Something I wrote a wee while a go on my Other Sociologist blog:

Natalie Angier’s New York Times article from the 3rd of October 2011 describes the book, ‘Pathological Altruism’, which explores the hazardous and self-destructive extremes of ‘helpful behaviour’. The research uses engineering principles to explain social behaviour such as:

  • highly empathetic nurses who ‘burn out’ because they care too much for their patients
  • anorexic patients in hospitals,
  • victims of abuse,
  • so-called ‘animal hoarders’ (people who take care of too many animals they cannot afford to keep).

I’m not fully sold on these examples as any form of altruism, pathological or otherwise. With regards to the examples above, there are several individual and institutional causes for stress, mental illness and abuse that are not easily explained by altruism-gone-wrong. It seems especially problematic to suggest that a victim of abuse is being altruistic through their experiences of violence.

I don’t have a problem with scientists exploring the negative consequences of altruism – this is a worthy topic of research. I have a problem with the scientific inferences that inform the work of non-social-scientists who apply natural/physical/engineering principles to complex social behaviour without knowledge and training in cultural and social processes. In this case, the researchers seem to apply some warped version of the free riders principle to psycho-social illnesses and abuse. There is a chance that the article may be misrepresenting the science, but going on what the researchers are quoted as saying, I feel doubtful about the validity of their theory and methods.

Sociologists understand altruism as a ‘principle of unselfish regard for the needs and interests of others’… The concept of altruism in sociology is specifically used to study why certain individuals in particular societies risk or endanger their health and wellbeing for others, including people who choose to sacrifice their time, knowledge and resources for people outside their immediate family. Norms of reciprocity (the social rules that guide our choices about when to help others) are studied by economic sociologists and other researchers interested in cooperation within social networks. This includes James Coleman’s theory of social capital and Robert Putnam’s work on civic society.

Sociobiology also offers social evolutionary and biological theories of altruism. For the record – I’m not a fan, but I would still recommend people check out Frank Kemp Salter’s (2004) Welfare, Ethnicity and Altruism to make up their own minds on ‘ethnic altruism’. At least sociobiology is a branch of social science – unlike most of the researchers cited on the Pathological Altruism article at hand.

It is always a worry when physical scientists think they can dabble in social science issues…

(Image via. Asking Smarter Questions. Text via Social Consequences of Altrusim – A Bit Like Engineering, no? No, Actually. « The Other Sociologist)

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