Doing Good, Being Good, and the Social Construction of Compassion

From AcaWiki
Jump to: navigation, search

Citation: Amy Blackstone (2009/02/01) Doing Good, Being Good, and the Social Construction of Compassion. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (RSS)

doi: 10.1177/0891241607310864


Tagged: Sociology (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), social movements (RSS), compassion (RSS), self help (RSS), civic engagement (RSS)


"How do social movement participants ascribe meaning to what they do, and what do these representations mean for our understanding of compassion more generally?" In this paper, Amy Blackstone looks at the gendered nature of "acts of compassion" carried out by people who also seek wider social change through "doing good" and "being good."

Blackstone explores these questions by looking at the antirape and breast cancer movements, which have different historical relations to feminism, with antirape being associated with second-wave feminism and breast cancer associated with the backlash against it. Blackstone argues that although we would expect participation in these movements to be different, "in conducting the day-to-day work of the movement, the gendered processes by which participants construct compassion are similar" (86). In both cases, the social processes involve participants' actions (doing good) and their identities (being good). To examine these two processes, Blackstone focuses on the effect of gender essentialism ideologies on the two movements.

Gender essentialism, says Blackstone, disempowers the breast cancer movement, since it silences women as "crazy or bothersome." The same essentialism disempowers the antirape movement by positiong women as victims (87). Blackstone argues that while both movements fight against this essentialism, they are often working "to undo the consequences of essentialist gender constructions(whether consciously or not), their actions and identities sometimes reify traditional visions of gender." (87).

Literature Review

Blackstone reviews literature in civic engagement and social moments to frame this research. One set of literature in civic engagement sees civic engagement in the U.S. as an "ideology of individuals [and self interest] pitted against institutions." This self-interest model can conflict with civic engagement focused on care[1], or institutionally-oriented change. Blackstone reviews literature in civic engagement and social moments to frame this research. One set of literature in civic engagement sees civic engagement in the U.S. as an "ideology of individuals [and self interest] pitted against institutions." This self-interest model can conflict with civic engagement focused on care[1], or institutionally-oriented change. One theory is that self-interested participants take on care to "pursue self-fulfillment at the same time that they connect with others" [2]. Blackstone argues that compassion in social movements is constructed in this self-interested/individual communal connection.

Blackstone argues that "doing good" has often been accused of failing to achieve broader change, and is complicated by issues of pwoer and inequality[3]. This work of doing good is often gendered, and "stereotypes about gender can lead one to take wome's acts of compassion for granted" [4][5][6][7][8].

Blackstone also describes work on "new social movements" that are concerned with tensions between individual and institutional change. Within this, Blackstone identifies scholarship that focuses on emotions in social movements[9][10][11]. Blackstone also describes social movement research that focuses on groups seeking personal change, attempting to "normalize experiences traditionally regarded as deviant" in addition to the more common research on groups seeking institutional change[12].

To focus on social movements that seek individual change and collective change (like breast cancer and antirape movements), Blackstone also draws from "scholars who have challenged the conceptual distinction between charity work and activism... these scholars have sought to overcome the tendency to overlook certain forms of women's activism" (90) [13][14][12][15][16]. Blackstone writes: "By showing that women’s activist/charity work in relatively private arenas indeed has public implications and repercussions, these authors urge us to stretch our consideration of what it means to be compassionate, to do good, and to be good."

By combining civic engagement and social movement literature, Blackstone hopes to offer "new insights about how compassion works." One predicts that individualism shapes how we see ourselves and our good works. The other argues that "emotions matter" to these processes. Blackstone hopes to offer insights on how these two processes are are gendered.


Blackstone carried out ethnographic research in two social movements, with case-oriented qualitative methods [17]. The breast cancer organization was the "Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation" as a steering committee member. She carried out 300 hours of participant observation over 3.5 years, and data from 10 formal and 50 informal interviews with social movement participants. The other organization was a campus antirape organization in the Midwest called "Stop Rape" in this paper. She attended 2 42-hour training sessions and "hung out" in the office. She also analyzes data from a national conference focused on sexual violence advocacy.

Blackstone describes her method as "critical ethnography"[18], where she uses the data to "critique not only the social processes observed but also the theoretical concepts around which those processes are centered" (93). She contrasts this with a grounded theory approach, since she was focusing on "anomalies in existing understandings of doing good at the same time that it highlighted silences in earlier scholarly discussions of doing good" (94), silences she attempted to verify in the second site.


Constructing Compassion

Blackstone argues that compassion is constructed through actions (doing good) and perceptions/presentations of themselves (being good). In many cases "participants also seemed to equate doing good with being good" whether a "'good' survivor, a good movement participant, and a good community member" (96).

Participants in Komen often described their activism as "having fun" or "hanging out." They described male participants as "heroes or protectors," they described women as victims or nurturers. Blackstone observed in Stop Rape that participants imagined that men might be uncomfortable joining a movement "where men are often the bad guys" and flirted with men to show them that they didn't always see them as "the bad guys" (100).

Participants in both movements often connected "doing good" with "being good" and described "incorporating their commitment to doing good into all realms of their lives" (102). Citing Bellah's research on the inability of Americans to relate moral identity to wider social problems[19], Blackstone traces this to Komen and Stop Rape. "At Stop Rape, participants seem unaware of their privilege as college students and the ways atht their social positions enable their participation" (103). At Komen, participants were unable to link their work with the experiences of people with lower socioeconomic status, and avoided "confronting the inequalities that breast cancer is centered around" (103). As a result "those who do good for fre are sometimes constructed as more good" (105).

Doing Good, Being Good, and the Politics of Empowerment

Blackstone asks "is empowerment anything more than self-care? Is it at all political, and does it lead to broader change?" Is it self help or activism? [16][12]. In the two organizations, "the emphasis is on empowering the individual," which BLackstone says "is arguably the most pervasive, most readily available way in America of conceiving the possibilities for social chang" (108). Yet participants also engage with wider concerns, whether the healthcare system or "the culture of violence" (109). Since it is not clear how to chang this culture "advocate rhetoric thus comes back to the individual" (110).


Blackstone argues that "the cultural context of individualsm operates together with the gendered character of social movements to shape the processes by which participants do their good works and construct themselves as morel beings," mediated by social location and gender (111).

Prompted by Wuthnow's findings on the importance of volunteer narratives [8], Blackstone speculates that "the telling of these stories, as activists go about the work of doing good... connects individuals to something beyond themselves" (111).

Theoretical and practical relevance:

This paper offers a helpful literature review that links theories of civic engagement with social movement theory around the role of care in civic life. It also offers a helpful lens on two questions that bear further research:

  • the degree to which care work in civic life is gendered
  • the question of whether care work / compassion in civic life can address systemic change

Notable References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Gerson, K. (2002). Moral dilemmas, moral strategies, and the transformation of gender lessons from two generations of work and family change. Gender & Society, 16(1), 8-28.
  2. Lichterman, P. (1996). The search for political community: American activists reinventing commitment. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Blackstone, A. M. (2003). Racing for the Cure and Taking Back the Night: Constructing Gender, Politics, and Public Participation in Women's Activist/volunteer Work (Doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota).
  4. Blackstone, A. (2004). “It’s Just about being Fair” Activism and the Politics of Volunteering in the Breast Cancer Movement. Gender & Society, 18(3), 350-368.
  5. Daniels, A. K. (1985). Good times and good works: The place of sociability in the work of women volunteers. Social Problems, 32(4), 363-374.
  6. Daniels, A. K. (1988). Invisible careers: Women civic leaders from the volunteer world. University of Chicago Press.
  7. DeVault, M. L. (1994). Feeding the family: The social organization of caring as gendered work. University of Chicago Press.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Wuthnow, R. (2012). Acts of compassion: Caring for others and helping ourselves. Princeton University Press.
  9. Flam, H., & King, D. (2007). Emotions and social movements. Routledge.
  10. Goodwin, J., Jasper, J. M., & Polletta, F. (Eds.). (2009). Passionate politics: Emotions and social movements. University of Chicago Press.
  11. Jasper, J. M. (1998, September). The emotions of protest: Affective and reactive emotions in and around social movements. In Sociological forum (Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 397-424). Kluwer Academic Publishers-Plenum Publishers.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Taylor, V., & Van Willigen, M. (1996). Women's self-help and the reconstruction of gender: The postpartum support and breast cancer movements. Mobilization: An International Quarterly, 1(2), 123-142.
  13. Martin, P. Y. (1995). Feminist organizations: Harvest of the new women's movement. Temple University Press.
  14. McAdam, D. (1992). Gender as a mediator of the activist experience: The case of Freedom Summer. American journal of sociology, 1211-1240.
  15. Naples, N. A. (1992). Activist mothering: Cross-generational continuity in the community work of women from low-income urban neighborhoods. Gender & Society, 6(3), 441-463.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Taylor, V. A. (1996). Rock-a-by baby: feminism, self help, and postpartum depression. Psychology Press.
  17. Ragin, C. C. (2014). The comparative method: Moving beyond qualitative and quantitative strategies. Univ of California Press.
  18. Jim Thomas (Ed.). (1993). Doing critical ethnography (Vol. 26). Sage.
  19. Bellah, E. R. N., Bellah, R. N., Tipton, S. M., Sullivan, W. M., Madsen, R., Swidler, A., ... & Tipton, S. M. (2007). Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life. Univ of California Press.