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On the sociological imagination, compassion,

applied sociology, and social entrepreneurship.

(c) 2010 Mark B. Durieux
(Delivered at the 2010 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences,
Concordia University, Montreal, Canada, June 3, 2010)

Sociology, probably more than any other discipline, gives people the ability to ask one really tough question about ourselves; What is the real relationship between so-called "individuals" -- as unique members of very real social entities -- and their modern contextual realities? This question, which we know as the "sociological imagination", is so tough that C. Wright Mills claimed that successfully answering it is humanity's greatest intellectual challenge. No wonder then that, because of the hugeness of the question and the pace of change today, we are constantly humbled by our ability to answer that question. But as we stumble toward answers we are at least producing insights that others aren't.

And we're producing these insights at a time when we simply can't afford not to. It's exactly because we have failed to take the sociological imagination seriously -- and continually, over hundreds of years, swept real social considerations under the rug -- that we have found ourselves living in a world where our present and future is so precipitous.

Today there is no question that humanity faces challenges of a kind and on a scale never before imagined. Just look at what's going on in the Gulf of Mexico right now, with the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, for one extremely urgent example of just that.

So we must be immediately sociological if we really care about today and tomorrow and the legacy we leave for future generations. This leads me to one of my favorite quotes because it so clearly links sociology to compassion, in fact, true compassion. No less than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once claimed that:

"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

There you have it. While compassion may not be an entirely sociological phenomenon, being, for example, rooted in our ancient capacity to form attachments, the sociological imagination completes compassion. Without it we can't claim to be truly compassionate.

And while there are many ways in which to realize Karl Marx' 11th thesis -- "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it" -- I would argue that true compassion, the compassion of the sociological imagination, is the epitome of what it takes to change the world for the better. In this way, we are called to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with all people who are suffering, forsaken, and desperately seeking to realize their human potential. But we are also called to assist those who are looking to help those folks, especially, I would argue, those who are trying to break away from the status quo in order to do so. These are the social entrepreneurs.

This practical view of sociology as compassion led me a few years ago to develop and offer an undergrad seminar course on the sociology of compassion, which is to say, as an end point, sociology as compassion. My first choice for a text then and now is David Bornstein's "How to Change the World", now in its second edition. Bornstein, an immensely talented journalist, over more than 20 chapters, chronicles the often heroic journeys of social entrepreneurs, those people just mentioned who are desperately trying to tackle the world's social and environmental problems in innovative, practical, and entrepreneurial ways (in the larger, not necessarily business-for-profit, sense).

Reading carefully between the lines, one clearly sees the pivotal part that sociology as compassion plays in the successes of social entrepreneurial efforts. However, it is equally clear that the practical, if suggestive, compassionate power of sociology urgently needs to be drawn out, made specific and intentional, and conveyed to sociologists everywhere. In that way, they might hopefully engage with society and assist social entrepreneurs as they grapple with today's and the future's problems. Beyond that, who knows? Perhaps we'll see some sociologists themselves committing to the practice of social entrepreneurship.

At any rate, in order to test this conviction and faith in sociology, I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with a number of social entrepreneurs. Two, in particular, I'd like to point out: Marilyn Dyck of the Doorway in Calgary, who we can look forward to hearing from as soon as I finish in a few moments, and the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan living in Calgary, Alberta.

It was at a planning session for a large University of Calgary sponsored conference on the re-development of Southern Sudan, which involved my friends the Lost Boys and Girls, among others, that a strange idea suddenly hit me right between the eyes like the proverbial diamond bullet. What social entrepreneurs needed, it now seemed to me, was a "how-to" manual that would bring a rough sociology of-and-as compassion framework to their practice and challenges. And somehow I knew it had to be a Dummies book, “Social Entrepreneurship for Dummies”. I instantly pitched the idea to Bob Stebbins, my ex-supervisor, great friend, and mentor, and just as quickly he agreed to co-author the book with me.

Some people chuckled when they found out that Bob and I were working on a "Dummies" book. But now that it's out and we're starting to receive some very positive feedback from social entrepreneurs, including Manuel Rosaldo, Dowser.org Project Manager and a key associate of David Bornstein's, we can say, “darn right we've written a Dummies book!” Maybe, by having done so, we can hope to bring sociology of-and-as compassion, and fundamental ideas like social distance, culture, serious leisure, and the sociological imagination, to the world – through, of course, the remarkable and rapidly growing global efforts of social entrepreneurs.