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A Passion for Society

How We Think about Human Suffering

Iain Wilkinson (Author), Arthur Kleinman (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 328 pages
ISBN: 9780520287235
January 2016
$29.95, £24.00
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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.


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

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.
“This is a wonderful book on an extremely important subject. The social causes of individual suffering—in company or in isolation—get the attention and probing investigation they demand, both as a contribution to epistemology and as pointers to ways and means of remedial action. This is a much awaited—and beautifully written—book which should make a huge difference to the sad and unjust world in which we live.”—Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University

A Passion for Society is a stirring rejection of the cult of dispassion in modern anthropology and sociology and a brisk rehabilitation of attempts to link fellow feeling to pragmatic (and, yes, humanitarian) efforts to lessen the suffering of others. This defense of caring and caregiving revives old lessons and offers new ones, burnishing the example of great social theorists and of almost forgotten ones. Wilkinson and Kleinman are not trying to win an argument, although they do, but rather to offer a hopeful and humane intellectual basis for what is, fundamentally and unapologetically, a moral stance: against indifference and cynicism and inaction, and for their opposites. This fierce book is both balm and compass.”—Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, Harvard Medical School, Partners In Health, The Brigham and Women’s Hospital

“The world is stuffed full of unbearable human misery. Every day billions of people in the world find themselves living in tragic desperation. What is to be done? How can a social science deal with this best? In this challenging, committed and original study, Iain Wilkinson and Arthur Kleinman provide a history and appreciation of the study of social suffering and urge us to place this at the heart of understanding society by putting compassion and practical care at its core. Critical of the formalism, distance, and coldness of both academic life and social science, the book creates new dialogues. It deserves to become a landmark in redirecting social science to work more passionately to make the world a kinder place.”—Ken Plummer, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Essex University

“In their analysis of ‘the problem of suffering,’ Wilkinson and Kleinman provide a thoroughly convincing argument for a new approach to social theory and social research practice—one that is compassionate, interventionist, and globally oriented, and thus better able to address the pressing issues that define our age.” —Alan Petersen, Professor of Sociology, Monash University

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