Telling Good Stories
Most of us know what is meant by kindness and agree there should be more of it. But that common-sense, hard-to-disagree with character belies the fact that kindness is actually a complex, contradictory and highly socially significant idea.
Through theoretical work and empirical analysis of historical archives and social media datasets, this project asks how it is that stories about and calls for kindness – of the kind that have proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic – may work to shape how we feel and act, amplifying or weakening other framings of social issues.
- About the project
The Leverhulme Trust is funding Dr Julie Brownlie, a sociologist at the University of Edinburgh, to examine – and problematise – the stories we tell about kindness.
Despite its taken-for-granted, hard-to-disagree-with character, kindness is actually a complex, ambivalent and deeply social practice (Brownlie and Anderson, 2016). This project seeks to move beyond the doing of everyday kindness to understand the work that the idea of kindness does by scrutinising how it is talked and written about and what such stories achieve (Plummer, 2019). These questions are important because kindness narratives shape how we feel and give permission for particular actions.
In recent years, ‘unkind’ stories of division, collective anxiety and fear have been to the fore. To understand more about the converse (and the relationship between these different kinds of stories), the project aims to combine interdisciplinary theoretical exploration of the concept of kindness (and related terms) with a contemporary empirical investigation of how it is talked about.
The aim of this website is to provide background information about the project and the researchers involved.
Julie Brownlie is a sociologist of emotions and relationships.
Broadly speaking, her research links sociological theory to empirical data in relation to emotional lives and social change, through the lens of the ‘everyday’. She has particular expertise in theorising and researching solidaristic emotions and practices, and in exploring the social implications of these background emotions, on and offline, and through talk and text.
A core part of her research programme in the last five years has been developing a new sociology of kindness - an innovative empirical research agenda on what it means to think sociologically about kindness, as opposed to much existing research, which tended to see kindness as comprising random and/or individualised acts. This project represents an extension of that programme and will contribute to the production of a monograph for Manchester University Press.
Youssef AL Hariri is a PhD student at the Institute for Language, Cognition and Computation (ILCC) in the School of Informatics, the University of Edinburgh.
He received his BSc (Honours) in Computer Engineering from Qatar University in 2017, and MSc in Artificial Intelligence from the University of Edinburgh in 2018. He is interested in studies related to social computing, social network analysis and NLP. He is currently studying how to extract and understand the main characteristics of online Arab communities based on their contributions, interactions and networks dynamics. Youssef will be working part time as a research fellow on the Telling Good Stories project, carrying out analyses of Twitter datasets but also historical digital archives.
- The 'good story' of kindness - Julie Brownlie
What connects a 1980s bumper sticker to the recent launch of Threads, Mark Zukerberg’s rival to Twitter? The answer, curiously, is kindness.
Sometime in the early 1990s, I returned from a trip to the States with a bumper sticker in my baggage that read: ‘Practice random kindness and acts of senseless beauty’. According to internet lore, that injunction was coined by an American journalist and activist named Anne Herbert, who scribbled it on the back of a placemat in a restaurant in Sauselito, California. She first used the phrase in print in the 1982 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly - a small circulation magazine founded by staff from the Whole Earth Catalog, a leading countercultural publication. She posited it as a direct riposte to talk of ‘random violence and senseless acts of cruelty’ that were prevalent in news media at the time.
Although Herbert’s original formulation did find its way onto bumper stickers and other objects, the references to beauty gradually fell by the wayside and, through a process of concatenation and truncation, the idea of ‘random acts of kindness’ emerged. Given its contemporary ubiquitousness, it seems hard to believe that it simply did not exist before that point, but a glance at Google’s corpora of books published in the English-language, shows that there were effectively zero instances of the term before the late 1980s. Equally striking is how rapidly its use accelerated from the early 1990s onwards.
That particular cultural object – the idea of ‘random acts of kindness’ rather than the bumper sticker per se - has been central to the emergence of a wider cultural preoccupation with kindness within English-speaking societies over recent decades. That is not to say that the idea of kindness has not long featured in accounts of political, religious, community and private life. But it has, in recent decades, been institutionalised in an ever-wider variety of ways – in the realms of public policy, charity, commerce, popular culture and so on. You can see that in an astonishing array of recent academic studies and popular books on kindness (‘kind-lit’, as it were); in the proliferation of campaigns and organisations focused on promoting kinder communities, schools, services and workplaces; in political discourse around national character and the response to the pandemic; and in its deployment by social media influencers and corporate actors.
All of which brings us to Mark Zuckerberg. At the launch of his Twitter-rivalling app, Threads, he was quoted as saying: "We are definitely focusing on kindness and making this a friendly place." Perhaps not surprisingly, this was greeted with a great deal of scepticism – not least from those who felt that kindness has often been distinctly lacking from Zuckerberg’s other platforms and that he is using the term to cloak other (more nakedly profit-oriented) agendas.
This project (funded by the Leverhulme Trust) has been about the social and emotional significance - but also the deep ambivalence evident in the recent responses to Zuckerberg– of contemporary cultural framings of kindness. It is about what naming something kindness achieves relationally, materially, emotionally and politically in the UK, US and some other contemporary societies, what protection it offers, what dangers it keeps at bay and what risks it poses.
The project has also treated kindness as an example of a particular kind of narrative: what I term the ‘good story’. Such a story is good in three distinct but related senses: it involves a tale about goodness; is one that is compelling or catches on; but may also cause anxiety in case it proves to be nothing more than a story. Do good stories always lead to action or do they, in fact, exist in place of it? Contemporary critiques of ‘clicktivism’ and allyship exemplify this anxiety but so, too, does the suspicion of Mark Zuckerberg.
There are, though, also risks in dismissing good stories as simply tall tales. If we are living in a new age of kindness fuelled by such stories, we need to find out more about how stories are being told, including through social media, and what kind of stories they are, including their continuities with older narratives.
This project is, then, a sociology of kindness – but of a particular kind. It does not set out to explain what makes us kind, who is kind, how much kindness there is or how there could be more of it. It attempts instead to document and understand the ways in which kindness takes a hold of us but also leaves us wary; enchants us on the one hand and leaves us fearful of dupery on the other. In a forthcoming book for Manchester University Press, I will say more about how this happens. In the meantime, I leave you to reflect on the now ubiquitous injunctions to ‘be kind’ or ‘practice random acts of kindness’ and how those make you feel!
- Linking research and practice on kindness - Kathryn Welch
As a Creative Producer with a particular interest in community activism, I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with the Telling Good Stories project at the University of Edinburgh this summer. Under the supervision of Professor Julie Brownlie, Telling Good Stories seeks to explore how it is that calls for kindness may work to shape how we feel and act. I’ve worked for years in and around this field, where acts of kindness form the bedrock of community empowerment. When neighbours shop for one-another, organise litter picks, tend community gardens and come together to demand change, acts of kindness are often at the heart of what makes a community function. As such, volunteering with Professor Brownlie was an opportunity to (re)frame and (re)contextualise my professional experience through an academic lens (“to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange”, as Horace Miner famously defined the role of Anthropology).
And so it proved to be. My roles with the research team took two forms. The first involved research to understand how interest in the subject of kindness has evolved over time, by tracking the volume and thematic focus of both academic and non-academic writing. Some early assumptions were quickly challenged, and some new areas of interest opened up. We might assume, for example, that an interest in kindness is as old as humanity itself. A critical analysis of changing trends in publications on kindness, however, illustrated how our interest in the subject waxes and wanes over time, and - like any other topic - is subject to trends and fashions in the quest for our attention. Books about kindness sometimes take a religious, moralising bent, at others shifting focus to management and leadership, or moving to nursing and psychiatric fields. As we track these trends, it’s a helpful reminder that kindness isn’t a benign, neutral force, but rather is subject to the same political and social forces that form the backdrop to our lives and communities.
Secondly, I was asked by the Telling Good Stories team to gather together information on the ‘kindness industry’; the ways that the language of kindness is deployed in corporate marketing and strategy. This research was a gift to my inner cynic, who fed hungrily on investigations of companies who perpetrate all kinds of social and environmental horrors whilst cheerfully using the language of kindness to present a rosy image to the world, gain new customers and increase revenue. My own work in the creative and charity sectors is centred so firmly on working with a deep personal commitment to positive social impact that this was a useful (though not especially heartening), reminder of the ways that language and belief systems can be adopted, bastardised and commercialised. A few weeks later, when Mark Zuckerberg launched social media platform Threads with a pledge to prioritise kindness, I was grateful to be armed with a wider context for viewing this ‘commitment’ with a cynical eye.
And so, what of my aspiration to explore what happens when professional and academic experience come together? Spending time on research for the Telling Good Stories team certainly exposed me to knowledge of sectors very different from my own professional experience. It helped me take a much longer-term perspective than is typically possible via practical experience, and exposed the political nature of seemingly benign concepts such as kindness. In turn, I was pleased to see how my personal and professional experience complemented the work of the research team, drawing out illustrative examples from projects I’ve been involved with, and bringing a feminist political eye to an analysis of the ways that gender and kindness have been co-constructed. All this is fuel to the fire of my community and campaigning work, informing my understanding of the factors shaping our lives and societies, and perhaps influencing some new ideas about how positive change might be realised.
- Tweeting kindness - Julie Brownlie & Youssef Al Hariri
As part of the Telling Good Stories project, we have been looking at how kindness is talked about within the specific context of Twitter. Why Twitter, you might ask – and that would be a good question, given its reputation as a distinctly unkind place. Indeed, when Mark Zuckerberg was trying to explain what differentiated his new micro-blogging platform, Threads, from its obvious rival, Twitter, it was striking that he drew on the idea of kindness. As he put it: ‘We are definitely focusing on kindness and making this a friendly space’.
But regardless of the actual experience of using Twitter, talk about kindness is pervasive on the platform and Twitter itself remains one of the most widely used and influential social media sites. In fact, it could be argued that one cannot make sense of the cultural power of any contemporary idea without considering what is being said about it on Twitter.
In the context of Telling Good Stories, then, we were interested in what such talk about kindness might add to an understanding of how the idea of kindness has come to take a hold within contemporary English-speaking societies more generally; and what an analysis of ‘kindness Twitter’ might offer to our broader understanding of the sharing of emotions online.
To that end, Youssef Al Hariri constructed a ‘kindness Twitter’ dataset. This contained some 13 million tweets between 2018 and 2021 that included either the word kindness or a related hashtag (e.g. #bekind, #kindnessmatters). This allowed for basic quantitative analysis of content, using word searches but also user-assigned hashtags, as well as an exploration of patterns of engagement with individual tweets or users, revealing which tweets or users had the most traction. Alongside the large-scale quantitative analysis of tweets relating to kindness, we used conventional qualitative approaches: a thematic manual coding of a subsample of tweets, drawn at random from across the four years of the dataset, as well as thematic analysis of a subsample of tweets concerning Covid-19 and kindness (these were identified via a list of COVID-related hashtags).
What did we learn from all of those tweets and all of that analysis?
First of all, that kindness Twitter is extensive, and grew rapidly over the four years in question. But it also pretty diverse. That should come as no surprise – kindness, as we already know is imagined by different people for different purposes. Kindness Twitter ranges from the proto-political to the overtly religious; from individuals recording things that have happened in their own lives to news reports or ‘viral’ stories; from RAK-marketing by big corporations to small-scale, community initiatives aimed at promoting local solidarities; from calls to be kind to taxi drivers, to animals or the planet itself.
There was, unsurprisingly, a spike in references to kindness around the beginning of the COVID pandemic, at which point there was a great deal of talk – by politicians, commentators and others – about the need for small acts of kindness to offset the challenges of lockdown, social isolation, ill-health, grief and loss. Contrasted with the ‘smallness’ of those acts was a sense of the practical and symbolic importance of kindness – as something that could be literally lifesaving and representative of our ‘better’ or higher selves.
As the pandemic wore on and talk about kindness on Twitter started to shift from solidaristic pleas to ‘look out for one another’ to a calling out of individuals whose actions were deemed to have been unkind, criticism of politicians and others for cynically using the language of kindness, and a sense that boundaries of care and attention to the needs of other were, once again, being drawn very narrowly. While that shift could be seen as specific to the arc of the pandemic, it also speaks to a much deeper and longstanding concern that accompanies the idea of kindness: whether or not acts of kindness can be regarded as ‘authentic’.
Such anxieties are also evident in relation to another aspect of kindness Twitter – namely, those tweets that do little more than circulate inspirational aphorisms, quotations and other sententia. These bear many of the hallmarks (no pun intended) of ‘inspirational Twitter’ more generally: a distinctly saccharine or sentimental flavour; soft-focus imagery of nature, children and animals; and contextless exhortations to self-improvement. There is a striking lack of engagement from other Twitter users with such tweets and yet they do not, generally, appear to be the work of ‘bots’ – begging questions about who is actually tweeting about kindness in this way, and to what ends. While easily dismissed as sentimental ephemera, ‘be kind’ messages seem to matter to someone. In writing about this sub-genre of kindness Twitter, we hope to illuminate further the relationship between kindness, the sentimental and authenticity.
Cups of Kindness image: Copyright Susan McGill Design. Thank you to Susan for allowing us to use this image.