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Gary John Adler, Jr.

by rjp218 Aug 21, 2018
Gary John Adler, Jr.

Assistant Professor of Sociology

Department of Sociology

College of the Liberal Arts

2017/18 Rock Ethics Institute Faculty Fellow

514 Oswald Tower
University Park, PA 16802

Office Phone: (814) 863-5365


My research sits at the intersection of the sociology of culture, religion, organizations, and collective action. I research the organization of social concern, especially the role of religious organizations in producing moral experience and civic behavior. I also research the cultural structure of the religious field to understand the organization of and change in religious beliefs and tastes.

Rock Ethics Institute Fellowship Project Description

Producing Empathy and Making Distance Disappear: The Organizational Structure and Tactics of the “New Global Civic Engagement”

My fellowship research will analyze the rise of the “new global civic engagement” (NGCE), a phase of transnational civil society characterized by face-to-face, short-term interactions between U.S. residents and foreign citizens.

Sociologists have documented numerous organizational structures that Western publics developed in response to distant social problems over the past two centuries. These included large humanitarian organizations focused on aid, like the Red Cross, and social movements focused on political change, like the World Social Forum. By contrast, the NGCE is decentralized across social institutions like colleges and congregations; fosters pragmatic charitable and awareness-raising activities; and attempts to make distance “disappear” for ordinary Americans through travel or social media. Examples include alternative spring breaks, short-term mission trips, intensive study-abroad experiences, domestic tours by foreign speakers, and transnational social media interactions.

Millions of Americans each year can come into direct contact with foreign persons and their social problems. The cosmopolitan promise of such engagement has been broadly embraced by many U.S. social institutions. However, there are important ethical reasons to query the NGCE. First, short-term engagement is unlikely to build the thick understanding that many social theorists see lacking in a globalized world. Second, the ideals of the NGCE, such as participation and partnership, are difficult to realize or hold accountable. Third, this new way of engaging “the world” appears to encourage an approach to suffering that is personal and pragmatic, but not focused on the political dimensions of justice.

During the fellowship, I will develop a theoretical framework to understand the techniques that non-profit organizations use to produce empathy as part of the NGCE. Non-profit organizations in the U.S. tend to produce foreign-focused empathy using three tactics: information dissemination, face-to-face conversation, and simulation of the life conditions of others. Using the Rock’s inter-disciplinary resources, I will theorize how these strategies encounter distinct problems and produce different empathic outcomes.

This framework will guide a grant proposal for further empirical study of the variations and outcomes of these three tactics. When fully funded, that research will analyze how the characteristics of non-profit organizations (size, religious affiliation, longevity, etc.), their issue agendas (human rights, gender, development, education, environment, etc.), and their preferred action templates (fundraising, letter-writing, child-adoption, volunteerism, tutoring, etc.) shape their empathy tactical repertoires.

The results of this research have broad implications for understanding how Americans, especially young adults, understand and become committed, or not, to global social issues and attempts to address them.