Our Times 3

Compassion as social policy


Compassion: A Global History of Social Policy is the latest and most ambitious work of Canadian historian Alvin Finkel. It is an impressive book filled with rich detail and grounded in solid research. It is comprehensive and extremely well-organized and well-written.

In 306 pages Finkel appears to have accomplished the impossible. He chronicles how human beings have treated each other and particularly the most vulnerable members of society over the course of human history, from 200,000 BCE to the present day, and from around the world. He examines a multitude of factors that have contributed to the creation of compassion, or lack thereof. Finkel uses the term “social policy” as the main indicator of compassion. He argues that the histories of compassion and social policy cannot be separated from “histories of competition among social classes over the distribution of wealth and competition within elites over who has the right to provide social aid and in what form.”

The book consists of 13 chapters organized into three sections and a conclusion. It begins with the early hunting and gathering societies and moves on to feudalism, advanced agriculture, capitalism and ends with the current era of neoliberalism. An expansive range of regions and nation states are covered: Russia, Italy, Germany, France, Scandinavia, the U.S., Canada, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Africa. Within each of these regions and eras, Finkel provides details of the major social, economic, cultural and political factors that have created particular approaches to social well-being.

Finkel’s project is an extraordinary undertaking. In a single manuscript, he has produced a concise history of societal compassion across the globe. This broad sweep through human history provides an important context for understanding our contemporary social climate. Such a global perspective assists us to comprehend the similarities and divergences in social policy in the world and what combination of factors gave rise to them.

Unlike many English language books on social policy, the monograph includes not only the western developed world but also Africa and Asia and developing nations, from Communist and former Communist regions. While Finkel does not explicitly focus on some important details of the subject matter, several significant threads are pulled together throughout – regarding gender, race, class, Indigeneity, slavery, colonialism and culture.

Finkel’s study makes a significant contribution to the literature on social history and policy. Its global nature will undoubtedly attract a wide audience both inside and outside of Canada. For researchers interested in comparative or cross-national comparative social policy studies, this book is foundational. Compassion is also an essential resource for those who study history, sociology, political science, social administration, social policy and social work. Moreover, this work will be of interest to anyone who wants to understand more about how and why human beings treat each other the way they do, why we have poverty, why we have wars.

Therese Jennissen is an Associate Professor at Carleton University. She teaches in the areas of social policy and history at the School of Social Work. She has written on women and social policy, social work history and is joint author of One Hundred Years of Social Work: A History of the Profession in English Canada, 1900-2000.

This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Canadian Dimension (CD Goes Digital).


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