The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society

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The Weight of the World : Social Suffering in Contemporary Society

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Shop home. Confined in their governmental ivory towers, their actions largely dictated by public opinion polls, politicians and state officials are all too often oblivious to the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. These persons, who often experience so much hardship in their lives, have few ways to make themselves heard and are obliged either to protest outside official frameworks or remain locked in the silence of their despair. Under the direction of Pierre Bourdieu, France's foremost sociologist, a team of 22 researchers spent three years studying and analyzing the new forces of social suffering that characterize contemporary societies-the daily suffering of those denied the means of acquiring a socially dignified existence and of those poorly adjusted to the rapidly changing conditions of their lives.

Social workers, teachers, policemen, factory workers, white-collar clerks, farmers, artisans, shopkeepers-no one seems to be immune from the frustrations of today's life, not to speak of the institutions of the family, work, and education. The book can be read like a series of short stories, which include: a steel worker who was laid off after 20 years and now struggles to support his family on unemployment benefits and a part-time job; a trade unionist who finds his goals undermined by the changing nature of work; a family from Algeria living in a housing tract on the outskirts of Paris who must cope with pervasive forms of racism; and a schoolteacher confronted with urban violence.

Reading these stories enables one to register these people's lives and the forms of social suffering that infuse them. The original publication of this book was a major social and political event in France, where it topped the best-seller list and triggered a widespread public debate on inequality, politics, and civic solidarity.

It offers not only a distinctive method for analyzing social life, but another way of practicing politics. Business seller information. The coupling of suffering with the social signaled the abandonment of age-old traditions that sought to explain the meaning of human pain and suffering with recourse to theologies of Divine Providence. Here the experience of suffering was no longer portrayed as a matter linked to some form of divine retribution or redemptive process, but rather, it was cast as a consequence of conditions brought about by human behaviors and man-made arrangements.

While at the time some portrayed these feelings and convictions as issues of common sense or as self-evident moral instincts, we now know that they were parts of a new humanitarian revolution connected to the rise of social and cultural conditions of modernity Carey ; Paine []; Pinker This may be construed, moreover, as the dawning of modern social consciousness itself; or at least, as a vital part of the process whereby it first flickered into life. They marked a distinct departure from an earlier understanding that social inquiry should be allied to the cultivation of moral feeling, and especially that which was allied with humanitarian concern.

This continued, however, in the social literature of the nineteenth century Lepenies Moreover, in their pioneering documentary journalism figures such as Henry Mayhew and Jacob Riis, further advanced forms of social understanding that took their cues from experiences of social suffering Mayhew []; Riis []. However, this concept was not incorporated within the lexicon of social science and it was not identified as a matter worthy of sociological investigation in its own terms. Throughout most of the twentieth century, moreover, there is no evidence that those contributing to main developments in academic sociology were moved to dwell on lost traditions of sentiment-fired social inquiry or on their value as a means to grasp the moral experience of human social life.

Certainly, it appears that there was no widely shared enthusiasm to enter into debate over the ways in which sociology should equip us with the cultural means to sympathize with the situations of individuals made subject to conditions of social suffering; and no serious thought was given to how the cultivation of a sympathetic response to human misery might be indispensable for the acquisition of sociological understanding.

On this view, no-one would have anticipated the ways in which these considerations and interests were taken up as vital concerns in late twentieth century and early twenty-first sociology and anthropology.

Pierre Bourdieu - Wikipedia

This article reviews these later developments and notes some ways they might be explained. I further analyze how it has subsequently been taken up either as a source of inspiration or as an object of critical scorn. I highlight the extent to which this might be construed as a return to a set of early modern debates over the moral character and conditions of social understanding where the virtue and politics of modern humanitarianism are set as pressing matters for critical investigation. At another level I argue that this can be viewed as a new critical turning point in the development of social science where an open confession and demonstration of its morally agonized condition is advanced as a praxis.


This is distinguished by a movement to combine a protest against the causes and consequences of human suffering with a further protest against the failure of sociology to provide an adequate moral response to how this matters for people. Much debate remains, however, when it comes to determining how such a praxis might be rendered productive for thought and action. I argue that while some take the experience of value conflicts provoked by humanitarian social sentiment as a spur to action, in the case of Bourdieu these are largely committed to making trouble for sociology.

Insofar as we take Bourdieu as a guide to our sociological thinking and how we engage with the inherent risks of setting this in writing, I contend that we are set to grow exhausted by the burden of contradictions we are made to bear. The Weight of the World bears testimony to the great burden of contradictions that Bourdieu invested in his sociology and to how this was set to collapse in a fit protest; both against lived conditions of social adversity and his attempts to frame these with sociological understanding.

A focus is brought to embodied experiences of societal and cultural violence Das et al ; Das et al ; Das There is a commitment to explain the part played by the dynamics of social interaction in the quality and intensity of human affliction. Here, moreover, researchers are concerned to dwell upon the institutional arrangements that are used to control and manage various problems of suffering, and further aim to expose the ways in which, either through their unintended consequences or by processes of bureaucratic indifference, these serve to worsen suffering at the level of personal experience Herzfeld In most instances a privileged space is given to the voices of individuals in pain and distress in a bid to convey some part of the ways in which social suffering is borne in experience.

There is a concern to attend to the difficulties individuals experience when brought under the compulsion to address the moral meaning of what is happening to them. Accordingly, the kinds of empirical data that are used as a means to document lived experiences of social suffering do not conform to the rational frames of analysis that are deployed as a means to render this accountable to social science.

Research and writing on social suffering tends to involve scholars in a considerable amount of conceptual agony and methodological frustration. Largely speaking the new gathering of interest around problems of social suffering has taken place on the one hand within a humanitarian wing of critical anthropology, and on the other, in the development of a critical sociology inspired by Pierre Bourdieu. Those working in these fields have some shared ambitions and concerns.

It is certainly the case, moreover, that as far as the critical response to their work is concerned, they are often engaged with theoretical disputes, methodological difficulties and ethical dilemmas where they encounter a common stock of problems. These are further outlined below.

However, so as to grasp the weight of issues at stake here, it is also important to be alert to some of the contrasting ways in which their dealings with these issues are carried out in their respective fields of practice. In the context of anthropology, the study of social suffering is often allied to an interest in health care and medicine.

It features as a prominent concern within humanitarian medical anthropology. It is also important to recognize that a significant portion of this work has been developed with a concern to account for the social causes and dimensions of mental health problems; and particularly those linked to various traumatic experiences of extreme deprivation, political violence and atrocities of war Bourgois ; Kleinman and Good As far as sociology is concerned, the study of social suffering features most prominently in studies aiming to expose the human effects of contemporary neo-liberal social policies, economic arrangements and forms of government Charlesworth ; ; Frost and Hogggett ; Wacquant While these might also be addressed as explicit concerns within medical anthropology, here, more often than not, it is matters relating to the practice of medicine and health care that take precedence over the attempt to provoke critical scholarly debate Bourgois ; Kevshavjee However, by no means is there any consensus on what might be achieved by this.

Sociological studies of social suffering have provoked a considerable amount of debate over their purpose, value and consequences. Here many contrasting and conflicting judgements are cast on the cultural condition of the sociology that is committed to these interests. In short, disagreement reigns over what we should be make of the movement to render social suffering as an object of sociological study; and especially where this is also understood to involve us in a critical evaluation of social role and value of sociology.

It contains almost half a million words. It is the product of a three year study in which a group of twenty two researchers under the direction of Pierre Bourdieu compiled interview transcripts from discussions with participants mostly living and working in the poorer suburbs of Paris, although a few of these also took place in ghetto districts of New York and Chicago. The interviews are interspersed by the occasional methodological essay or short commentary by Bourdieu, but for the most part they are left to bear testimony on their own. We are invited to reflect on how people make sense of their lives in their own words and in the everyday languages that they use to explain how they deal with the many practical and personal difficulties they are faced with.

Commentators generally note that at the time of its publication in France it was widely hailed as a major political intervention that drew the social effects and human consequences of neo-liberal governmental and economic policies into public debate Dejours ; Renault There is a noticeable lack of agreement on what Bourdieu achieved through this work, and there are also widely varying views on the terms by which it should be assessed.

However, even if this is accepted as an accurate summary of what is attempted here, others are moved to address the sociological purpose and value of The Weight of the World as in need of further debate. Here The Weight of the World is dismissed both as work of sociological obfuscation and for the extent to which serves as no more than an encouragement to political apathy.

A contrasting, although still highly critical view is advanced by Didier Fassin Fassin Adopting Foucauldian premises combined with some elaborations from Agamben, Fassin complains that Bourdieu fails to involve himself in a sufficiently in-depth and analytically rigorous inquiry into the metaphysics as well as the moral economy of compassion, and as a result, appears to be naively unaware of its potential to operate as a force of domination.

He argues that by involving sociology in the documentation of social suffering, The Weight of the World operates as a work of ideological mystification. Second, in being validated by official bodies and attested by the social science, it became observable and even quantifiable. Third, by privileging compassion over repression in the management of the social question, it provided a positive moral axis Fassin 33 Others, while still seeking to set The Weight of the World in a more carefully elaborated frame of analysis, offer more positive accounts of its sociological worth.

He contends that The Weight of the World must be read with the understanding that it is essentially concerned with the uneven distribution of economic, cultural and symbolic capitals through society, and that the aim here is to involve readers in the frustrations borne by the individuals featured in the study.

This worry is revisited in the concluding essay where it is set out in more detail and with more force. It is also a result of the rationalizing conventions of academic writing that work to clear and cut a way through the many hermeneutic confusions and epistemological frustrations borne by people under common sense conditions of everyday life. Bourdieu contends that through their writing sociologists are committed to filtering out some of the most essential components of social suffering; at least that is in terms of how it takes place in human experience. Accordingly, while on the one hand Bourdieu champions sociology as a form of knowledge that holds value as a means to equip people with the means to understand and possibly undo the social causes their misery, on the other, he aims to make us skeptically orientated towards this account of sociology and its worth.

His overall aim is to make the contradictions within his own sociological standpoint somehow productive for critical thinking; and even, for these to be adopted as a spur to political action. Those campaigning for the abolition of slavery by documenting details of the physical abuse and cruelty done to slaves were primed to respond to the criticism that they were purveyors of promiscuous voyeurism.

Prominent figures in American anti-slavery movements such as Lydia Maria Child and Harriet Jacobs were devising new writing techniques with a concern to educate compassion so that this was kept from being a mere indulgence of feeling Sorisio ; Spelman Gregg Crane argues that in her novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp , Harriet Beecher Stowe sought to defend sentiment-fired social inquiry by making clear that she understood the greater danger to lie in the direction of upholding a rational culture that was inherently conservative to a point that denied the possibility of questioning established convention Crane Whilst Stowe recognized that some people could be moved by force of moral feeling to the conviction that they were justified to take actions against suffering without sparing any thought for their wider consequences or human cost, nevertheless, she held that the stirring of social sentiment was a necessary part of the struggle for humanitarian social justice.

On her account, the struggle to realize humane forms of society could not be sustained by mere clarification of principle; rather, it required a motivation succored by emotional upset. Addams operates with the understanding that proper sociological understanding is founded on emotionally challenging experiences and that it is only made possible through a personal acquaintance with upsetting social conditions Addams []; []; []. For Addams, this is the means to acquire critical sociological self-reflexivity.

On this account the cultivation of a sociological imagination must be personally destabilizing, and all the more so in contexts where researchers record experiences of social violence or where they attend to the harms done to people through conditions of everyday life. Here he emphasizes that these concern far more than the risk that sociological writing fails to provide any clarifying or worthwhile insights into our life conditions.

Ghassan Hage and the Weight of Words

For Bourdieu, the risks of writing are largely political. This is due to the dynamics of capitalist societies that are set to reproduce ever more extreme levels of material social and cultural inequality. It is also a consequence of the quality of the ever more abundant knowledge we have of ourselves as being made to exist under these conditions. For many of those concerned with new problems of social suffering, the task of setting these conditions within adequate frameworks of sociological and anthropological understanding involve us not only confronting that the fact that we inhabit a world that produces great affluence for a minority at the cost of a great mass of wasted lives, but also, dealing with the consequences this holds for our social subjectivity as we are made to accommodate the experience of knowing ourselves to inhabit such a place as this Bauman This was a precarious balancing act and it was a position that involved him in much disappointment and failure; and often this was often taken to intolerable extremes.

Arguably, this is drawn most clearly to surface and set in sharp relief in the context of his writing on social suffering. However, an alternative view might be that here we are witness to an unburdening. Whilst The Weight of the World can be read as a testimony of sociological failure, it is also possible to approach it as an attempt to throw off a dead weight of methodological agony and of writing constraints that leave sociology lacking sufficient human value and moral meaning.

If we take the latter view, The Weight of the World might be read as bid for freedom; albeit with a clear and cold sighted view of the fact that can be no guarantees of any happy outcomes or endings.