Reviewing Almost Worthy

The latest issue of the Voluntary Sector Review has now been published. It features my review of Brent Ruswick’s Almost Worthy: The Poor, Paupers, and the Science of Charity in America, 1877-1917. I won’t repeat the review here, but I will offer a few brief thoughts about the book and the series in which it’s published, as well as the journal that commissioned my review.

Almost Worthy takes a familiar subject – the relationship between eugenics and social reform in America’s past – but finds some important new aspects to consider. It’s a book about relationships: not only between social workers or reformers and the poor, but also between national leaders and local volunteers, between those studying and those working in the relief of poverty. It’s also a book about ideas: those concerning ‘science’ are, to my mind, its most important contribution to the history of charity. The ‘scientific charity’ movement has long been judged by its idea of ‘charity’, but what about its idea of ‘science’? How did the movement see itself as ‘scientific’? How did social research, social work and social reform feed each other? Or indeed what tension was there between them? I am hugely encouraged by seeing such questions raised, opening new lines of inquiry in the history of charity.

I’m also not at all surprised that these important questions should be raised by a book in the Indiana University Press Philanthropic and Nonprofit Studies series. “Philanthropy is a fundamental aspect of the American experience” is the founding premise for the series and many of its publications, including Almost Worthy, focus exclusively on that American experience. One of its enviable characteristics, however, is its wider scope. It includes edited volumes considering the legacies of British imperial benevolence, medical philanthropy in China over the past century, the Rockefeller Foundation’s international health initiatives since the First World War, and presenting comparative essays on cultural and social philanthropy in Britain, Germany and North America. Meanwhile monographs have included Thomas Adams’ Buying Respectability, which placed that American experience in transnational context by examining the flow of ideas around cultural philanthropy between America and Europe.

The Voluntary Sector Review, launched four years ago, is always home to fresh ways of looking at the place of the voluntary sector in politics and society here in Britain and elsewhere, and occasionally includes notable contributions from historical perspectives. Indeed, its very first issue included an article from Bernard Harris, surveying two centuries of voluntary-state relations in Britain. Since then, Alex Mold has examined the role of voluntary organisations in providing drugs services in the UK since the 1960s and Colin Rochester has placed the current position of councils of voluntary service in historical perspective. Books reviewed have included Colin Rochester’s thought-provoking if controversial Rediscovering Voluntary Action, with its assessment firmly rooted in the history of voluntary and community organisations, and Matthew Hilton et al.’s Politics of Expertise on NGOs in postwar British politics.

Both the IUP series and the journal in which I reviewed their latest offering are great examples of how historical research and historical perspectives can be brought into the field of voluntary or nonprofit sector studies. I would encourage historians researching voluntary organisations to consider submitting to them. Having done so, I should really take my own advice. I’d be get to it…

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