Filming Empathy – Part 1

In their essay “Whatever Happened to Empathy?” Hollan and Throop1 cite the ambivalence that Franz Boas felt about the usefulness of the concept for ethnography:

On the one hand, Boas seemed to champion empathy when acknowledging that the ‘‘needs of anthropological research have led many investigators to adapt themselves as thoroughly as may be to the ways of thinking of foreign tribes and peoples . . .” And yet, on the other hand, Boas remained decidedly suspicious of such empathetically based approximations of other lifeworlds, given his views on . . . the problems inherent in inferring similarities based on observed likenesses in outwardly perceptible behaviors and effects.

Another way of putting this might be to say that a little empathy aids in interpretive understanding, but too much empathy gets in the way of rational explanation. Maybe this is the case. I certainly think that studies of nonhuman animals tend to suffer from either a total lack of empathy or a surfeit of anthropologizing that refuses to recognize difference. I’m less certain how important it is to insist on recognizing difference when dealing with other humans. Talal Asad famously criticized Ernest Gellner for his insistence on difference in his article on “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology” in the book Writing Culture. In that essay Asad points out that the refusal of empathy insisted upon by Gellner takes place in the context of a history of unequal power relationships between the two sides. But to the extent that we take “the culture concept” seriously, surely we must be wary of the potential of empathy to erase the differences we wish to explain?

Maybe not. At least, not in situations where the lack of empathy has precluded the possibility of explanation in the first place. I think that, even among anthropologists, there are groups of people or certain behaviors that many of us unthinkingly write off as irrational. In such cases empathy is a vital first step towards explanation because without it we would not even consider the group or behavior in question capable of explanation. Empathy breaks down the barrier that makes anthropology otherwise impossible. In such cases I think the fears that empathy might preclude explanation are unfounded.

In his book Transcultural Cinema, David MacDougall argues that film is uniquely suited to developing an empathetic bond. This happens, says MacDougall, because of the ways in which “my body which perceives the body of another person, and discovers in that other body a miraculous prolongation of my own intentions, a familiar way of dealing with the world.” Thus, “filming others celebrates the common experience of consciousness, including the very differences between us.” To be honest, I am skeptical that film is somehow uniquely posed to do this, after all there is some evidence that reading fiction can make you more empathetic. Nonetheless, I think it is true that some films do this very well, and perhaps do it in a way that is different from how written texts might accomplish the same goal. Following MacDougall we might say that novels achieve this feat by giving us a view of the subjects interiority, while film does so by exploring their physicality.

Regardless of whether such an argument holds water, I will take up this discussion in a future posts (or possibly multiple posts depending on how much I end up having to say on the topic) that will look at specific films and how they deal with empathy. In doing so I will not necessarily deal with “ethnographic film” or even limit myself to “documentary film” but will instead look at films that deal with empathy in particularly interesting ways. I want to focus on films that seek to provoke empathy for subjects which most viewers have no interest in empathizing with. I think that such films should be of interest to anthropologists precisely because our work often seeks to cut against the grain in this fashion and we can perhaps learn something about the methods and limits of building empathy from such films.

  1. I’d like to thank Jason Throop for having left this helpful comment on a blog post by guest blogger Lindsay Bell. 

5 thoughts on “Filming Empathy – Part 1

  1. I look forward to following this series of posts! In the meantime, I was wondering if you could further explain/clarify what you mean by ‘rational explanation’ (and it’s implied counterpart/antonym, ‘irrational’? ‘overly emotional’?), where you write, ‘Another way of putting this might be to say that a little empathy aids in interpretive understanding, but too much empathy gets in the way of rational explanation. Maybe this is the case.’

    Thanks in advance!

  2. I was just using rationality here to refer to the scientific spirit of enquiry that I believe Boas saw himself engaged in. The quote you are referring to is my attempt to paraphrase Hollan and Throop’s own paraphrase of Boas, so apologies if something got lost along the way. (Also please note that I go on to criticize this position.)

  3. Are you discussing for and against and to what extent empathy should be made use of in anthropology???? Why? To my mind. Empathy is that A feels for B and is able to communicate that to B. It is a mode of communication like language. However, it eludes description, analysis and measurement since this elusion is one of its qualities. People have empathy to different degrees.

    Thus, it would be idiotic to send people into the field with instruction as to the degree to which they should employ their empathy or not. There is never enough empathy in human interaction, have no fear! When it comes to the finished publication I understand that academia does not appreciate an argument based on “I felt”, “I sensed”, “I had a lurking sensation” only. Still these experiments in the application of empathy must be pursued. The purity of anthropology has been a far to frequent topic of anthropology. Like most hang-ups in purity, it is not productive.

  4. I offer for consideration a distinction acquired while training to work on a crisis counseling hot line. Sympathy implies identification it’s the other, which too often includes the assumption that you know what is bothering them. Empathy is getting yourself out of the way so that you can hear what they are trying to say. Empathy implies vulnerability, openness to the unexpected.

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