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.

In the video, Brown lists four qualities of empathy

1.     Perspective taking, recognizing that someone else’s perspective is their truth

2.     Staying out of judgment

3.     Recognizing emotion in other people and then communicating that

4.     Feeling with people

The empathy list above implies concepts of the self, society and personhood that we may not like. Yet, these list items do seem to be part of the anthropological tool kit. As people who excel in perspective taking, I wonder what anthropology might make of a growing interest in empathy?  Anthropology seems to me to be great place to think through empathy’s merits and limits.

In the worlds of counselling, education and social work, empathy is experiencing a mini boom. Brown’s video is only a snippet of the empathy industrial complex. Ok, that is gratuitous use of ‘industrial complex’, but hear me out. A good philosopher/friend of mine recently took a job with a non-profit that purports to bring lessons in empathy to schoolchildren across Canada and increasingly around the world. The program rests on the premise that developing empathy is a universal human trait, which reduces conflict. Indeed, the program is typically promoted in terms of its self-identified power as a “universal preventative intervention.” However, it gained international attention when, following the London riots, Cameron’s Tory government responded by stating that rioting was a result of a “lack of empathy”. He quickly moved to introduce a pilot version of the empathy curriculum in the city’s “troubled” neighbourhoods.

I will share my own thoughts and struggles with empathy in a subsequent post. To start, I will say that I sometimes wonder if the current ontological questions are meant to unshackle us from the empathy anchor. Anthropology is other-regarding. Its emotional state is far less clear. Is anthropology with or without empathy?

Lindsay Bell

I am a sociocultural/linguistic anthropologist interested in the place of indigenous life and arctic environments in (inter)national public culture. My primary research examines indigenous-state relations and everyday experiences of extractive development (diamonds and oil) in circumpolar North America.

With artist/academic collaborators, Jesse C Jackson (UC Irvine) and Tori Foster (OCAD U), I am developing a set of moving and still images to tell the story of urban life north of the 60th parallel. This new work combines data visualization techniques with more standard anthropological methods.

When not north of 60, I have the pleasure of teaching ethnographic writing by way of anthropology at SUNY, Oswego where I am an assistant professor. I am the editor of the Society for the Anthropology of North America’s peer reviewed journal, North American Dialogue. You can find me on social media @drlibertybell

19 thoughts on “Anthropology, Empathy and the Other Regarding Emotions

  1. Great succinct notes. Certainly “empathy” is getting politicised. Talk about it is spilling out of the self-help hub and, as you note, even into governmental strategies to pacify populations. There is shift in its meaning happening and new ideological connotations are beginning to shape.

  2. We are definitely seeing empathy used in these ways you both mention- especially in the ‘care’ fields. What interests me are the shared sensibilities with anthropological writing. Ethnographic writing (at least some of it) draws the reader in by sharing others’ perspectives, largely without judgement. I am old fashioned and think that is still a worthwhile project. Yet, like you both I am weary of the self-help version.

  3. I agree with you. Ethnographic method and writing hinges on empathy in many ways. I mean both ways. The care and support that people gave me in fieldwork that completely supported my feel that the post-modernist stuff about “life as text” was mostly nonsense. The directness of experiencing seems to me a central issue in all this. My experience in fieldwork was radically different from my sociologist friends doing surveys. “Empathy” can come in different versions, i guess. When you see rules emerging that you “train in empathy in nursing”, for instance, its obvious something is happening that needs attention. Analysis should perhaps look at the socio-political strategies behind these emergent uses of “empathy”.

  4. Ann Jurecic writes very well about literature and illness narratives

    She would agree with us in part:

    “when public figures such as writers, entertainers, and politicians, evoke positive or negative emotions—from empathy and love to fear, agony, and shame—these feelings serve existing structures of power. Compassion, for instance, has been claimed by politicians across the political spectrum. In his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush advocated a politics of “compassionate conservatism.” He used the term to suggest that dependence on free-market economics demonstrated compassion for society as a whole and justified reduction of the social safety net for the disadvantaged. To Bush’s opposition, the phrase came to signify a cynical politics that favored the wealthy while obscuring the deepening political and economic divide between the “haves” and “have nots.””

    “Of relevance to empathetic responses to accounts of suffering she writes: In the academy, however, critics tend to prefer indeterminacy to emotional engagement and imposed ethical obligations”

    in discussions of narratives about illness: “on one side stands the dispassionate critic who is suspicious of art that elicits sympathy or empathy; on the other is the empathic critic who seeks to acknowledge the suffering bodies at the center of art”

    I think this is very interesting, and from a clinical perspective the doctor as ‘dispassionate critic’ can be more effective than the empathetic one who runs the risks of over-identification on the one hand and of being manipulated by the patient on the other. This might happen if the empathetic response renders the patient’s account of suffering ‘beyond criticism’

    Not all patients want empathy from their doctors, Sontag is highlighted for this, in spite of suffering cancer twice, she rejected empathy quite firmly!

    There’s a lot here which I think I’ll follow up my blog later!

  5. Rifkin’s book, FYI, does a good job of taking this beyond the self-help question.

    Empathy gets promoted as a panacea, certainly, but I think that’s based on a misunderstanding. Empathy isn’t the same as universal positive regard.

    In a lot of ways, this question cuts to the deepest issue of anthropology: is there any kind of universal framework from which to think about humanity? It’s a paradox of the postmodern approach: we hew to an absolute relativism, which can’t mean much from a logical standpoint.

    Will be interesting to hear what people think on this. Great question.

  6. Interesting points being made. As an anthropologist I am deeply sceptical about any claims to a universal empathy and I question its use as a mainly political strategy. As a lecturer in social work I must wrestle with empathy as a concept that I am supposed to ‘teach’ to my students. In the social work curriculum (in the UK) I have observed that it is used interchangeably with the other sought after sw skill of non-judgementality – as though both are professional tools devoid of cultural and/or subjective influence.
    I will never sit easy with the idea of empathy (I love the way that Patti Lather is brutality honest about its (non) existence, its refreshing to be troubled with such a stance). But my love hate relationship with the idea does mean that as an anthropologist I remain fascinated by any debate about it.

  7. Is anthropology with or without empathy?

    Two of my favorite anthropological texts—Worker in the Cane and Freedom in Fulani Social Life— are very empathetic, so I would certainly say that anthropology can be empathetic. I just don’t think that anthropology necessarily should be empathetic. First of all, it just doesn’t come naturally to some people. Everyone can become better at it, but most people are never going to be Paul Reisman. Secondly, there should be reasonable expectations for how long it is going to take to understand the emotional models and affective economy of somewhere new. Two summers and a year are unlikely to get you there.

    Having said all of the above, I realize that empathy is a relative trait. By my definition, the person who swerves a bit to avoid running over the turtle who is crossing the road isn’t being empathetic; the person who stops and helps the turtle across is.

  8. Reblogged this on Swift, like Shadows and commented:
    I dunno. I’m no fan of pop psychology, but I’m actually pretty happy to see *sympathy* put in ITS place. Sympathy, in my experience, and in the experience of Aaron Paquette, a First Nations author I follow, does tend to link pretty strongly to disconnection and ignoring the pain of others [1] while taking care of one’s own appearance to care – performing a caring-relationship and reaping the social benefits without doing the hard work of finding out what the other *needs* (in/on their terms). Sympathy feels great for the sympathizer, but it’s pretty one-sided and superficial. It doesn’t necessarily feel so great for the person being sympathized with. They might not be getting what they actually need out of the encounter.

    At the same time, to say empathy is just perspective-taking without judgement…I think is to have a pretty western conception of both empathy and perspective-taking itself: just ask the Arawete, the Runa, the Jivaro, and the Kayapo in Amazonia how they would feel about casually taking the perspective of another: to do that is pretty dangerous stuff – and taking a perspective entirely tends to be associated with your own subjective self *dying* in the process of taking that perspective. Intersubjectivity isn’t something done lightly in these peoples’ worlds, and it’s fraught with permeable boundaries that have to be continuously reconstituted, and too much ’empathy’ (in the sense of perspective-taking) can actually result in loss of human life.

    But maybe I’m accidentally knocking down the pop-psych position that empathy feels good, and knocking down their reasoning for knocking on sympathy, too. Here I was trying to support the position of knocking on sympathy.

    Let’s look at the west, for a second and I’ll try this again… one of the things I studied for my Master’s was a form of instrumentalized empathy used in self-defence class, and it involved a certain amount of perspective-taking. It was weird. I had a hard time seeing it as empathy, but that’s probably because I was still conflating empathy with sympathy: in self-defence, you take up the aggressor’s perspective just enough to understand what keeps an attack ticking over in their head, so as to find points at which you can interrupt their processes – in short, empathy was used for interpersonal intelligence-gathering. It didn’t feel good – although, we also trained explicitly to not get into sympathizing or caretaking for our aggressors, and we trained to get out of a situation before it escalated further, or before our sympathy could be snagged on, turned into a vulnerability.

    I’m not helping, am I?

    1. It’s Not That Bad – Empathy vs. Sympathy, Aaron Paquette

  9. I first heard the distinction between empathy and sympathy drawn as part of training to work as a volunteer counsellor on a telephone crisis counselling line. In that context it made a lot of sense. In the first place, as a telephone counsellor the help you are able to offer is very limited. There are no magic wands to wave, no piles of cash to tap, no emergency workers on call ready to go to the scene, even in life-threatening emergencies. About all you can do is create a safe space for people to vent and provide non-directive feedback that helps them come to grips themselves with the situation that occasions the call, which can be everything from not being able to find a Thanksgiving turkey or the way to a destination in an unfamiliar city to job loss, domestic violence or considering suicide. In the second place, empathy was profoundly connected with a process that therapists call “active listening,” whose basic steps are (1) silence, (2) minimal encourages, (3) reflecting feelings, (4) open-ended questions, (5) paraphrasing or other clarifiers, and only after listening for a long time (6) attempts at intuitive decoding — which are always instantly discarded if the caller says we’re wrong. This systematic process of building empathy is contrasted with sympathy conceived as a “poor little you” response that is frequently coupled with a desire to be helpful that is frustrated by the situation in which we find ourselves and can, thus, lead to disengagement and distancing, compassion fatigue and, ultimately, burnout, doing no good for anyone.

  10. The meaning of the word ’empathy’ has changed considerably, in several ways, since it was first used around 1904, and the 1904 meaning is completely different from the Upworthy/Buzzfeed/TED buzzword it has become. I’d say that the meaning of the word as defined in the cutesy video is pretty much identical to the meaning ‘sympathy’ used to have, but apparently no longer does (incidentally, the claim that empathy, in contrast to sympathy, means ‘feeling with’ is rather undone by the fact that sympathy really does mean ‘feeling with’).

    They’re both words and nothing more, and the fact that both words’ meanings have changed so much in a century makes discussion of their relative merits a little strange. But sympathy has always been a positive word in my book – I think of empathy as merely knowing what other people are feeling, while sympathy is knowing what other people are feeling and feeling the same thing, or doing something about it. Sympathy is the moral one. It’s possible for a rapist to be empathetic to his victims (isn’t that part of the thrill?), but it’s not possible for a rapist to be sympathetic. They wouldn’t be his victims if he were.

    I had a hard time seeing it as empathy, but that’s probably because I was still conflating empathy with sympathy: in self-defence, you take up the aggressor’s perspective just enough to understand what keeps an attack ticking over in their head

    That sums it up, I think.

    Ethnographers need to be empathetic in that they need to find out what is going on in the heads of the people whose lives they are studying. Archaeologists also need to be empathetic in that they need to do their best to infer, often solely from material remains, the mental lives of the people who left the remains behind. Whether this is profound, or moral, or superior to sympathy, seems moot. In each case, ’empathy’ is just a handy word to describe the basic presupposition of each method.

  11. @jennachiapas “As a lecturer in social work I must wrestle with empathy as a concept that I am supposed to ‘teach’ to my students”

    I find your struggles easy to relate as I have taught future teachers on occasion. I think this tension is precisely what fascinates me– that people in these fields without these abilities seem troubling, but teaching them ’empathy’ doesn’t work. To suspend judgment seems crucial, but the axe always falls.

    I had forgotten about Lather! I will dig her out.

  12. @Matthew T B

    “Two of my favorite anthropological texts—Worker in the Cane and Freedom in Fulani Social Life— are very empathetic, so I would certainly say that anthropology can be empathetic”

    I would agree- I love Pastoral Clinic for that very reason. My students always seem to love the books more capable of pulling them in– not sure if its empathy that they experience– but its a kind of relation, it other regarding and I never know what I make of it (even in my own case).

  13. I found the animation almost unwatchable. The meanings of words change over time. The word the author wants to use is not sympathy which is a broad term, but “pity”. It’s that word and its history that allowed Mother Theresa to say that the sufferings of the poor are God’s way of teaching the powerful the importance of pity. The doctrine is Gothic, literally. And pity in this context is a form of contempt.
    I’ve met a lot of Irish Catholic nurses. Their brand of intimacy with their patience gives me the creeps. And the politics is grotesque.

    On the rest, I have to argue as always against the bureaucratization of intellectual life, the arguments for false -pseudo- objectivity and neutrality that makes life easier by dumbing down, or numbing, our capacity for experience. I don’t blame Bourdieu for this, but I shouldn’t have to point out that he had the genius of a brilliant file clerk,a moralizing petit bourgeois.

    My favorite response going back 25 years is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, but any other tragedy will do, works made to short circuit the emotive responses of their viewers: sympathy, empathy, pity, voyeurism, judgment, moral condemnation: it’s all there in one package, true as life.

    1. Perspective taking, recognizing that someone else’s perspective is their truth.

    That would includes the truth of heroin addiction. And you can’t do it: that’s the contradiction that’s unavoidable.

    2. Staying out of judgment

    To avoid judgment is to pretend to avoid loyalty to your own perspective; to attempt to want to be a machine. Andy Warhol said he wanted that, but his art was about the attempt. not the fact.

    3. Recognizing emotion in other people and then communicating that

    Recognizing emotion is not having it. How do you acknowledge kinship, or equivalence, and otherness? To show respect is also to admit that you do not feel the pain of someone else’s terminal cancer, but that you will bear the responsibility for their care as they suffer.

    4. Feeling with people.

    The theater of concern is still theater.

    I wrote this 8 years ago, during the last week of my mother’s life.

    “There’s a difference between caring for someone, in the sense of emotional attachment, and being attentive to them, to their wishes or their pain. Pain itself is lonely and expressions of sympathy are often theater used to hide incomprehension and fear.
    I’m watching the old watch their friend die. They have become professionals at this. They are honest actors: the most aware both of the distances between people, and the similarity of their experience.”

    Seth Edenbaum

  14. I made it all the way through the animation. The choice she’s describing is between sympathy/empathy and indifference with a few words tacked on.

    Professional caregivers are battle-hardened, but the good ones are good at their jobs. Pity is one way to keep a distance.

    My mother died at home. The hospice worker who stayed up all night so that we could get some sleep was cool as a cucumber; she had the friendly smile of a hooker. She was gorgeous and she was a pro. Sex and death are intimate experience. She watched people die for a living. She was watchful and aware of our mother’s needs and we were grateful.

    I was at a bar and met an ER surgeon. She loved her job. I made my usual comments about nurses and added that surgeons have to acknowledge that they enjoy cutting people open.The high wire act is a rush. “You feel like a god, until you kill your first patient.” Her eyes widened and she looked at me, surprised. “You understand”.

    Moral responsibility is hard to describe because it’s hard.

  15. Likely its the linguistic anthropologist in me, but I am almost never satisfied with thinking of hot button terms as ‘just words’ . In the tomorrow’s post, I will try and take up what the term empathy has meant in primarily in western philosophy and then its transition to the dev psych crowd.

    I suppose my interests in empathy branch out in a few ways. First, I wonder what is being sought in ‘teaching’ empathy? Why a so called ’empathy deficit’ now? Next, to say that anthropologists should/need to be empathic makes a strange/impossible demand. We are drawn in to other regarding kinds of obligations, absolutely, and what those are and how they are sustained/broken is less clear. This happens not because someone once said “you should” but for other reasons. I think these knots of obligation may tell us about linkages and breaks between other regarding emotions and actions.

    The video seems relevant as anthropological debate because empathy (a la Brown) says “we are the same” whereas sympathy (again her version) says “your experience is fundamentally unlike mine”. Something is being presumed here about difference, understanding and morality.

  16. Stephen Greeenblatt argued in The Improvisition of Power that our modern sense of empathy comes out of the Renaissance and that it’s tied to the expansion of empire. Iago understands others’ weakness. Manipulators and con-men weren’t a product of the 15th and 16th centuries, but Machiavelli was.

    The lack of an understanding of empathy is an aspect of our fixation on predetermined ideas, data points and the logical manipulation of supposedly known quantities.
    Mathematics and formal logic are neat. It’s an engineers’ joke that an architect is someone who didn’t know enough math to become an engineer, but their clean fetish means the engineers skew towards the right when in comes to politics. See Gambetta and Hertog on engineers and terrorism.
    Platonism in the world is fascism. Democracy and moralism don’t mix.

    One the of great tropes and failures of Modernism was the engineered society; the new popular trope is the hot-house anarcho-capitalism of the market: if authoritarian communitarianism failed we now must be self-interested monads. In both, individual human beings are replaced with idealized representations. The only measure is the aggregate. But who’s the measurer, the new master of mediocrity?

    It makes life much less painful to see things simply. It would be a simpler world if all the conflicted emotions of Double Indemnity made no sense to the audience in the theater. It would be a simpler world if the surviving victims of a regime dedicated to creating an ethnically pure state did not themselves set out to create an ethnically pure state. It would be a simpler world if groups linked to both groups would not out of loyalty and guilt take the side of that new state, even as it created a sea of refugees who ironically enough, are genetically at least the closest kin to their new conquerers. It would be nice if this behavior given what we know about humanity, were not entirely predictable,

    It would be a simpler world if college professors were always on the forefront of political and moral progress, but they’re not. Mostly they play catch-up. Read Bourdieu on the importance of the leadership of intellectuals. He and those like him remain the arbiters.

    Once something becomes articulated as an idea, a named specific thing, the thig itself has been around for a while. Outside of purely technical activities, there are few “discoveries” in intellectual life. Mostly its the articulation of tendencies that already exist. Practice precedes theory; the fact of bureaucracy spawns arguments in its defense.

    Pico Ayer has a nice piece in the NYRB Blog.

    –The beauty of Proust is that he ventures into the farthest reaches of self-investigation and reflection on subjectivity, but brings his understandings back into language and archetypal episodes that anyone can follow. “So long as you distract your mind from its dreams,” the painter Elstir tells the narrator at one point, “it will not know them for what they are; you will always be being taken in by the appearance of things, because you will not have grasped their true nature.”–

    If you don’t understand your own preferences, your own habits, your own weaknesses, your own innate conservatism, you’ll end up confusing your supposed concern for others with concern for yourself. And those others will notice it.

    If Proust was an observer and a connoisseur he was also a diagnostician. A diagnostician is a connoisseur by definition. Jerome Groopman explains why doctors need to examine patients themselves, not just look at the charts. Measuring as a human being with all the moral weight that applies to that term means measuring in the finest detail you’re capable of, not by a yardstick they gave you in grad school. Life is a continuum; we break it up into categories in order to function. It’s the mistake of Modernism that the biggest generalizations are the most important because they’re the most universal. But being the biggest makes them the most banal. Masters of ideas are masters of bureaucracy. We need a return of connoisseurship because we need to become better diagnosticians of ourselves and others.

    Sorry for the second rant. I have a manuscript of Sahlins’ desk, recommended by the editor of U Chicago Press. I’m spending my days pacing. I don’t want to go on Craigslist looking for carpentry jobs any more. I’ve got 20 years to go till I can dig into my parents TIAA-CREF accounts and I have to pay the rent. One little book, a succès de scandale, and I’ll be able to take my show on the road. I’ve been making this argument for 25 years. Maybe. Just maybe, some respect. For once.

    And the woman who did the animation should spend more time with Miyazake, whose depictions of empathy are as powerful as they are because even with all the stock effects of studio animation, they’re detailed and specific. The sense of intimacy we feel is the result of great artifice.

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