From social problems to social goods

Pamela Paxton

Back when I was in graduate school, I was having trouble picking my dissertation topic. Coming from the typical sociology “social problems” perspective, I could not decide which social problem was important enough to study exclusively. One day I started brainstorming ideas and writing them down on index cards (with the idea that I’d sort or organize them somehow). I happened to write down “why do people volunteer?” Suddenly my whole perspective shifted.  Rather than focusing on social problems, I thought, why not focus on social goods? I was already a political sociologist doing cross-national work, so I integrated my new interest in “prosocial behavior” with my existing research on democracy and democratization. I’ve continued to study various aspects of prosocial behavior since then: social capital, tolerance, trust, etc. Studying generosity across cultures is thus a logical and exciting extension of my longstanding interests.

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