How one sociologist developed an interest in generosity

Christian Smith

For most of my career, I never thought about generosity as interesting to study, except perhaps as one component of broader “prosocial” outcome measures. Regarding financial giving, for instance, issues around charitable donations, philanthropy, and non-profit budgets always struck me as boring topics. Then, about four years ago, the immense potential power for good of generous voluntary financial giving dawned on me. I had seen in a previous study of adolescents that I had conducted how much generous financial giving to youth organization and religious programs that work with youth could make a positive difference in their lives. I was also in the process personally of correcting my own relatively ungenerous financial giving. Money alone cannot promote the common good, but financial resources are often necessary to make good and important things happen in the world. Increasingly, I realized the major difference that variability in generosity of many sorts makes for human wellbeing. The more I studied generosity, the more I saw that its expression does not vary according to people’s simply objective capacity to give. That raised a host of fascinating sociological questions about differences in generous behaviors. The rest is history.

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