All posts by drlibertybell

Lindsay Bell a post doctoral fellow at Memorial University. Her research investigates the place of indigenous life and arctic environments in (inter)national public culture. She teaches ethnographic writing by way of anthropology and gender studies.

Empathy, Obligation and Ethnographic Writing

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

I am not a specialist in the anthropology of emotions, nor am I a psychological anthropologist. Yet, for some time I have been preoccupied by the concept of empathy. I want to thank the SM community for engaging with me in this think-out-loud. I am grateful that Zoe Wool has thrown away our shoes so that we may continue to wander/wonder about this topic.  In this last post, I share the motivations for my curiosities.

I came to my concern for/with empathy in much the same way many of us writers-of-real–lives-lived do, ethnographically. My work revolves around dramas of national obligation as they unfold in northern Canada. Specifically, I write about the intersections of race, gender, citizenship and political economy that belie a region marked by high natural resource revenues (diamonds, oil, gas) and substantially uneven distributions of social harm between Aboriginal people and Others. I write about enduring optimism and continued faith in extractive capital, despite its record of impermanence and destruction in the area. Continue reading

Empathy: A Short Conceptual History and An Anthropological Question

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In my first post, I proposed that anthropology might be particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy. In North America, “empathy” has come to be a prominent term across the caring arts. In areas ranging from self-help to health care, empathy seems to be something that can and should be cultivated. In 2006, President Obama declared that an “empathy deficit” was more pressing than a federal budgetary deficit. The scale of this claim reflects an increasingly popular view of empathy as producer of solutions to large, complex issues. In his 2010 bestseller Empathic Civilization, American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that “global empathic consciousness” could restore a global economy and solve climate change.

Last weeks’ commentators aptly pointed out that “empathy” has become a gloss for broader concerns. Its implementation from the perspective of those of you working with social workers, health care professionals and so on made it clear that institutionalized empathy is a downloading of problems onto already thinly stretched personnel. As a former pubic schoolteacher, I can agree that it is tempting to dismiss empathy as a smoke screen for troubles of our times. Yet, I keep coming back to anthropology’s shared principles with empathy—specifically perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with. I am not arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ empathy. Frankly, I am curious. What meanings has this term come to hold in the context of North America, and what very real kinds of ways of relating to Others has empathy been trying to capture but somehow can’t?  Puzzled by the empathy boom, I went to a good friend for insights. As an analytic philosopher specializing in emotions and emotion history, she had a lot to teach me about the crooked conceptual path of the term. She was so generous in sharing what she knows, I thought I’d share what I’d learned here. Continue reading

Anthropology, Empathy and the Other Regarding Emotions

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In the last few weeks, social work scholar turned pop-psychology web superstar Brené Brown came out with a short animated video summarizing much of her writing on empathy. It opens by drawing a distinction between empathy and sympathy.  According to Brown, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. For those of you who are expert in the area of the anthropology of emotions, I am guessing it would be fairly easy to come up with cross-cultural scenarios that put this pop-psych in its place (and please do!). That sympathy has become the bad guy in US self-help genres isn’t all that surprising.  In psychology and analytic philosophy, empathy and sympathy are part of a larger cohort referred to as “other regarding emotions”. Debating the appropriateness of the other regarding emotions—from pity to compassion to sympathy to empathy—lends itself to prescriptive ways of being the world.  This short video presumes that we can know what will feel good to others. In this case empathy feels good, and sympathy feels bad.

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Are you there Internets? It’s me NAD*

*North American Dialogue; with apologies in advance for acronym abundance

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Lindsay A. Bell

I recently became the Associate Editor of North American Dialogue (NAD). Part of the AAA Wiley-Blackwell basket of goodies, NAD is the peer reviewed journal of the Society for the Anthropology of North America (SANA). I was brought on to help with the journal’s “brand issues”; namely its recent conversion to a peer reviewed publication and its history as being, um, well CUNY-centric. I am pretty excited about working with SANA on NAD. As a relatively recent section of the AAA, SANA has done much in the way of establishing anthropologies of North America as politically and theoretically important. As the incoming Associate Editor, I am hoping to pick your savage minds about publishing, social media and related issues. In particular, for those of you whose work is North American (and we mean that as broadly as possible), what would you like to see from this publication? From the digital gurus in the crowd, I want to hear about how or if social media should be used to draw a broader public to scholarly work?

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