Social Entrepreneurship and Empathetic Alienation

While in the grocery store a few days ago, I noticed that TOMS is now in the coffee business.  TOMS is most recognized as a footwear company that uses a “one for one” model to promote social good; for each purchase of TOMS shoes, the company gives a pair of shoes to a child in need.  I have limited opinions on whether or not TOMS should expand to coffee, but the BilK26_CQAA9Ralsighting did reinvigorate my interest in and ambivalence about social entrepreneurism—a rising trend in the U.S. (see this Twitter list to get a small sampling of the flurry of attention that continually surrounds the topic).

As I have written about previously (see here and here), Americans have been quick to exalt the social entrepreneur, perhaps due to a cultural tendency to valorize the private sphere more generally.  Yet, apart from research provided by vested parties,⁠1 we know very little about the ways in which social entrepreneurship affects our broader society.  The academic literature on social entrepreneurship is still nascent, and that which exists⁠2 has often taken a neo-institutional approach, focusing on topics such as legitimacy and social entrepreneurs’ use of multiple and competing logics (i.e. logics  of the market,of care, of the state).

Little attention, however, has been paid to the ways in which social entrepreneurship may introduce a new form of alienation.  Admittedly, I have been immersed in theories of work as of late, due to preparations for my upcoming comprehensive exam in work, and thus the concept of alienation is forefront in my mind.  Nevertheless, I think it offers a useful lens for considering social entrepreneurship.

5724100_origTo begin first with a rough and incomplete overview of the concept and how it has evolved, Marx argued that the division and sale of labor within the capitalist market strips work of its meaning and purpose.  As a result, men/women no longer develop themselves within their work but rather produce something for others’ profit and consumption in return for wages.  Labor, its products, the laborer himself/herself and even society become alien to the laborer through this process.

Later, as white-collar work and service jobs became subsumed under an overarching marketing mentality, employees were compelled to not only sell their labor on the market but also their personalities.⁠3  Employers seek candidates with upbeat personalities and service jobs require the ongoing display of positivity, care and authenticity.  In her widely read book, The Managed Heart, Arlie Hochschild argues that this “emotional labor,” like the physical labor discussed by Marx, has a human cost; namely, by packaging and selling the workers’ private emotions to a public consumer, the laborer becomes estranged from those emotions—the product of his or her labor—and from his or her emotional self.


It seems that social entrepreneurship marks a new type of product and subsequently a new type of labor: perhaps we could call this “humanitarian labor.”  Humanitarian labor consists of efforts to promote human welfare directly or to mobilize others toward these goals.  Previously, humanitarian labor has been the work of philanthropists and was typically undertaken for personal as opposed to financial reasons.  However, with the integration of philanthropy and profit in social entrepreneurship, humanitarian labor enters the realm of the market, and as social enterprises expand beyond their founders, it seems possible that some individuals may engage in humanitarian labor for financial return in addition to or instead of intrinsic benefits.

Applying Marx’ alienation theory, similar to Hochschild, it seems plausible that humanitarian labor may also come at a cost.  Specifically, to the extent that empathy and compassion for human welfare are required to perform humanitarian labor,⁠4 those working within the field of social entrepreneurship risk isolation from those qualities.  This alienation, what I term “empathetic alienation,” is detrimental not only to society, in enervating genuine concern for human suffering, but Humanitarian_aid_OCPA-2005-10-28-090517aalso to the individual.  Through empathetic alienation, a humanitarian laborer loses the ability to recognize themselves in others; in essence, they lose their humanity.

An incipient critique, these thoughts do not yet address the many nuances of social entrepreneurism or of alienation, they do not compare the methods of social entrepreneurism to other humanitarian efforts or discuss its many merits nor do these thoughts fully explore the scope of humanitarian labor and empathetic alienation.  For example, how is the labor of social entrepreneurs any different than that of non-profit employees, social workers or even politicians?  Nevertheless, I offer it as a starting point of discussion, and I look forward to the comments…


1 By vested parties, I am referring to social entrepreneurs and enterprises, themselves, or organizations focused on supporting and promoting social entrepreneurship.

2 Alex Nicholls has been one of the most voluminous writers on the topic.

3 See Mills 1951 for an expanded discussion.

4 And I would argue that these qualities are required, in at least some aspects of the job. For example, consider the spokesperson for the company, the website content producer and even the product salesperson who must all continually persuade others to care about and support the company’s social good initiatives. These individuals must use some of their own empathy and compassion in their attempts to persuade others.


4 thoughts on “Social Entrepreneurship and Empathetic Alienation

  1. Sarah, great post! It is always fun, for me, nice to read stuff on and related to Marx. I also like the idea of “empathetic alienation” and would like to hear a bit more on how does one define empathy (or commercialization of empathy) or for that matter alienation. I found Marx’s discussion of cooperation within the place and structure of “work” in capitalistic production system very helpful in bringing out the contradiction within the capitalistic system which is based on not the problem of profit maximization but to ensure that capital always circulates. I think Hochschild is also fantastic in showing how and when the market logic transforms the private realm not by completely consuming (this is more of Weber in her writing I think) it but by ensuring that capital always flows in the private realm by diversifying the private sphere it self (hot vs cold intimacies or upstairs and downstairs logic are my favorites!). You just have to read Marx’s chapters on work, cooperation and wages in Capital, Vol 1 because it really helped me understand the complex ethos of capitalistic production and how alienation can sometimes become an accepted mode of relating to the world. Another point, I think the shift from subsistence economy to wage economy is a significant shift in human history which both Engels and Marx discuss thoroughly but the whole institution of wages in return for labor would also complicate what it meas to labor and how to measure it, even if it is philanthropic or social entrepreneurial labor. Overall, you are right, it would be nice to see some work on how “social entrepreneurs” define and imagine the labour they do in presence and absence of wages. Would they use words like “productive, efficiency, turnover, and targets etc. ” or “giving back to the community, heat felt, fulfilling, etc.” or both!

  2. We offer a comp. in work?! But seriously, I can’t wait to see you develop the idea of “empathic alienation” further. I think actually that you’re touching on something that Hochschild only developed partially in her account of deep-acting. In the process of deep-acting, service workers may indeed become alienated from their own emotions, but they might actually also lose the ability to see customers as they see themselves – just like the “humanitarian laborers” you’ve described. This is something that’s always bugged me about becoming a T.A. – while we’re a particularly strange kind of “service worker” – it’s so easy to forget what being a college student is like and I find myself often forgetting to be empathetic to my students’ lives outside of my classroom. Great post!

  3. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. It made me wonder if altruism as a coordinated activity (aka, humanitarian labor) will tend to promulgate and reinforce the values and effects of the overarching system under which the humanitarian labor is being organized.

    For example, does humanitarian labor organized within a given religious or social movement drive greater feelings of purpose, alignment and commitment to that movement? …and are those humanitarian activities performed in a way that somehow reinforces common attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of that movement’s adherents?

    Similarly, does humanitarian labor organized by government at national, state or local level (e.g. government sponsored social service) tend to generate greater patriotism and reproduce/reinforce bureaucratic governing structures and processes?

    Previously our dominant socioeconomic system of capitalism didn’t do much to incorporate (no pun intended) humanitarian labor within its paradigm, leaving it to the private philanthropists to take care of whatever the church or state (or later, NGOs) didn’t already cover. It could be that humanitarian labor under a capitalist model will add a greater feeling of purpose to for-profit work while also transforming empathy in to yet another one of our available “standing reserves,” as Heidegger put it. It could also be that capitalism is continuing to mature and evolve from its Marx era (late-19th century) format and is becoming something much more complex and dynamic. Same great market-based flavor, now with 25% more altruism?

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