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Getting Woke: How Do We Awaken A Sense Of Injustice?

Originally published on Huffington Post.

Morton Deutsch, eminent psychologist, Columbia University professor, mentor extraordinaire, and one of the founders of the field of conflict resolution, died last March at age 97. Deutsch spent his illustrious career creatively and systematically studying ways to make the world more just and peaceful. He was a tough-minded and tenderhearted scientist with an intense commitment to developing psychological knowledge that would be relevant to important human concerns. In other words, he was deeply theoretical and genuinely practical. He believed in the power of big ideas to improve the world, and in the vital role of science to refine them.

In honor of his passing, I have selected a series of ten major scientific contributions that Deutsch made in his efforts to promote a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. These are by no means his only contributions – there are indeed many more.  However these are those I have found as most consequential to my own research and practice, and that I feel are most likely to have the biggest impact on our future. Brief snapshots of each contribution will be presented here in a series of 10 weekly blog posts in approximate chronological order of the questions he studied over his lifetime.

8. Getting Woke: How do we Awaken a Sense of Injustice?

As a consequence of his thinking on justice, Deutsch began to work systematically at identifying the necessary conditions for addressing injustice. One particularly rich area of theorizing here was his work on the conditions and processes involved in awakening members of both low-power and high-power groups to the presence and effects of injustice. Of course those in low-power suffer the major consequences of injustice, but Deutsch emphasized the psycho-social dynamics both within and between low-power and high-power groups that contribute to enduring systems of injustice.

In his article with Janice Steil on Awakening the Sense of Injustice (1988), Deutsch proposed a basic parallel set of awakening processes. The first involved falsifying and delegitimizing officially sanctioned ideologies, myths and prejudices that justify injustices, such as those that serve as the basis for racism and white supremacy, sexism and male supremacy, and Americanism and national exceptionalism. However, Deutsch argued that these myth-challenging processes also needed to be complemented by exposing victims and victimizers to alternative ideologies, models and methods that support a realistic sense of hope for the possibility that injustice can be mitigated or eliminated. Of course, such awakening processes typically elicit anxiety and resistance in both the powerful and the less powerful, and so Deutsch suggested the value in finding allies who share these alternative beliefs and values with whom to build coalitions. Here, he also began to outline the types of work and resources necessary to make oneself and one’s group more effective in being a force for just change, particularly when in low power, including enhancing cohesiveness, trust and effective organization internally within one’s group, and therefore increasing one’s bargaining power. 

Once awakened, Deutsch & Steil identified a sequence of tactics that low-power groups could employ for waking members of the elite and thereby creating new allies. These included persuasion tactics, like appealing to their moral values, self-interest and self-realization potential, and power tactics such as enhancing one’s own or one’s group’s power, identifying allies among the elite, using Saul Alinsky’s (1971) jujitsu tactics of leveraging the powerful’s influence against them, and when necessary reducing the power of the oppressor through the use of divide-and-conquer, violent and non-violence strategies.

This work eventually informed and culminated in Deutsch’s more comprehensive framework for overcoming oppression described in next week’s blog post. 

Mort Deutsch was an intellectual giant with a true moral compass, on whose shoulders many in the fields of peace, conflict and social justice stand today.  The foundation he has provided for our work is sound, lasting and ultimately promising and optimistic. His insight, passion and commitment today live on in all of us.


Alinsky, S. (1971). Rules for radicals: A practical primer for realistic radicals. New York: Vintage.

Deutsch, M., & Steil, J. M. (1988). Awakening the sense of injustice. Social Justice Research, 2(1), 3-23.


Peter T. Coleman

Peter T. Coleman is the Director of ICCCR and Professor of Psychology and Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Social / Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Iowa. He has conducted research on social entitivity processes (ingroup/outgroup formation),… MORE >

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