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.