June 06, 2016

The Compassionate Sociologist

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

Is there a connection between sociology and compassion? Do you know of any sociologists who explicitly and unabashedly frame their work in the context of compassion? Do you consider yourself a compassionate sociologist?

For years, I've been mulling over these questions and thinking about the connection between sociology and compassion. I've been wondering if it's possible to study people and society without caring deeply for the people and the society you are studying. In other words, are sociology and compassion undeniably linked?

I believe they are. When I consider the definition of compassion it is hard for me to not also think about sociology. Here is how compassion is defined by Charter for Compassion, a global organization founded by the scholar Karen Armstrong:

Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

I know there may be sociologists who might reject the connection between sociology and compassion. Many of us are taught that sociology, like all scientific disciplines, is about the objective pursuit of knowledge. From this perspective, the goal is to understand social processes, social institutions, and social actors. Matters of emotion and feeling, not to mention of heart and soul, are antithetical to our disciplinary agenda. How can we search objectively for unbiased Truth, some may ask, if we are being swayed by such things as kindness, consideration, sympathy, and empathy?

I've been immersed in the world of professional sociology long enough to understand where adherents to this objectivist point of view are coming from. I can still recall the stinging rebuke I heard from a sociology professor in graduate school who said to my classmates and me that if we are studying sociology to help people and to make the world a better place, then we are in the wrong discipline. Although I never took this "advice" to heart (it sounded more like criticism to me), and in fact have always kept it in mind as something to rally against, I do know that the views of this professor are not necessarily unique.

Still, in all my years of teaching, studying, and writing about sociology, I have become increasingly convinced that there is an irrefutable connection between sociology and compassion. How can there not be? I don't see how it is possible to consciously choose to study societal "ills and isms" and not feel some degree of concern for the people you are studying and the problems they are experiencing. If compassion is partly about "treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect," and sociologists often study injustice, inequity, and disrespect, can one really be interested in sociology and not also be interested in compassion?

Apparently, this is possible. I did an extensive historical search on the database JSTOR of the three most respected, general sociology journals: The American Sociological Review (1936-2013), the American Journal of Sociology (1895-2015), and the Annual Review of Sociology (1975-2010). Among thousands of articles, do you know how many had the word "compassion" in the title? Zero!

Are you surprised by this? I was, especially when I did a follow-up search and found that there were nearly 400 articles with the word "inequality" or "stratification" in the title. When I broadened the search to include keywords and not just words in the title, the discrepancy was still overwhelming. There were only 140 articles with a keyword of compassion and over 5,000 articles about inequality and stratification.

One conclusion we might draw from my database search is that sociologists are really interested in studying differences and unfairness but not nearly as interested in studying the actions that might alleviate some of the suffering that these problems produce. And even if sociologists are interested in exploring how suffering might be relieved, we apparently do not use the word compassion in our everyday language.

Of course not all sociologists find it so easy to ignore the "inviolable sanctity of every human being," particularly when the suffering of others is part of our research. Michael Burawoy, one of the leading proponents of public sociology, referenced the work of Pierre Bourdieu to make this point in a recent article. Notice however, that Burrawoy avoids the use of the word compassion and instead speaks of an "ethical moment":

At its core, sociology recognizes and defends the humanity of others as it must also recognize the humanity of its practitioners. Sociologists are social actors, something they share with the people they study. Pursuing their sense of vocation, sociologists feel bound up with the fate of the people they study. As Bourdieu himself writes, almost surprised by his own public interventions, "So I would not have engaged in public position-taking if I had not, each time, had the – perhaps illusory – sense of being forced into it by a kind of legitimate rage, sometimes close to something like a sense of duty." This ethical moment is part and parcel of being a sociologist, even touching those, like Bourdieu, who had once felt inoculated against such temptations.

A similar sentiment was expressed recently by sociologist Matthew Desmond in his new bestselling book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (more on this book in my next post). Writing about his use of ethnography as a research method, Desmond echoes Burawoy's sentiment that empathy, a component of compassion, should arise when you study people so closely:

Ethnography is what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possible. You do this by building rapport with the people you want to know better and following them over a long stretch of time, observing and experiencing what they do, working and playing alongside them, and recording as much action and interaction as you can until you begin to move like they move, talk like they talk, think like they think, and feel something like they feel.

Many of us who practice sociology and think of ourselves as sociologists are unlikely to immerse ourselves in a community for years of research. But just because we are not ethnographers does not mean that we cannot be compassionate sociologists. As students and teachers of sociology we might ask ourselves: Are we just interested in social processes and social problems for the sake of accumulating knowledge? Or, are we studying inequality, stratification, and other societal ills so that we can understand them, work toward their eradication, and help relieve the suffering that they cause? If you feel more aligned with the latter approach, then you are probably a compassionate sociologist.


Dr. Kaufman,

Excellent post on an important topic. Last year I wrote "Sociology as a Spiritual Practice: How Studying People Can Make You a Better Person" which deals extensively with the idea of compassion (framed there mostly as empathy) to help fill the void you observe. My experience with students and fellow sociologists is that compassion is both motive and product of much of our activity, yet it is rarely talked about. Thank you for helping raise the visibility of the ethical and social impact of our work.


ps. I can have a print or digital copy of the book sent to you if interested.

Excellent blog. Thank you.

Thanks for sharing

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