What are the Social Graces by John Burnham? (Explained for Students)

The social graces include:

  • G: Gender, Gender Identity, Geography, Generation
  • R: Race, Religion
  • A: Age, Ability, Appearance
  • C: Class, Culture, Caste
  • E: Education, Ethnicity, Economics
  • S: Spirituality, Sexuality, Sexual Orientation

The concept was developed by John Burnham in 1993. Burnham highlighted that we should be able to add extra identity factors to the G.R.A.C.E.S mnemonic and adjust them as the needs arise. Hence, it has since been built upon to create the clumsy term: GGGGRRAAACCCEEESSS.

social graces definition

Social graces is an acronym / mnemonic explaining the visible and invisible aspects of our identity. It allows us to examine the elements of identity that might impact our lives and behaviors.

Definition of the Social Graces

The social graces is a framework for understanding aspects of identity and how they shape our practices. It makes aspects of identity and asks practitioners (normally therapists, but also teachers, social workers, etc.) to be aware of how their identity influences their thinking.

Some scholars define it similarly as:

  • “A mnemonic that separates out different aspects of identity into separate categories.” (Butler, 2017, p. 17)
  • “Mnemonic for aspects of difference” (Jones & Reeve, 2014, p. 2)
  • “A suitable framework […] through which therapists can reflect on their own beliefs and prejudices in order to understand how they might bring these into the therapy” (Totsuka, 2014, p. 106)

Use these quotes (or cite these sources) in your essay on this topic.


The concept helps therapists, educators, councilors and psychologists talk through the elements of identity and how they might impact how we relate to others. It is designed to make identity factors a part of a discussion about privileges and disadvantages that are evident in society.

Burnham and colleagues often use the concept to help practitioners identify their own implicit biases. When their implicit biases are identified, they can help neutralize them to become more effective, thoughtful and fair practitioners.

As Nolte (2017, p. 4) argues, the framework:

… provides a helpful way for us to become intentional in our developing awareness of, reflexivity about and skillfulness in responding to sameness and difference.

Similarly, Partridge and McCarry (2017) argue that this model can help us to:

  • Reflect on action: Think about how identity influenced a situation.
  • Use or reflections to inform future actions: Think about how we can ensure we are fairer in future actions.
  • Subvert the dominant discourse: Consider ways to re-think ongoing behaviors that privilege dominant social identities (white, middle-class, male, able, etc.)
  • Consider new alternatives for future actions: Come up with new ways to behave that are fairer.

Key Features

1. Makes Aspects of Identity Visible and Explicit

The main feature and benefit of this concept is that it helps us talk about aspects of identity out loud. It gives us an opportunity to air our thoughts on aspects of identity that are ‘unsaid’ (that we don’t usually talk about) as well as aspects that we wear on our sleeve.

In sessions where the SGs are used to discuss identity, people will usually talk through each aspect of identity and consider which features they identify with. For example, when talking about ‘gender’, people can bring up their perspective as a male / female / non-binary person. When talking about ‘Education’, people can bring up how their educational background influences their views, etc.

2. All Aspects of Identity are Equally Important

Burnham (2003) states that all aspects of identity should be considered equally important within this framework. While the Gs come before the Rs, this should not be taken to assume that Gs are more important than Rs in the framework. Instead, the separation of each ‘grace’ is designed to ensure each one is examined sufficiently and not drowned out by any others.

3. Always Evolving

The acronym is constantly evolving as people add to and subtract from it. Burnham highlights that sessions should begin by asking people what other aspects of identity they could add to the framework. For example, in North America, many people may add their migrant experiences or Indigenous identities to the framework, thereby introducing new but equally important aspects of identity to the discussion.

Pros and Cons


1. Helps people understand Identity

The framework provides a useful way to get people talking about identity. It is a clear and explicit (rather than abstract) way of examining various identity factors that may contribute to our perspectives and beliefs.

2. Makes unsaid and invisible aspects of Identity a Topic of Discussion

Without a clear framework for discussing aspects of identity, many aspects may be ignored or not spoken about. The aspects of identity that are most likely to be overlooked are ones that are invisible and unspoken. The benefit of this framework is that the teacher and students can talk through each aspect one by one, ensuring nothing is overlooked.

3. Helps us see our Implicit Biases

By examining aspects of our identities we can think about how they shape our perspectives and actions. If we can talk about this, then we can work on eliminating or minimizing implicit biases in our professional practice.


1. Fails to understand complexity of identity

Butler (2017) argues that breaking down identity into separate categories fails to understand the complexity of identity. The graces acronym sees identity as ‘the sum of its parts’ rather than a holistic and indivisible concept. Therefore, Butler argues that it is “fundamentally opposed by intersectional theory” (Butler, 2017, p. 17). This is because intersectional theory sees intersectional identities (such as black-queer) as inseperable and unique and impossible to discuss in separation.

Similarly, Totsuka (2014, p. 106) highlights that aspects of the graces are “complex and interwoven”. She notes that in one of her sessions a student noted that her “ethnicity, culture and religion were inseparable” and shouldn’t be separated out in the way they are in the graces framework. Nonetheless, the session made this point explicit, providing yet another entry way into a complex discussion of identity that was valuable to all participants in the session – so perhaps this is a good thing!

2. A Framework, not a Theory

The graces concept is a tool for thinking about identity, it is not a theory. It should not be mistaken for a theory of race (like, for example, Critical Whiteness Theory, Critical Race Theory, Intersectional Theory, etc.) This may be considered a weakness at times, or may simply be seen as a simple fact: it’s not to be used as an underpinning explanation of the world. It simply opens up discussion about social identities and biases.

Final Thoughts

The social graces concept by Burnham and colleagues is a useful way for looking at how our identities are formed and how they impact our implicit biases. It is most commonly used as a training tool to help therapists, teachers, and other practitioners think about how to counter implicit biases in their own practices in order to achieve social justice.

Read Also: Muted Group Theory


Burnham, J. (1992) Approach-method-technique: Making distinctions and creating connections. Human Systems, 3(1), 3-26.

Burnham, J. (1993) Systemic supervision: The evolution of refl exivity in the context of the supervisory relationship. Human Systems, 4, 349- 381.

Burnham, J. (2005) Relational reflexivity: A tool for socially constructing therapeutic relationships. In: C. Flaskas, B. Mason & A. Perlesz (eds.), The space between: Experience, context and process in the therapeutic relationship. London: Karnac.

Burnham, J. (2012) Developments in social GRRRAAACCEEESSS: Visible-invisible and voicedunvoiced. In I-B. Krause (Ed.) Culture and Reflexivity in Systemic Psychotherapy. Mutual Perspectives. London: Karnac.

Burnham, J. & Roper-Hall, A. (2017) Commentaries on this issue. Context, 151, 47-50.

Butler, C. (2017). Intersectionality and systemic therapy, Context, 151, pp. 16-18.

Cockell, S. (2017) Exploration of attire as an unvoiced ‘GRACE’. Context, 151, 19-22.

Jones, V. & Reeve, D. (2014). DISsing the Social GGGRRAAACCEEESSS. Paper presented at the AFT Conference. University of South Wales.

Nolte, L. (2017). (Dis)gracefully engaging with diversity learning – reflections on the SGs as a training tool. Context, 151. pp. 4-6. ISSN 09691936

Partridge, K. & McCarry, N. (2017). Graces that bite: Unleashing the GRR in the graces. Context, 151. pp. 7-10. ISSN 09691936

Totsuka, Y. (2014). ‘Which aspects of social GGRRAAACCEEESSS grab you most?’The social GGRRAAACCEEESSS exercise for a supervision group to promote therapists’ self‐reflexivity. Journal of family Therapy36, 86-106. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-6427.12026

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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