Telling Good Stories: Researching kindness at the University of Edinburgh
Updated: Sep 11
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.
This blog was originally written for, and published via, the University of Edinburgh's School of Social and Political Science. Cups of Kindness image credit: Susan McGill Design.