplifies a commitment to justice, enables one to nimbly meet an immediate need and address potential inequities, and creates a larger network for action beyond a lone Family Scientist’s capacity to promote change.

  5. Commit to scholarly activism as a professional organization. We urge our colleagues to codify a commitment to activism for social justice and equity by revisioning the organization’s mission to add language that explicitly acknowledges and makes a commitment to promote justice and equity for families (see also Council on Contemporary Families, n.d.; Groves Conference on Marriage and Family, n.d.). As the leading professional association for understanding families, NCFR could broaden its mission to include “advocating” for families alongside community leaders and be a driver of action in the area of inequity. The organization could also reallocate resources to promote the engagement and leadership of scholars who are too often underrepresented in our disciplines. We also encourage the major translation and implementation platforms in NCFR and Family Science (e.g., the Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE) credential; National Council on Family Relations, n.d.) to clearly state the organization’s commitment to and value of social justice (see Allen and Lavender-Stott, 2020). Further, we propose that the NCFR Board of Directors consider a new global end policy that, through a collective voice, could support and work toward addressing social justice and equity for all families. This new global end policy could recognize that disparities in health care access or police brutality, for example, are inextricably linked with our mission as Family Scientists to improve the well-being of all families. Examples of what could be done to implement a more just and active science include:

    • Encouraging and facilitating the use of research- and theory-based family practice and pedagogy in highlighting and expanding our work towards social justice and equity for all families;

    • Raising the visibility of family research, theory, and practice that emphasizes the challenges brought by social injustices, and the research-advocacy and -activism needed to ameliorate such injustices, to policymakers and the general public;

    • Engaging in timely actions toward the issue of social justice and equity for all families and support such activities with evidence-based resources; and

    • Expanding relationships and partnerships to foster long-term collaboration with policy actors, advocates, activists, and community-based groups in order to advance an agenda of social justice and equity.


Conclusion: A Call to Action

The Family Science discipline could be more responsive and ready to inform the public with good science but also ready to respond rapidly to the next major crises or pressing policy issue, making the discipline more relevant to the public. Family Scientists could become “go-to” experts, actors, and collaborators in addressing the needs of families facing discrimination and inequalities. It is now time to acknowledge that Family Science is a discipline driven by a value that honors equity and justice for all families and to (re)dedicate ourselves to using science to create a more just society for all families.

As policies to address family, health, economics, or education needs, among others, become more polarized, our commitment to a just, responsive, and public science is both more challenging and more important than ever. If we as Family Scientists want to be ready to respond to the urgency of structural racism and growing inequalities among families, we must be unafraid to take on the dual roles of being both scholars and activists. We must openly make our commitment to social justice and equity that promotes health and thriving for all families (Russell, 2019). Such an explicit and codified commitment will transform how we value advocacy in tenure and promotion policies; how we disseminate our scholarship and activism in journals in the Family Science discipline; how we choose to hire and support diverse scholars; how we give all a seat at the table or step aside to support a new generation of leadership; how we align Family Science with morals of promoting health and well-being for families; and how we ground this work in a human rights perspective that demands we recognize, name, and attempt to address these inequities.



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