A social sense of justice: the power of relationships in the interaction of procedural and distributive justice




Huxtable, Robert Dennis

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Research on justice has produced two literatures, procedural justice and distributive justice. Procedural justice research has focused on the psychology of procedural preference, establishing reliable preferences for adjudication over other dispute resolution procedures. Procedural justice theories suggest these preferences are based on the concern of participants with decision and process control. Distributive justice theories have examined the justice rules that decision-makers use to determine the appropriate distribution of resources, emphasizing the interpersonal relationships among participants in determination of the “fair” rule for that dispute. Research distinguishing these two justice literatures has concluded that procedural justice concerns are the more robust: that procedural manipulations are more determinative of fairness perceptions than are the rules used for allocation outcomes. This research re-examines that conclusion, using M. J. Lerner’s justice motive theories (1977, 1981) as the bases of analysis for distributive justice while assessing the importance of interpersonal relationship characteristics on procedural justice phenomena. Three studies tested fairness perceptions of conflict scenarios constructed to describe the relational characteristics of Lerner’s theories. Study 1 examines procedural preferences among adjudication, negotiations and joint problem-solving under different interpersonal relationships outlined in Lerner’s original forms of justice (1977), and assesses the distribution rule preferences associated with those relationships. Study 2 tests the evaluations of fairness of those justice procedures and distribution rules across Lerner’s interpersonal relationship characteristics. Study 3 investigates the impact of Lerner’s revised forms of justice (1981) on fairness of distribution rules and on participant concern for process and decision control. Few consistent results for procedural justice emerged across the first 2 studies: Psychological relations of identity/unit/nonunit influenced procedural preference, with joint problem-solving most robust. Adjudication was not the preferred justice procedure. Distributive justice rule preference and fairness ratings in studies 1 and 2 offered only inconsistent and partial support for Lerner’s original forms of justice. Studies 1 and 2 suggested that people preferred a cooperative justice procedure (joint problem-solving) but a competitive distribution rule (justified self-interest). Results from Study 3 similarly presented only partial support for Lerner’s revised justice theory: Only two of six justice rules tested matched a relationship characteristic theorized as determinative of perceived fairness, those being utilitarian decisions and legal contest. Study 3 results showed process and decision control influenced by relationship characteristics: Nonunit relationships were associated with both third-party process control and third-party decision control. Results of the three studies are discussed in terms of their implications for Lerner’s theories and the interaction of distributive and procedural justice literatures. It is apparent that while interpersonal relationships influence both procedural fairness and distribution rule fairness, the power of procedural and distributive justice theories in predicting fairness is weak.



Justice, Social justice, Distributive justice