The Sociology of Indifference



I used to live in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the State of Minas Gerais, Brazil. As in most big cities, there is a lot of social inequalities such as homelessness and people suffering from hunger. Once I was coming back from work, and there was an African Brazilian man eating rotten food from a restaurant’s garbage bags. It was heartbreaking to see that human being looking for food in the garbage with so much food being wasted in Brazil daily. In a country where one of its main economic activities is the exportation of agricultural goods there should not be people going hungry. It was also uncomfortable to realize that people were coming in and out of the restaurant and even did not realize that there was a man eating from the garbage bags. When I saw that scene, it reminded me of a poem that we had studied in 5th grade and that I would like to share with you:

The Animal (Translated from Brazilian Portuguese Language)

Author: Manuel Bandeira

Yesterday I saw an animal
On a filthy hallway
Searching for food between the garbage
When finding anything
It did not inspect or smelled
Just swallowed with voracity
The animal was not a dog
Or a cat

Or a rat
The animal, oh my Lord, was a man!

I believe that in order to reflect on justice, fairness and equality one has also to consider the problem of indifference. I always questioned how can an individual be truly happy due to his prosperity if he walks on the streets and see children begging or homeless people searching for food in the garbage? How can someone who is fortunate and prosperous close his eyes to reality and keep living happily as if everybody else had the same life conditions? A way to explain and answer to those questions is through the concept of indifference and the sociology of the stranger. Rudolph Stichweh (1997), in his article, ‘The Stranger on the Sociology of Indifference’, explains how modern society is no longer a membership organization. Indifference can be defined as the status of not being a friend nor an enemy of one another. The state of being indifferent is part of people’s everyday activities and its macro-structural consequences in modern society translates into people’s unwillingness to care for and about others (p.3-4).  It seems like a lot of people are not affected by social inequities; there is a generalized state of numbness in which individuals carry on with their lives when witnessing others in painful situations. In other words, there is a trivialization of social problems in which the other is simply ignored. An example of that is the picture shared below, in which a blind man drowned while swimming in a famous Brazilian beach in Rio de Janeiro. His body was not removed by the police for a while and irrespective of that, tourists kept smiling, enjoying the beach, taking pictures as if there was nobody there. Such indifference caught the photographer’s attention. He then decided to publish the picture and raise awareness on the subject.



Stichweh, R. (1997). The Stranger – on the Sociology of the Indifference. Thesis Eleven,51(1), 1-16. doi:10.1177/0725513697051000002


The Pervasive US Idea of our Classless Society


Jimenez (2010), sheds some light on the concept of ideology as “templates, or reassuring explanatory structures that can explain contingencies, both the unexpected and the taken-for- granted aspects of social order” (p.45). Community, government and the media exert considerable influence on the formation of the individuals’ ideologies. That said, the beliefs of upward income mobility and equal opportunity are, according to Jimenez (2010), ideological positions aimed at promoting social control and quieting feelings of social unrest (p.60). That was a reality in the 19th century and continues to be nowadays. An interesting example is immigration; the image sold in countries such as Brazil, is that the United States offers equal professional growth opportunities to everybody who works hard. Therefore, people want to come here and pursue the American dream, nonetheless, when they arrive in the country, they start facing social barriers. The thought of a completely open social and economic order and the association of economic success with individual merit does not correspond to the reality of many immigrants who are educated but when applying for a job, face unfair situations such as the other candidate’s personal connections, favoritism and ethnic discrimination.

The ideas of upward income mobility and equal opportunity prevalent in the U.S society tend to hinder the development of individuals’ critical thinking about inequality and lack of economic opportunities (Jimenez, p.61). In other words, if everybody believes that their social condition is only temporary and that their personal success is solely influenced by their own choices and not external factors such as the political environment, there is no reason for people to fight for better social conditions or even to fight for a complete change in the economic and social systems of government. Jimenez (2010), further clarifies that it is unlikely that most people will criticize ongoing poverty and oppression in the United States due to the lack of a major political party leading a critique of the market’s economy (p.77). In the 19th Century, Socialist political traditions were a reaction against industrial capitalism’s ways of exploiting workers in England and Germany (  Nonetheless, in the U.S, the myths of upward mobility and equal opportunity kept society optimistic and working hard on pursuing the American dream, if not for them, for their next generations.



Introduction to 19th-Century Socialism. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2017, from

Jimenez, J. (2010). Social policy and social change: Toward the creation of social and economic justice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. (Chapter 3: Historical values influencing social problems and policies).

Social Work as Means of Social Control


The view of social work as a means of social control presented by McLaughlin in the article “Social Work’s Legacy: Irreconcilable Differences?”  is an eye-opener to those new to the field of social work. According to the author, critics affirm that the mission of social work is no longer to help the poor and oppressed, but to control them, utilizing psychotherapy as a method of intervention (p.188). Interestingly, if one compares social work in the United States and social work in Brazil, one will realize that in Brazil the scope of social work does not include the clinical aspect. In other words, psychologists and psychiatrists will work in the mental health field, while social workers will address social justice issues at collective and individual levels. Perhaps, the Brazilian approach to social work would be more in alignment with scholars such as Spechat and Courtney, however, McLaughlin (2002), urges social workers to think reflectively about the betterment of the individual and the betterment of society as complementing each other (p.196-197).

Day (1981) in the article “Social Welfare: Context for Social Control”, shed some light on how social workers and human services organizations might control vulnerable communities and individuals. The author explains that “social workers are generally unaware of the extent of their control and most of them enter the human service field from feelings of caring” (p.30). Day (1981) corroborate McLaughlin’s thoughts on the importance of developing critical thinking about social work as a means of social control, so that social workers don’t become agents of such control, supporting and legitimating it (p.31). Historically, some of the ways social welfare exerted control over society was through the Statute of Laborer in 1349, in which people were kept in certain areas of work to economically benefit others; The War on Poverty in 1965, aiming at controlling civil disorder started by the disadvantaged; and the expansion of Community Mental Health Acts, which had the objective of quieting political unrest in the 1960s (p.32). The author does not deny the usefulness of such programs nor the unselfish feelings of people working for them, however, he emphasizes what he calls “the programs’ latent functions; public intrusion into private lives, expanding definitions of deviance and new pressures for and legitimation of conformity” (p.33).

Other important ways in which social workers and human services agencies exert control over society are through values, attitudes and the power relations. Day (1981) exemplifies human services organizations as symbols of power, in which the social worker is the expert and the client is the one seeking for help. One can imply that the client is inadequate and needs to be taught how to meet society’s standards of functioning (p.34). If not carefully observed, the power relation might translate into social workers adopting the position of experts and disregarding the client’s abilities, knowledge and rights.


Day, P. (1981). Social Welfare: Context for Social Control. The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare,8(1), 29-44. Retrieved January 6, 2016.

McLaughlin, A. (2002). Social work’s legacy: Irreconcilable differences? Clinical Social Work Journal, 30(2), 187-198.