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 Continue reading


Coming home, and burning out

For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to write about burnout. Rather, I was trying to write something that would reflect my thoughts and feelings on returning from fieldwork, and ‘burnout’ was a nice catch-all phrase for describing my reaction to the sudden change in environment, as well as the cumulative stress of previous weeks. It’s a somewhat self-defeating task though, because burnout tends to eat away at certain qualities – concentration, determination, self-confidence – that are required to produce an item for publication. With every failed draft, my sense of frustration and disillusionment increased.

Another stumbling block was the desperate need I felt to say something funny about it. To be self-deprecating and amusing about it, rather than admitting how deeply insecure I felt about coming back to the academic fold, after two years of feeling that my emotional centre was there where my fieldwork was. Despite the regular periods of being in university over that period (only half of that time was actually spent in the field), it was so easy to slip into the belief that I belonged in the Caucasus. I had succumbed to a stereotype affecting many westerners who approach the region through the double orientalism of a Russian studies background: I was a veritable prisoner there.

Facing up to coming home

The idea that my fieldwork was coming to an end created a profound sense of panic and confusion. I went so far as to apply for a job in Georgia, and prepared to justify the sudden change of plans to my research funders if I was offered the chance to stay. The thing that was eating up at me the most was the feeling that if I went away for a whole year, I would lose so many friendships, so many relationships I had painstakingly cultivated during my fieldwork. And what if I lost my instinct for detecting those pockets of personal agency, those tremors of resistance that I had worked so hard to learn to recognise? Worst of all, what if I began to adapt to the comforts of home, eventually reneging on my plans to return for a longer period as soon as possible?

In short, it felt like I would be abandoning everything I had worked for and cared about – which says a lot about how low down my list of priorities my actual dissertation had sunk, not to mention the cavalier attitude I have towards my support circle in Ireland and beyond. When it became clear that I wasn’t going to get the job, I thought about back-up plans: I could move to the region anyway, rent a flat in Tbilisi with a friend, write in bookshops and cafés, bitch about other expats, forego the advantages of being based at a research university, fully funded and in close proximity to a supervisor with whom – this somehow makes it worse – I genuinely enjoy working. If it couldn’t be arranged in the next few weeks, it could certainly become a reality after Christmas.

Roots of burnout

So far, what I’m describing does not correspond to the sensation of burnout. That comes later, when I was back home and feeling tremendously isolated. Without warning, all the adrenaline and enthusiasm that had kept me going through the end of a long, fatiguing summer seemed to evaporate. Unlike previous homecomings, I didn’t have an extended return trip to Armenia or Azerbaijan to look forward to. I found it impossible to explain to friends – who seem to barely notice my research absences half the time anyway – how my inner landscape had altered so dramatically in just a few weeks. How I now felt caught between feelings of guilt (how could I abandon an entire region, just like that?) and of having been abandoned myself, by some benevolent genie who had steered me through the worst days of my fieldwork and created meaning in a sea of change.

For two years, my job was about talking to people, listening to them, analysing and synthesising what they said. Now, it’s not about talking to people anymore, or at best, it’s about talking to very different people. People who make me want to run screaming from the room (ah, the fantasies I’ve had of upturning conference tables and running out of there, never to sound my name in the ivory halls again). And it’s not about analysis either – it’s about polishing it up and packaging it in an authoritative format, and putting it out into the world as a means of self-promotion. I look at the career race I’m supposed to be entering right about now, and I feel, not daunted or challenged by it, so much as sick and disgusted. I’m torn between wanting to seek out other, more exciting opportunities, and the desire not to become another statistic about women leaving academia.

Mostly though, I’m just worried about my loss of focus. After all, whatever I decide about the future, I still have to defend a thesis in less than a year from now. And whether or not I want to advance my career in this field, the work I’ve done merits publication, so that others can learn something from my findings (as well as my mistakes). And this is where the real problem of burnout hits: the feeling of total exhaustion, the involuntary withdrawal from social contact – including, ironically, my friends in the field; the sense that my work is still mostly speculation and conjecture, or that my writing fails to capture the realities on the ground; the feeling that I’m no good, that my thesis isn’t any good, and that – for a myriad of reasons – it’s not even worth trying to make it any better.

The emotional isolation of PhD research

A short digression: before embarking on the M Phil that led into my PhD studies, I was a fulltime volunteer in a grassroots organisation that worked with ‘at risk’ youth in one of Russia’s provincial cities. I had an A4 sheet, a handout from a staff training day, pinned to the inside of my wardrobe door, listing the symptoms of burnout next to a five point scale. I would check this piece of paper every few days just to be sure I wasn’t skating on too-thin ice. One of the many things I learned from volunteering is that when you work in team that is under constant stress, everyone depends on everybody else not to go to pieces. The circumstances create an additional pressure to look after yourself both mentally and physically – and reward you for doing so.

When you’re doing an unstructured doctoral degree, there is no such pressure, at least not from your work environment. You don’t have to show up in the same place and at the same time every day, and do roughly the same job. All that matters is that you show up when it counts. Which is why, I think, so many of us end up fudging our way through the PhD for weeks on end, spending half our time with Netflix and biscuits, and somehow pulling it together for the sake of that important interview or presentation or deadline or whatever it might be. We don’t attend to our personal needs, because we don’t value the contribution we make to society on a daily basis. We end up going through the motions, performing well, but inwardly feeling like parasites.

As an ethnographer, there’s another element to this as well: you don’t always feel entitled to your own emotional response. Much of what happened in Armenia and Azerbaijan this August affected me personally, but my main response was to see what other people were saying, how other people were reacting. In this instance, that meant having twenty different people tell me what they were feeling – a unique opportunity, as I must be one of few people to have visited both countries that month, but also an exhausting one. How do you maintain an academic detachment at the same time that people are sharing fear or anger or loss or sadness with you? Equally, how do you avoid the sense that you are living on “borrowed” emotions?

The recovery

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve begun to feel a slow emotional release taking place. There are times when all that propels me into work mode is an implacable anger, and other times when I find myself dissolving into tears over something that really isn’t all that sad. Last weekend, I finally got around to tackling some of the gaps in my field notes, things I just hadn’t had time to write up in detail. Some of those conversations are still so vivid, they might as well have happened two hours, and not two months, ago. That sense of alertness that is characteristic of fieldwork is something I sorely miss these days. I’m trying to counteract it with mindfulness practice, but it’s hard when my senses are so deadened – when it’s easier to elicit a response to how I imagine the Caspian Sea looks right now, than to whatever landscape is actually in front of me.

There’s no happy ending to this story, only to say, I suppose, that lots of people do go through this and, like a broken heart, it does get better. Unfortunately, like a broken heart, it also seems to get worse every time. It’s 8 years since my first trip to the former Soviet Union, and I’ve seen a lot of people – volunteers, students, interns, researchers, NGO workers – come and go and display the same sort of emotional upheaval in the end. Reverse culture shock is the subject of countless blog posts and articles. And there’s even a small academic literature that acknowledges the emotional attachment between researchers and the field, and hints at the difficulties of bring it all home (see here and here), which is surprisingly comforting to know. If real professors are ready to acknowledge this feeling then perhaps it’s not so extreme after all.

Some practical advice

It can take a long time to feel fully settled, even when you’re trying to stay positive. One of the things that helped me to feel more grounded (excuse the pun) was kicking my coffee habit. Because while three or four cups a day might help when you’re rushing around in the field, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good when you’re sitting still for 8 hours a day, staring at a blank screen in front of you.

Beyond making simple lifestyle changes like exercising or meditating more, it’s a good idea to test yourself for burnout, be aware of the symptoms and know the ones that are bothering you most. Those feelings of irritability towards the other people in your office, that sense that you’re in the wrong place and you’re not sure how it happened – those might just be transitory emotions rather than a reflection of any ‘true’ reality.

Be kind to yourself. Whenever you find that you’re getting angry with yourself for not dealing with this fast, ask whether this is how you would talk to a friend who was having the same problem. Take a look at the principles for nonviolent living outlined by Miki Kashtan – how many of these are part of your daily habits?

And remember, chances are that you are still making progress without really being aware of it. In the past month I’ve done some important things, like publishing an article and making the final edits to a forthcoming book chapter. Try to hold onto the little victories. Someday, they will add up to an overall feeling of achievement.