Book Review: A Passion for Society: How We Think about Human Suffering

A Passion for Society: How We Think about Human Suffering. Iain Wilkinson and Arthur Kleinman, Oakland: University of California Press, 2016, 302 pp.

Human suffering has long been a focus of anthropological attention. However, suffering can be difficult to grasp conceptually. In A Passion for Society, Ian Wilkinson and Arthur Kleinman provide readers with a historical and cultural overview of human and social suffering. In doing this, they call for critical reflection on the practice of social science, advocating an increased focus on care.

The book constitutes a state of the art introduction to human suffering and how it has been experienced, theorized, and negotiated over time. Wilkinson and Kleinman explain how human suffering was experienced and conceptualized in various historical contexts, including the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the Spanish abuse of Amerindians, and the rise of neoliberalism. In each case, they discuss associated cultural history, social theories, and related major debates.

The first three chapters deal with early references to social suffering in the late 18th century (Chapter 1), the development of social science and its relation to moral sentiment (Chapter 2), and the reconfiguration of social science beyond the “sociological imagination” (Mills 1959) (Chapter 3). The last three chapters deal with Weber’s theorizations of the problem of suffering in modern culture (Chapter 4), the “humanitarian social imaginary” and the importance of moral urgency in the quest for knowledge (Chapter 5), and, finally, how practices of caregiving in social research lead to social understanding (Chapter 6). Throughout the book, readers are provided with a multitude of references to the classical literature of the given time and context. In this way, the book also provides an understanding of how the social sciences have evolved over time in relation to human and social suffering.

The magnitude of the book’s scope and purpose is its strongest feature, but it is also a point of difficulty. Readers might sometimes find themselves floating in a sea of authors, ideas, theories, and arguments. Fortunately, the authors provide both life jackets, compass, and direction by recommending contemporary research practices that will awaken recognition and reflection. The various arguments explored in the six chapters are elegantly summarized in the conclusion, where Wilkinson and Kleinman argue that the problem of suffering is crucial for human and social understanding and that researchers must move away from being dispassionate experts and engage in the practice of caregiving.

I was especially moved by Wilkinson and Kleinman’s writing style. The authors strike a strong balance between providing a textbook overview of the complex topic of human suffering and delivering their own persuasive arguments about the moral engagement of social science researchers. As a result, they model a dedication to research that goes beyond mere academic accomplishments. They underscore that “real acts of caregiving” should guide social science research on human suffering. “With this emphasis,” they write, “we declare a commitment to a social research practice that is sustained not so much by a quest for academic recognition but more by a moral concern to be actively involved in the creation of humane forms of society” (p. 22).

Wilkinson and Kleinman thus encourage scholars to be aware of their responsibilities and to take a moral stance. They suggest that research within social sciences should be attached to care practices. For them, care is a “practice that is indispensable to the pursuit of social understanding” (p. 163).

For instance, the authors show how Kleinman’s own study of the traumatic consequences of mass violence on intellectuals in China fostered a social knowledge of a collective cultural bereavement that, in turn, became part of the interviews and life stories. Not only did people get better during the research, the results were also used in the treatment of other patients with neuroasthenia in Chinese hospitals. The authors suggest that such active engagement in social suffering has the “potential to inspire a new approach to social theory and practices of social research” (p. 194).

The book also invites its readers to critically question the moral and political values that have informed the history of social science. Wilkinson and Kleinman argue that the professionalization of social science has sterilized fellow feeling and that moral sentiment has been seen as an intellectual pollutant by practitioners of social science. In Chapter 5 on the praxis of social suffering, they rather strongly critique the writings of Didier Fassin, particularly his ideas about humanitarianism as establishing social domination (Fassin 2012). Claiming that Fassin’s work upholds critique as an end in itself and that he does not offer any alternative mode of reasoning or moral action, the authors state that this kind of research cannot make an adequate contribution (p. 156). In this section, it seems somewhat peculiar that a book arguing against too much critique spends so much energy criticizing Fassin; nonetheless, the overall quest to inspire real acts of caregiving through research is clear.

In the final chapter on caregiving (Chapter 6), the authors use the life and authorship of sociologist and social worker Jane Addams to foster the idea of caregiving as “doing sociology.” Through nuanced description of her accomplishments, Wilkinson and Kleinman critique of current research on social suffering as being “caught up in a protest against the conditions that do harm people” rather than being actively engaged in caregiving (p. 180). The authors encourage social researchers to do more than expose, describe, or protest the conditions that lead to suffering, calling instead for an active and intimate involvement in peoples’ lives and thereby a practice of social research that goes beyond academia.

One of the greatest accomplishments of A Passion for Society is its passion. It promises to foster reflection among its readers regarding their own research practices. Wilkinson and Kleinman close their book advocating a critical and politically engaged medical anthropology, claiming that this discipline “is configured around a meeting between, on the one hand, an applied engagement with health care and, on the other, a commitment to ethnographic method” (p. 181). The book also inspires medical anthropologists to critically ask ourselves: Are we always compassionate to all informants (and not just our favorite ones)? Do we care—and could we care more and in better ways? How can our research actually improve lives?

The book is suitable for teaching on all levels within anthropology and other social sciences. It has potential to foster discussions among students about current events nationally and globally related to human suffering, for instance, the war in Syria, the hunger crisis in East Africa, and changing health care policies in the United States. It also promises to provide new perspectives on human suffering among more experienced researchers by inspiring them to integrate more tangible and caring approaches into their research. Given what is happening on the world stage, Wilkinson and Kleinman’s passion for a caring society and for dedication and action in social science seems more important than ever.

References Cited

Fassin, D. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mills, C. W. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leave a Reply