Questioning compassion & middle-class. (1)

Stefan Lipan Daniel

My particular project builds on different researches that have argued that, historically, there is a strong link between the formation of the middle classes, charity work and the cultivation of the sentiment of compassion (Sznaider 1998; Berlant 2004; Moore 2008; Redfield & Bornstein 2011)⁠. Middle classed persons claimed moral authority over the working class and endeavoured both to teach them what the good life means and how to better their lives. In the process, they also constructed themselves as occupying a better position in the social structure, living better lives, being the backbone of society and being capable of and willing to foster social change.

Keeping this in mind, I think a few words about compassion will further clarify why I find this path of inquiry a fruitful one. When questioning compassion we eventually realize that there is “nothing simple about compassion apart from the desire for it to be taken as simple, as a true expression of human attachment and recognition” (Berlant 2004)⁠. Is it an ‘natural’, universal human trait (Schopenhauer 1915)⁠, or is it one that should be cultivated (Pinson et al. 2010)⁠? Is it a social and aesthetic technology of belonging or an organic emotion? Different historical periods, different understandings of what this sentiment means. In our so-called modernity, compassion is put in the terms of ‘rights’ of others (Weil 1970)⁠, as a concern with the suffering of others, accompanied by the urge to help (Sznaider 1998)⁠, or as a disposition, or way-of-being that is most fundamentally other-regarding – always interpersonal. (Williams 2008)⁠. 


But who are these ‘others’? And what is their suffering? The spectacle of which(Sontag 2003)⁠ we are exposed to on 24h ‘breaking news’, ‘reality’ showing media? And who are these ‘we’ who, as Virginia Woolf would argue, if not pained by pictures of suffering, if not moved to abolish the causes of this havoc, would be considered ‘moral monsters’ ? A question to which she adds the following lines, saying that ‘we are not monsters, we are members of the educated class’(Woolf 1938)⁠.

Taking into consideration these questions and those related to the performance of compassion I started asking people who identified themselves as being middle class about their or similarly classed people’s involvement in such ‘compassionate acts’ and about the objects they give, if they do. Questions like who deserves compassion, to whom I give, how do I give it, what do I give, were also posed by other members of our team to people of different backgrounds. Interlocutors came from very different backgrounds, with very different life trajectories. Nevertheless, most of the interlocutors are young, between 20 and 40 years old.

I will present some of the early findings in a future post. Stay tuned 🙂


Berlant, L. ed., 2004. Compassion. The Culture and Politics of an Emotion, New York: Routledge.

Moore, S.E.H., 2008. Ribbon Culture. Charity, Compassion and Public Awareness, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pinson, H., Arnot, M. & Candappa, M., 2010. Education, Asylum and the “Non-Citizen” Child. The Politics of Compassion and Belonging, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Redfield, P. & Bornstein, E., 2011. An Introduction to the Anthropology of Humanitarianism. In P. Redfield & E. Bornstein, eds. Forces of Compassion: Humanitarianism Between Ethics and Politics. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

Schopenhauer, A., 1915. The Basis of Morality Second., London: George Allen & Unwin LTD.

Sontag, S., 2003. Regarding the pain of others, New York: Picador.

Sznaider, N., 1998. The sociology of compassion: A study in the sociology of morals. Cultural Values, 2(1), pp.117–139.

Weil, S., 1970. First and Last Notebooks, London: Oxford University Press.

Williams, C.R., 2008. Compassion, Suffering and the Self: A Moral Psychology of Social Justice. Current Sociology, 56(1), pp.5–24.

Woolf, V., 1938. Three Guineas, Mariner Books.


Livin’ la vida…Deutsch! Children’s Extracurricular Activities and the Bucharest Middle-Class (2)

Alin Savu

As I was pointing out in the previous post, the next section of this paper series presents the case of families from Bucharest enrolling their children into extracurricular activities (such as various sports, arts and crafts, foreign languages, etc.), as part of their strategies of class reproduction or upward social mobility. I discuss how the Bucharest middle-class is imagined through the choices related to extracurricular activities and the role parents think they play for (the future of) their children.

In approaching the subject of parents’ choices and their relevance for the construction of the middle class in Bucharest, a good starting point is the idea of personalising education with the help of extracurricular activities – while these may not be necessarily seen as the way to performance, they certainly represent, as my interlocutors reckon, “an adjuvant to what the school cannot offer them […] they generate auxiliary competences” (Camelia, mother 35)  or “they help her develop those activities which the school generally leaves on the second place” (Paul, 42, father). Therefore, the purpose is to accessorise, to improve a path dependent system of education offering the children something better than the average.

This is consistent with the plethora of advertising these educational institutions target at the parents suggesting there is a constant competition not only among adults, but between their children, the future citizens. Thus “give your child a head start”, “open up a world of opportunities” and “our teachers are trained in modern methods and have a vast experience” resonate with the parents’ sense of the future and the idea of prestige emanating from the institution: “We had some moments last year when she was saying that she does enough English at school. Why must she go to the English Centre? And I told her what the difference was and, beyond this, the certificates that she would obtain there would really help her in the future.” (Andreea, mother, 40)

On the other side of this page, the said competition is felt to segregate, to divide children on the count of their abilities, their accumulated cultural capital that may create some kind of closed groups. Therefore, parents encourage children into taking up various classes like horseback riding, cricket, tennis or arts in order to facilitate their integration within groups of other children, or for the future adults to be able to be together: “She will be able to participate for example in a trip where people would do sports because she does sports too, and she likes it. Or, she will be able to speak about something on a certain occasion because…you know…she will feel included and not excluded and she will be up to date with the others…she will know how to be with the others.” (Maria, mother, 34)

Integration/inclusion, friendship, “socialisation” in the sense of sociability – these are also recurrent themes in parents’ discourse relative to extracurricular activities and I will return to them in the second part of the presentation, from another perspective. For now I will only talk about parents’ view of the city as a dangerous, uncontrollable, childless and child unfriendly place, as opposed to the space ensured by the extracurricular activities – organised, supervised, safe and friendly in such a way that children can become friends there. Moreover, the prohibitive price of these extracurricular activities at once defines a certain pool of families that are able to participate and thus ensures that the friends children make belong mainly to same social strata. The outside is unsafe, undefined, full of dangerous objects and beings: They need to be under supervision all the time, we can’t…We meet with more children in the park and they play with their parents there […] because there are all kinds of dangers in the street, you can’t find a place to play!” (Ioana, mother, 32) “If I know them here [at home] and that they’re safe, I trust them, I have no problem. For example, I sent her to camp and I have no problem with her going on a camp in an organised environment where I know that…you know?”(Maria, mother, 34)

While these arguments might seem valid at least in some parts of Bucharest, there is also the other side of coin, where parents discuss work and the waste of time. Middle-class children “do not just run around the block or play on the computer all day long”(Alexandru, father, 41), they need something useful to fill their time with – especially if it is safe, properly organised, and with a measurable outcome – “She’s 13 and she can read Harry Potter, the original, so she’s absolutely independent now, but she’s like this because she’s been doing English for 6 years now. The teacher told us she would get here. It’s not such an extraordinary surprise” (Diana, mother, 38). The downside that some of the parents feel is that work time for them ends up being mirrored by the time their children spend in extracurricular institutions: “She’s always alone, that’s it! When she finishes school hours, there’s nobody to pick her up at 12 o’clock – we are alone, my wife works, I work, no grandparents around, there’s nobody around, so she goes to an afterschool. But it’s the same problem, she’s not with us!”(Alexandru, father, 41)