Research Champion for Justice and Equality: Professor Nicholas Pleace

The University of York exists for the public good. Since our foundation, we have played a pivotal role in drawing attention to inequality and injustice. We deliver impact-driven research with a focus on maximising fairness, inclusion, opportunity, wellbeing and empowerment for individuals and communities, across the UK and internationally.

Overlapping challenges

The challenges around inequality and injustice often require us to think in interdisciplinary terms. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the ways in which economic inequality, poverty, living in degraded and overcrowded built environments, experience of racism, sexism and other intolerances, poor health and barriers to inclusion and political marginalisation, all overlap.

Disadvantaged people are rarely disadvantaged in only one way. Increasingly, we see how combined inequalities are becoming spatially concentrated. This is an experience of communities, neighbourhoods and regions, alongside global differences in equality and human rights. 

Nicholas Pleace is Director of the Centre for Housing Policy and a Professor of Social Policy at York. His research interests centre on interdisciplinary research, with a particular interest in addressing the spatial concentration of inequality and injustice, including issues of housing exclusion and climate justice.

It is these overlapping challenges that mean we must bring together the sciences, social sciences and the humanities in addressing injustice and inequality and promoting the public good.

Delivering the impact-driven research that is needed also means we must work in partnership, with government, communities, the charitable and voluntary sector and business. The challenges around justice and equality are both local and global, to promote the public good, York works with our city, our region, our European partners and our partners across the Global South and the rest of the World. 

With my colleagues in the Centre for Housing Policy (CHP), my work has centred on homelessness and on meeting the housing and support needs of vulnerable people, so that they can live their lives, in the ways they choose, in secure, adequate, affordable and sustainable housing. Housing is a human right. There is a fundamental human need to have a place to call home that is safe, secure, adequate, affordable and stable.

The poverty and injustice of lacking a home, not just in the sense of a building to live in, but also lacking the emotional and psychological security of a home, is an important issue. Yet in my 30 years as a social researcher at York, I have come to understand that improving one aspect of public policy cannot provide a solution in itself. Issues around homelessness and housing exclusion often go hand in hand with poverty, inequality, poor health and wellbeing and experience of intolerance. It is through interdisciplinary work, within networks of partnerships, that the most effective results can be delivered by impact-driven research in addressing inequalities such as homelessness.

Inclusive research and teaching

It is also important to recognise lessons from earlier mistakes in research, policy and practice. In the past, solutions to inequality were designed with little or no consultation with the people they were intended to help, often meaning that policy had mixed results. We are (still) learning that to address inequality and injustice effectively, we must ensure that our research and teaching gives people experiencing inequity a voice, that it empowers them to exercise control over their lives, in order to help solve these challenges.

To help deliver positive social changes, our research must enable social leadership for communities and individuals, empowering and including people for the public good. Bringing our research and teaching together in new ways, helping our students both understand and, as they progress through their later careers, help address inequality and injustice, is part of our mission as a University.

Universities are facing new challenges in delivering justice and equalities research.

The rise of Neoreaction/alt-right politics has changed the nature of debate and how we frame and discuss social problems and social challenges. Denial of physical and social science and the resurgence of misogyny, sexism, racism and myriad other forms of intolerance, including around sexuality and lifestyle, now represents a serious political force throughout the World. Engaging with this reality is important and presents us with fundamental questions about how our research can most effectively promote the public good by reducing inequality, ideally in helping to address some of the drivers behind these destructive forces.     

Inequality is increasingly becoming an experience of degraded environments. Poverty and exclusion might not just mean poor diet, poor health, experiencing a digital divide, poor quality housing and limited opportunities, but also polluted air, insufficient water and a lack of access to high quality green space. Social justice research must now encompass the right to a liveable environment, alongside dealing with the other dimensions of injustice and inequality.

Technology is also changing rapidly. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning may still be in relative infancy, but they are developing very fast, raising questions about human rights and fairness in a context where more and more decisions that influence our lives may be taken without human agency. Data merging at scale, with the capacity to bring together more and more information on our lives, also raises fundamental questions about human rights in the 21st Century.

York is the city of Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree, a city that has a history of social reform and social betterment, the tradition of which underpinned our foundation as a University. It is great to be working as the Research Champion for Justice and Equality and to help the University continue in its interdisciplinary work to promote the public good through our impact-driven research.