Helping in Times of Crisis—The Normativity of Solidarity and Charity

Dr. Greta Wagner

Laufzeit des Forschungsprojekts: 11/2017 – 12/2019

The refugees who have come to Germany since 2015 have not changed the face of the country’s cities. In the small villages, however, which in the German provinces still often displayed complete ethnic and cultural homogeneity, a social change has taken place. The very absence of diversity is a reason why many people decide to live or remain in villages. Anyone helping refugees assigned housing in villages does so in a social setting in which there is not necessarily prestige to be gained from such activities. My study examines the motives, normative orientations, and implicit expectations of reciprocity on the part of volunteers engaged in refugee support in three rural areas in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg, and Saxony. Building on interviews and ethnographic observations, my project will consider empirical and theoretical questions about the modes of help, their affective sources, normative pitfalls, and the critical practices connected with them.
From the perspective of a sociology of reciprocity, gifts are considered a discrete principle of social action, situated between benevolent and self-interested action. Gifts may promote solidarity as well as its opposite, by allowing one-sided dependency to emerge. To examine the field of volunteer refugee support from this theoretical perspective allows attention to be paid to the manner in which relations of reciprocity are constructed with the end of treating the refuges not as mere recipients of gifts. It is also profitable to examine helpers’ gifts as being, as a rule, tied—whether such a link is expressed or not—to expectations of reciprocity and thus no longer to understand such active support as being purely altruistic. From such a perspective, however, the asymmetries of power between helpers and refugees come into focus. For instance, relationships defined by gratitude are by nature incommensurable. As Simmel points out a grateful recipient will never be able to match the initial gift for which she expresses thanks, because her gratitude—unlike the gift—is a matter of obligation rather than choice. Aid to refugees is a field of giving, taking, and reciprocating in which one side is highly vulnerable—owing to experiences of violence, a precarious legal status, lacking in money and German language skills, and highly dependent on individuals and institutions that are by no means free of racism. The other side, the side of the helpers, tends to consist of members of the established middle classes with little comparable social vulnerability. To focus on reciprocities is not to gloss over these asymmetries, but to cast a specifically sociological look at the relations and interactions that develop in an accelerated process of social change.
The analysis of expectations of reciprocity in volunteer refugee support thus represents the foundation of a heuristics of solidary and charitable action. The term “solidarity” is used in manifold ways, all of which, however, share the idea of reciprocity within a community. Whether volunteers act out of solidarity and whether their actions also comprise elements of practical social criticism also depends on whether they form communities with the refugees and conceive of themselves as defenders of their rights or simply as providers of basic goods. While charity is a direct expression of moral sensibility and, as a mode of action based in sentiment, enacted ad hoc, solidarity is characterized by a reflexive moment, in which shared goals and interests are identified.
How social cohesion can endure—particularly in times of social change—is one of the fundamental questions of sociology, and analyses of modern dangers to solidarity have been influential since the establishment of the discipline. Diagnoses of an erosion of patterns of solidary activity currently seem to be increasing. The encroachment of the principle of competition on ever more spheres of everyday life and the dismantling of many institutionalized forms of solidarity over the last thirty years suggests that solidary action is in crisis and that, on a subjective level, a culture of self-responsibility has taken hold. In terms of social theory, my project promises to bring solidarity and charity, as two modes of normative integration, into a comparative perspective on an empirical basis. With the right-wing party AfD emerging from the recent election as the third-strongest force in the German parliament, and as the strongest party in many provincial towns and villages in Saxony, the question what potential a commitment to helping refugees holds as a source of social critique has become all the more urgent.


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