Our Humanitarian Social Condition: A Modern Saga

Lecture by Iain Wilkinson (University of Kent).

The event is open to the public and part of a fall 2018 lecture series organized by Interventions. Research Network on Humanitarian Politics and Culture. Visit us on web  & Facebook.


Most contemporary social scientists tend to adopt a highly critical stance towards humanitarian moral culture and social practice.  More often than not, modern humanitarianism is approached as a matter to be placed under ideological suspicion.  When documenting humanitarian discourse and political actions, many social scientists are far more concerned to draw attention to how these operate as forms of abuse and exploitation than as authentic movements to promote human dignity and social justice. In this context, critique is advanced as the end purpose of social science. I argue, however, that such work tends to lose sight of the historical peculiarity, sociological complexity and moral challenge of modern humanitarianism. Critique crowds out analysis. In this lecture I argue that under conditions of modernity we are involved in a great humanitarian awakening, but that this also retains a highly enigmatic character. There are many components to the moral experience of humanitarianism that are set to involve us in pronounced conflicts of interpretation and value, and in many instances these cannot be resolved.  I argue for a position that moves beyond critique to a fuller appreciation of how the moral provocation of humanitarian compassion, and the many moral controversies associated with humanitarianism in practice, are a necessary part of our sociological and moral education. A critical sociology of humanitarianism should also be prepared to make room for humanitarian sociology.  Understanding humanitarianism should be allied to a pedagogy of human care.

Iain Wilkinson

Iain Wilkinson is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, UK. His research explores how people’s experience of ‘the problem of suffering’ changes through history and between societies. Wilkinson is concerned to understand the social and cultural conditions that give rise to humanitarian moral feelings as well as the role played by the cultural politics of compassion in public life.  His publications include Anxiety in a Risk Society (2001), Suffering: A Sociological Introduction (2005) Health Risk and Vulnerability (2007) Risk Vulnerability and Everyday Life (2010) and (co-authored with Arthur Kleinman (2010) A Passion For Society: How We Think About Human Suffering (2016). He is  now writing a new book that offers a sociology of humanitarianism as well as an argument for the development of an explicitly humanitarian sociology.