Handle with caution: empathy as a research tool

The first (properly academic) thing I’ve written since finishing the PhD has been a contribution to book about violence in research, which allowed me to explore my interest in empathy and methodology. The chapter gives a detailed account of my fieldwork, but here I’ve decided to sketch some general propositions for anyone new to these ideas. In short: I’ve come to think of empathy as an important but dangerous item in the researcher’s toolkit. With it, we can do all kinds of things we couldn’t do otherwise, but wielded improperly, it is likely to cause harm both to us and those around us.

Defining empathy

Empathy is notoriously difficult to define. It’s common to distinguish between automatic empathy (or emotional contagion – where we ‘feel’ the fear, pain, anger, sorrow or joy of other people) and cognitive empathy, a distinct neurological process where we imagine how we would feel in another person’s situation. The Greater Good Science Centre has an extensive compilation of essays on the subject, many of which suggest a broad definition encompassing emotional contagion, cognitive empathy, and a third phenomenon: perspective-taking. This means not only imagining how a person feels at any given moment, but trying to figure out how they see the world in a deeper sense. As a general concept, empathy has worked its way into our political consciousness, fuelling debates from international policy down to grassroots activism. All of this is extremely relevant in discussing the risks/benefits of empathy in fieldwork, and specifically in peace and conflict research.

The inevitability of empathy

Fieldwork requires an active process of relationship-building, and a conscious effort to explore the values, beliefs and attitudes of the group of people involved in the study. While many researchers are often drawn towards communities and individuals with whom they can easily identify (which brings its own form of emotional labour), some choose to focus on people with whom they may not agree at all (see for example this account of doing ethnography with members of the Westboro Baptist Church). Either way, most researchers have at least one story about a time when they met someone who was especially difficult to interview. Their response is usually to try to take stock of what the other person is feeling and their reasons for feeling that way. It is difficult to do this without an active process of imagination, or in other words, trying to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. Throughout the fieldwork process, the researcher will make notes which include a description of her own feelings towards the people she encounters. This emotional reflexivity is an important part of managing empathy.

My experience suggests, and a review of related literature confirmed, that emotional contagion is an occupational hazard for social researchers. Those who listen to accounts of traumatic events often find themselves affected by the sadness, anger and fear of interviewees. The researcher is not a therapist. She is unlikely to ask “how does that make you feel?” when an interviewee brings up a distressing topic. She is more likely to create a space in which the interviewee is free to choose whether or not to speak openly about their emotions. She will try to respond empathically towards whatever is said or unsaid, before gently nudging the interviewee back to the questions she does want to ask. As she listens, she is processing their body language, analysing their choice of words, considering their silences, and trying to relate their story back to what she already knows of this individual and their community/history/culture. In this way, she is also engaged in the process of cognitive empathy and perspective-taking.

The risks of empathy

Among the different arguments that have been made against empathy, there are two which strike me as especially relevant in an academic/research context. Taken together, they illustrate the wide-ranging nature of empathy, and the way it helps structure both the personal and political dimensions of fieldwork. For different reasons, each leads us to consider the value of limiting our empathy, or replacing it with a different response.

  1. Empathy reinforces privilege

The first is that empathy reinforces structures of privilege (an argument that has been elaborated by feminist academic Carolyn Pedwell). Empathy is associated with putting ourselves in the shoes of those who are less fortunate than us. As such, it is often used to entreat the materially well-off members of society to act with greater altruism. For researchers, this can lead to a focus on the suffering of other people, rather than on the range of emotions – from anger to hope – which can be a source of motivation and activism. We may become lost in loss, aggrieved by grief, and unable to recognise coping strategies and agency for social change. This can lead to us portraying people as victims who are in need of aid – commodifying their trauma and suffering – rather than survivors who have their own ideas about rebuilding a community. We might overstate the vulnerability of some people, casting ourselves in the role of saviour and ignoring structural violence and inequality. Or we may become biased towards a particular group and reproduce local political and social cleavages in our work. Race, class and gender can all be implicated in this kind of negative empathetic relationship.

  1. Empathy leads to burnout

The second criticism is that empathy can lead to burnout and emotional exhaustion, as was noted in a major study of risks to qualitative researchers in the UK. We might over-identify with a group or individual, or we might grow tired of tuning in to fluctuations in the emotional states of those around us. This is bad for the researcher, and depending on when it occurs, it can be harmful for participants. The researcher may end up withdrawing from previous commitments, or making poor judgement calls which endanger her or her interviewees. She may become detached and unable to empathise, damaging the relationships which are a crucial part of social research, especially in dangerous settings. Burnout can lead to delays in finishing projects, and even to their being postponed indefinitely. There are suggestions that being too empathetic can lead to anxiety and depression. Gender is a risk factor for burnout resulting from emotional labour in fieldwork.

A defence of empathy

Is there a case to be made for limiting empathy based on these negative side-effects? Previous generations of social scientists (and presumably a few who are still around today) were adamant that detachment was a necessary precursor to producing objective research. Nowadays, many sociologists and virtually all feminist scholars accept that emotions are implicated in reason, informing both what we know and how we know it. They advocate reflexivity as a way of keeping track of our emotions and biases, as well as our own wellbeing. The reflexive researcher will still face difficult choices about where to draw the line between empathy and detachment, with first-time researchers perhaps being most likely to want to test that boundary. Are they being given enough support to make the right decisions? Is there a need for greater debate over empathy in the methodological process?

I have certainly been guilty of over-empathising, if that means creating the conditions under which people revealed emotionally sensitive information (which was not strictly related to my research questions), or allowing myself to be drawn into perspective-taking to the extent that it led me to doubt my own perception of reality. This caused extensive bouts of worry about how I would represent the experiences and (often conflicting) views of people who had taken me into their confidence. And yet, I believe that without empathy, I would have missed out on a lot of what was going on around me. Shutting down conversations that raised emotionally distressing topics would have signalled an unwillingness to engage with issues that clearly mattered to people. Refusing to enter into perspectives which made me question my own views would surely have been unethical. The paralysis that ensues during reflection on violence and injustice may be unpleasant, but are there ways to limit it or avoid it altogether that don’t involve limiting or avoiding our exposure to things that distress us in the first place? How can we claim to be contributing to “knowledge” if we knowingly cut ourselves off from certain perspectives?

Compassion and solidarity

In the world of activism, compassion and solidarity are often put forward as replacements for empathy. This thought-provoking essay on empathy and virtual reality states that:

Compassion is the capacity to see, observe, feel and then step back and take reasoned action in the interests of another. Solidarity is the ability to talk alongside someone else, to act with them, and yet recognize your ability to both know and not know their struggle.

I agree with this, and at the same time I still have trouble figuring out where empathy, compassion and solidarity align with academic research and writing. Or perhaps I still have a hard time equating the act of, say, writing a thesis, with the idea of “reasoned action in the interests of another.” In particular, I find that this definition opens up the question of “whose reason?” Academia is a long game, and the price we pay for (maybe) impacting the direction of society over the long term is often to feel that we have failed to do all that we could have done to improve the lives of flesh-and-blood human being – ones who have fed and sheltered us, and warmed us with their hospitality – in the short term. I have also found that in spite of all the rules and rigid formulae that go with writing a thesis, ultimately it is a creative act. The task of rendering other people’s experiences tangible to the prospective readers calls for an act of imagination which, while it may be classified as an act of compassion, also requires our empathy to live on long enough to get the job done. The paralysis that some researchers describe as occurring during the period of data analysis would appear to come from this contradictory requirement that they step in (to the other person’s shoes) and step back at the same time.

Suggestions for the future

How do we deal with all this? First of all, accept that fieldwork has the power to shock and even traumatise. Second, realise that the answer is not to limit exposure in the sense of carefully sanitising the research experience, but to provide institutional support which enables researchers to regulate their emotional engagement in the field. Somewhere between the supervisor-supervisee relationship on the one hand, and university health services on the other, there is room for peer support groups which address these specific issues. Do not assume that a collegial atmosphere encourages full and frank disclosure. Create safe spaces where researchers can discuss issues around empathy, compassion and solidarity in their work, and allow that debate to cross over into taught modules and public seminars.

Stereotypes about ivory towers persist for a reason, but I know many academics, in person and by reputation, who are extremely engaged in social causes. The problem is that too often the ‘academic’ and the ‘activist’ appear to be split down the middle: one identity on campus, and another one off it. Senior academics might have reconciled this difference, but young researchers who worry about appearing (un)professional, or feel they have an either/or decision to make about the future, might appreciate having these issues brought to light a little more often. This could ensure that our struggles with empathy lead to more compassionate outcomes and useful knowledge, as we develop the skills needed to empathise – responsibly – with the world around us.


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