A Passion for Society: How We Think about Human Suffering

A Passion for Society: How We Think about Human Suffering

by Iain Wilkinson, Arthur Kleinman

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What does human suffering mean for society? And how has this meaning changed from the past to the present? In what ways does “the problem of suffering” serve to inspire us to  care for others? How does our response to suffering reveal our moral and social conditions? In this trenchant work, Arthur Kleinman—a renowned figure in medical anthropology—and Iain Wilkinson, an award-winning sociologist, team up to offer some answers to these profound questions.

A Passion for Society investigates the historical development and current state of social science with a focus on how this development has been shaped in response to problems of social suffering. Following a line of criticism offered by key social theorists and cultural commentators who themselves were unhappy with the professionalization of social science, Wilkinson and Kleinman provide a critical commentary on how studies of  society have moved from an original concern with social suffering and its amelioration to dispassionate inquiries. The authors demonstrate how social action through  caring for others is revitalizing and remaking the discipline of social science, and they examine the potential for achieving greater understanding though a moral commitment to the practice of care for others. In this deeply considered work, Wilkinson and Kleinman argue for an engaged social science that connects critical thought with social action, that seeks to learn through caregiving, and that operates with a commitment to establish and sustain humane forms of society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520287228
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/26/2016
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #35
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 5.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Iain Wilkinson is Reader in Sociology at the School of Social Policy, Sociology, and Social Research at the University of Kent. He is author of Risk, Vulnerability and Everyday Life, Suffering: A Sociological Introduction, and Anxiety in a Risk Society.

Arthur Kleinman is a psychiatrist and Esther and Sidney Rabb Professor of Medical Anthropology and Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University. He currently serves as Director of the Harvard University Asia Center. He is author of The Illness Narratives and What Really Matters, coauthor of Reimagining Global Health, and coeditor of Social Suffering, to name a few of the other books he has written or edited.

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A Passion for Society

How We Think About Human Suffering

By Iain Wilkinson, Arthur Kleinman


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96240-8


The Origins of Social Suffering

The concept of social suffering originates in the late eighteenth century. It first features as a point of reference in poetry documenting the transformation of country life in the early period of the Industrial Revolution. In this context social suffering as either a manifest condition or a quality of experience is not taken up as a matter for formal analytical scrutiny; rather it is adopted as a point of reference for writers moved to document scenes of rural deprivation that make a mockery of romantic notions of the pastoral idyll. In his Descriptive Sketches, written in 1792–93 in recollection of a summer spent traveling around postrevolutionary France and the Swiss Alps, William Wordsworth refers to social suffering in a passage that records his encounter with destitute and sick peasants living in the forest along the banks of the upper reaches of the Rhine. He writes:

The indignant waters of the infant Rhine,
Hang o'er the abyss, whose else impervious gloom
His burning eyes with fearful light illume.
The mind condemned, without reprieve, to go
O'er life's long deserts with its charge of woe,
With sad congratulation joins the train
Where beasts and men together o'er the plain
Move on a mighty caravan of pain:
Hope, strength, and courage, social suffering brings,
Freshening the wilderness with shades and springs.

In this instance, Wordsworth's encounter with social suffering draws him to reflect upon the stoic attitudes adopted by people struggling to survive in conditions of extreme adversity; and despite all he has seen, he draws hope for humanity and for himself from this. Commentators understand this poem to mark the early signs of a political awakening that led Wordsworth to an interest in the prospects for revolutionary social reform and also to the attempt to fashion his poetry as a means to raise the moral and material conditions of society as matters for public debate.

The possibility of making reference to social suffering as a distinct form of moral experience signals a major revision in the terms of human understanding. It attests to the arrival of structures of feeling, intellectual convictions, and moral dispositions that are without precedent. Before the second half of the eighteenth century no reference is made to social consciousness per se, and there is no record of people moving to directly identify suffering as an intrinsic component of the social realm. The possibility of thinking about individuals as shaped by social worlds or as subject to social conditions was acquired through a large-scale transformation in popular attitudes and cultural worldviews. This involved a definitive break with traditional approaches to documenting and making sense of experiences of pain and misery. It involved a radical revision of the cultural frames of reference by which human suffering was cast as a problem for humanity.

The adoption of the concept of social suffering in writing and public debate signals the arrival of an approach to interpreting the meaning of human suffering as an explicitly social condition. Here the spectacle of human misery is taken as a cue to reflect critically upon prevailing social attitudes and social relations. Experiences of "fellow feeling" that take place through the witnessing of human affliction are understood to hold the potential to operate as a form of social disclosure. People's moral feelings about human suffering are taken as social bonds that imply an obligation to acknowledge, respond to, and care for the pain and distress of others. At the same time, however, it is clear that from this point on many questions remained with regard to how one should interpret, express, and manage these emotional ties, and for that matter, at its origins, the possibility of setting the bounds for social responsibility or devising conceptually adequate terms for thinking about how this should take place courts much dispute.

The early realization of social suffering as a component of human experience is accompanied by a series of intellectual difficulties and moral tensions that are often allied to the conviction that there is no sufficient means to account for, or respond to, people's suffering. At the same time that certain types of pain and distress are experienced and/or represented for the first time as matters issuing a moral demand for social reform, there is little agreement as to how this should be interpreted, evaluated, and set into action. The concern to understand human suffering in social terms brings critical debate both to the moral meaning of suffering and to the category of "the social." In this context, the forms of consciousness acquired by the encounter with social suffering tend to be deeply troubled and perplexed. From the outset they involve people in a struggle to articulate the insight and in an agitated search for greater clarity of understanding.

When attending to problems of social suffering, social science is set to investigate forms of experience that are constituted by many complex exchanges between meaning, feeling, thought, and action. There are three analytical concerns that feature in the discussion that follows. The first of these aims to understand the cultural circumstances under which human suffering is encountered as a radical challenge to our cultural capacities for sense-making and as a torment that brings us under the compulsion to question how we should live and what we should do. This involves an effort to document the sociohistorical conditions under which individuals are most likely to relate to the spectacle of other people's suffering and/or interpret their own experience of affliction as matters for which there is a distinct deficit of moral meaning. The second attends to the social origins and dynamics of "moral individualism," the cultural disposition that Emile Durkheim identified as giving rise to "sympathy for all that is human" and "a broader pity for all sufferings." Here there is a particular concern to understand the part played by the experience of human suffering in the history of emotions and how, in turn, the response to human suffering is conditioned by social structures of feeling and behaviors that are always open to change. The third concern involves the possibility of understanding how these new problems and dimensions of human suffering are implicated in the generation of social consciousness and the moral impulse to ameliorate the social conditions in which people are made to live. In this context, a focus is brought to occasions where individuals are moved by their encounters with suffering to think about themselves and others as intrinsically social beings and how by acting to change prevailing qualities of social experience and reform society, they might better care for those made subject to extreme conditions of suffering.

This chapter is organized around three short essays. Each is designed to advance distinct points of view on the putative origins, likely consequences, and supposed qualities of the social and cultural changes that first made possible the categorization of human experience in terms of social suffering. The first of these offers an explanation for the lost "art of suffering" and ventures to trace some of the ways in which this is implicated in the founding and development of modern humanitarianism. The second develops some of the interests raised in the first essay but with a greater focus on the extent to which transformations in the cultural portrayal and humanitarian response to suffering are coordinated by shifts in moral feeling. The third essay examines some of the ways in which moral feelings about human suffering came to be openly recognized as social bonds, and further, bonds that implied a responsibility to care for and to take actions to alleviate the suffering of others. In each instance, emphasis is placed upon the many difficulties of understanding and moral tensions that accompany these developments. We hold that many of these continue to infuse encounters with social suffering to this day.

We aim to draw readers into debate over the ways in which the documentation of human experience as social suffering bears testimony to a series of revolutionary transformations in popular beliefs about the moral meaning of pain, the causes of human misery, and how we should care for the afflictions of others. We contend that, at its origins, the conjunction of "the social" with "suffering" marks a radical recasting of popular conceptions of the relationship between God and society, and in particular, a considerable waning of belief in so-called special providence (the conviction that God is inclined to regularly intervene in extraordinary ways in people's lives). In this setting, "the social" as a distinct realm of moral experience and action is rendered conscionable as the scale and frequency of experiences of human suffering serve to make providentialism appear both morally objectionable and intellectually implausible. Somewhat ironically, the ground is cleared for understanding human life in social terms as an unintended consequence of a strong commitment to providentialism; it is conceived under the burden of pain and distress encountered through many sustained and frustrated attempts to marry belief with experience. Here we also work to highlight how this shift in theological understanding and allied dawning of social consciousness was augmented through the acquisition and cultivation of new forms of emotionality. In this context, "the social" is first encountered not only as a provocation to forge a more "secular" (or rather, imminently rational) meaning and response to experiences of pain and suffering but also as a matter that holds the potential to affect us morally. To fully appreciate the critical issues at stake in the categorization of human experience in terms of social suffering requires us to engage with the ongoing attempt to understand how these changes were first made possible, and further, how these continue to be realized, acknowledged, and made morally forceful in our lives today.


"The art of suffering" is a phrase first used by the Puritan divine Richard Baxter (1615–91) when advising fellow believers on how they should relate to the pains suffered at the hands of others. As a matter of Christian calling and duty, Baxter exhorts his readers to learn the "art of suffering." On this understanding, all afflictions are sent by God either as punishment for sin or as tests designed to draw believers toward a closer relationship with him. All earthly events and the conditions set for human relationships are brought about by God's will and shaped by his hand. Providence may work as much through the momentary discomforts of trivial incidents as through the trauma of great catastrophe; and for those practicing the "art of suffering," all hardships and adversities must be patiently endured in the knowledge that God is at work in all things. Comfort is drawn from the knowledge that a divine purpose lies behind apparently random events of suffering, and under this conviction the Bible is consulted as an authoritative guide to the types of actions that should take place as a means to remedy the situation.

Surveys of Christian writings and sermons through the European Middle Ages and early modern period reveal a remarkable consensus of opinion as to the meaning of human suffering. A considerable amount of dispute always surrounds the correct way to understand and interpret the mechanics of the interrelationship between God's will, human actions, and natural events, but there is no doubting the providential design of creation. The Bible teaches that suffering is not only sent by God as a punishment for wrongdoing, but also that it is used by him as a means to redeem his creation from sin. God can choose to make the sun stand still, and when angered, he sends earthquakes, floods, hails of fire and brimstone, famine, and epidemic disease to destroy populations. When working to chastise people for their sin, God might well contrive to set events in place so that societies are made subject to defeat in war and suffer enslavement under their enemies. In order to fulfill his greater purpose he even chooses to treat some people as "vessels of wrath fitted to destruction." Theologies of divine retribution are set alongside theologies of redemption that cast suffering as an instrument of sanctification (as supremely demonstrated in the sacrificial torture and death of Christ) and as an experience that is given to the saints, so that through their submission to God's will they may be commended to others as an example of faith. In the New Testament, Christians are advised to treat physical hardships and persecutions as blessings from God and to rejoice that he considers them worthy to partake in Christ's sufferings and, of course, to draw comfort from the knowledge that ultimately their reward will be in heaven.

Marc Bloch maintains that such beliefs tended to give rise to forms of emotion and behavior that hardly enter into the motivations and experience of most modern people. The conviction that God was directly involved in all things made people "morbidly attentive" to his messages as revealed through natural signs and wonders. Comets, unusual colors and patterns in the sky, floods, and unnatural births were widely held to be warnings of judgments to come. It was widely thought that God's wrath was made manifest in storm damage, disastrous fires, failed harvests, and epidemic disease. Within this worldview, it was assumed that every pain and adversity that broke into the capricious flow of bodily experience was thoroughly invested with both moral and divine meaning. Frequent and persistent encounters with devastating outbreaks of disease, sudden and untimely deaths, and periods of famine were accompanied by many "despairs," "impulsive acts," and "sudden revulsions of feeling" as people earnestly struggled to make sense of God's will and moral instruction. Similarly, Alexandra Walsham contends:

The struggle to discern some pattern behind one's violently swinging fortunes could induce an obsession, not to say neurosis, revolving around the unintelligibility of God's predestinarian scheme. Predicated upon a causal connection between affliction and guilt, this was a philosophy with a distinct tendency to deflate the self-esteem of the sufferer and foster a masochistic internalization of blame. When combined with the ingrained convictions about human depravity, a paranoid reading of providential events was liable to intensify mental stress over to a 'reprobate sense'. Direful apprehensions of divine victimization, whether in the guise of objectively verifiable experience or inner anguish and torment, encouraged an unhealthy degree of introspection.

Such beliefs lent weight to the understanding that every calamity and misfortune that befell a person was a sign of his or her sinfulness or a direct result of the sins committed by persons within his or her family or community; and further, that God intended the person to "profit from affliction." For example, on the death of his infant son from diphtheria, Ralph Josselin (1616–83) was moved to reason that this was a punishment sent by God for his vanity as well as his tendency to spend too much time playing chess. He held that the pain of his grief was a call to repentance. Some of the most devout Puritans were also inclined to express anxieties over not having been made to suffer enough. For example, insofar as affliction served to sanctify the believer, the English clergyman and theologian John Downame (1571–1652) proclaimed suffering to be a sign of God's "affection." Similarly, there are records of the Church of Ireland archbishop, James Ussher (1581–1656), worrying over the possibility that God no longer loved him because he was not experiencing any obvious hardship or pressing matter of conscience. Accordingly, the elasticity of doctrines of providence was such that, in theory, a meaning could be found for every experience of suffering; and indeed, being made to suffer was taken by many as a necessary and even desirable part of their Christian calling.

Historians note that it was particularly in societies where cultures of Protestantism took hold that doctrines of providence tended to have the greatest impact upon public and personal affairs. Generally speaking, it appears that in most cultures of medieval Christianity there was a greater willingness to acknowledge the roles played by chance, accident, misfortune, and misadventure in human affairs than would have been possible in the later Middle Ages and early modern period. The more pronounced credulity bestowed upon popular accounts of miraculous prodigies and the firm subscription to the belief that divine providence is at work in every event and circumstance are components of a post-Reformation worldview. The volume of publications dedicated to explaining providential doctrines, the documentation of God's judgments through history, and the announcement of portentous signs and wonders testifies to the extent to which the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mark the high point of Christian providentialism.


Excerpted from A Passion for Society by Iain Wilkinson, Arthur Kleinman. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. The Origins of Social Suffering
2. In Division and Denial
3. A Broken Recovery
4. Learning from Weber
5. The Praxis of Social Suffering
6. Caregiving


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