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Acts of Compassion Paperback – June 6, 1993

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

At least since de Tocqueville noted the importance of voluntary associations in the last century, compassion and voluntarism have been considered to be important parts of the U.S. culture. But so have individualism and the values of the "me generation." Wuthnow, a professor of sociology at Princeton, combines survey research and case studies in this careful analysis of compassion and individualism. Despite using a national sample of 2110 adults, the author does not present a particularly sophisticated statistical analysis of the data. The book is very heavily anecdotal and not particularly theoretical, but it will be of special interest to both professionals and amateurs who are active in voluntary associations and community work. For larger public and academic libraries.
- John Broderick, Stonehill Coll., North Easton, Mass.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

Why do Americans collectively devote 20 billion hours of their time each year to helping others? To find out, Wuthnow (Sociology/Princeton; The Restructuring of American Religion, 1988) surveyed 2110 adults across the land, many of whom provided in- depth interviews; he presents his conclusions in this penetrative, well-written work. Americans, explains Wuthnow, are instinctively uneasy about describing exactly why they perform good deeds. He helps to clarify their motivations with a deft narrative that weaves together the stories of very different types of good Samaritans--from the rescue-squad worker with his ``iceman'' approach to helping others, to the pediatric cardiologist who combines professionalism and empathy as she deals with the bereaved parents of babies she's lost, to the Presbyterian missionary who's inspired by evangelical fervor. Each subject is willing to work through a plurality of motivations to get to the bottom of his or her desire to do good because, according to Wuthnow, ``Motive-talk provides connections with our cultural heritage. It associates us with the various values we have been taught to accord prominence.'' In each case, Wuthnow uncovers a need to reconcile individuality--which he sees as a defining American cultural value--with altruism. The author finds that most Americans, even liberal clerics, prefer to describe their impulse to help others in terms of self-fulfillment rather than theology, and that most ``situationalize'' their stories, focusing on individuals rather than on principles. In spite of what Wuthnow sees as a tendency of Americans to set limits on their caring, a striking 31 percent, he reveals, are involved in ``charity or social-service activities, such as helping the poor, the sick, or the elderly.'' Elegant, illuminating, and of significant interest in this decade of need and limits. -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 364 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (May 17, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691024936
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691024936
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,986,922 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Like many sociologists, Wuthnow is worried that Americans are too individualistic. That concern is expressed in the subtitle of Acts of Compassion: "Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves." Volunteer work has a "tarnished image" because people are suspected of having selfish motives for engaging in it and because, in any case, it only applies Band-Aids to social problems requiring structural change. After 300 pages of anecdotes, surveys, and miscellaneous reflections, Wuthnow gets to the point: "What I am suggesting is that there is an important sociological case to be made for compassion." The psychological case--"It'll make you feel good"--and the economic case--"It'll keep your taxes down and help the needy more efficiently than government programs do"--are not as compelling. The sociological case is not based on the insight that "what goes around comes around"--that is too individualistic--but on the insight that we are all part of society! When we help others, we are helping all of us. Help has always already "come around"! If we would all just think like sociologists, then acts of compassion would cease to be Band-Aids and would make a better society. "Compassion is . . . a perspective on society."

If Wuthnow were writing today (instead of 1991), he would undoubtedly refer to Bush's faith-based charities and Obama's big government approach to social betterment. But a new edition would not help. Although he has two chapters on "The role of Faith," Wuthnow strikes me as religiously dense. He is interested in comparative statistics on the compassionate behavior of church-goers and non-church-goers, but he never reflects on the religious meaning of compassion. Is it "compassionate" to contribute to the purchase of a birthday gift for a fellow employee?
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