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. When I was working on my dissertation, I had all the usual writing woes around the politics of representation. Pile those on top of that concerns for narrative and style and you have a perfect storm for paralysis. I took my fears to weekly writing workshops with fiction writers. I floated my ‘scenes’ to the group to see how, or if, they were working.

A bit of back-story may help here. My work is based in a multi-ethnic community in the Northwest Territories. My writing is primarily about how the town’s residents, indigenous and not, understood the boom and bust of the Canadian diamond industry (2007-2009). The industry doubled the region’s per capita GDP in very short time. However this growth and decline were not evenly experienced by residents. Race, gender and citizenship came to configure how uneven development was experienced, often in ways that Aboriginal-Settler binary can’t account for. I use equal parts history and ethnography to show how social harms come to pass in resource rich regions, and how people make meaning in the face of everyday difficulties.

One thing that struck me in my time in the writers’ group was that no matter how hard I tried to paint pictures that revealed structural elements of my interlocutors’ distress, readers would be drawn to individuals’ stories. After reading my work, they would give their feedback and usually conclude with something like, “It’s so sad for them.” Then there would be a kind of outrage of the “something-must-be- done!” variety. Some of this was my writing (I do have a penchant for dark drama), yet some of it was a reflection of the structures of expectation that are built up around Indigeneity in Canada. Here, as in other liberal-settler states, concerns about Indigenous populations and their injuries are touchstones for settler national identity (same can be said in Australia, see work by G. Cowlishaw, T. Lea and E/B. Povinelli to this effect).

The reactions of my writing mates troubled me. I was concerned I had rendered the people I work with proper objects of empathy. And as Didier Fassin and others have shown, there are insidious effects of these affective politics—or, as Tania Li has called them, “make live” projects. My dissertation was a case study in this very point. In Canadian public culture, eclipsing the everyday to spotlight difference and inequality actually comes to fuel resource development. More plainly put, Aboriginal social suffering enlivens development even as it threatens to undermine it. If there is a shadow side of empathy, then Indigenous-state relations in Canada are akin to a lunar eclipse.

Ethnographic writing has the capacity to elicit emotion. That is precisely why I turned to anthropology from Sociology/Linguistics. Anthropological writing registers truths in subtle and poignant ways, yet few of us would say we aim to elicit sympathy from our readers. However, the presentation of “real people doing real things” in writing seems to allow for emotional lives of texts that defy our intentions. The tendency for humanistic writing to elicit empathy (at least on the part of Canadian readers) leaves me (and my writing) in a bit of a lurch. Perhaps then, I should continue to think about ethnography of empathic regard? What say you Savage Minds?

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

3 thoughts on “Empathy, Obligation and Ethnographic Writing

  1. I’ve been following Lindsay Bell’s posts on empathy, but have just had the chance to comment. So, I’ll just sum up my thoughts here.

    First of all, as someone who had the opportunity to pursue field research aside from undergrad studies, I, too, hold the belief that ethnographic writing and research presents a possibility of connecting with the subjective realities of people and communities.

    Personally, I have my reservations about empathy and the care industry, and in this regard, I see empathy as a useful analytical tool, not so much to “humanize” the subject, but to think through their subjective positions, to be critical of systems that produce marginalization.

    Let me illustrate this:

    During my undergrad studies, we had a course titled ‘Anthropology of the Marginalized’, which looked at developing an anthropology specifically suited to conceptualize the realities of communities like Dalits, lower castes, denotified tribes and communities, women, and so on. And this actually involved a critical appraisal of the discourse these communities produce in their everyday (and even long term) struggles – against various dominant and hegemonic groups.

    Secondly, as my work involved working on AIDS interventions in Mumbai, I also interacted with several HIV-positive people and the networks they formed with other civil society organisations. Other groups – like migrants, sex workers etc – are perceived by govt. agencies to be “at risk”, leading to an erasure of their vulnerability of being infected by HIV/AIDS. In my fieldwork, I was very conscious to ensure that the symbolic and real struggles of these people should be at the forefront of interventions, and not just numbers of individual tested at these sites.

    Thus, as an anthropologist, my engagement with my work on AIDS, and reviewing Dalit literature, or the Feminist movements the world across, actually meant a “critical empathy” with, for the lack of a better term, such subaltern political questions. A brief mention of Subaltern Studies is in the order here, since they did embark on such a project. Although it’s unfeasible to discuss their relevance and criticisms, I think they did make nascent efforts in this regard (although I cannot recollect if “empathy”, as such, featured in their writings).

    Critical empathy, for me, meant being critical of my own position of privilege – as a higher caste, economically well-off, heterosexual male – and the system that confers such privilege and dominance over social groups. This meant, being critical of the state, of “mainstream” politics, and even, the contours of marginalization within such subaltern spaces (e.g., women’s marginalization in AIDS, or questions of religion, or caste in lower class struggles over space).

    In conclusion, my two bit to this discussion to empathy would be to recognise it at a conscious, political act of examing structures of privilege, hegemony, and domination. And which is also why I think it is important for anthropological research.


  2. a conscious, political act of examing structures of privilege, hegemony, and domination.

    Self-criticism may be useful in breaking through the blinders that privilege imposes. But is it empathy? To me this description seems altogether too self-regarding, too focused on me, the observer, instead of the other whose thoughts and feelings empathy seeks to understand. I recall a talk by a South Asian woman at a time when a telephone crisis line received frequent calls from South Asian workers, either looking for jobs or engaged in labor disputes with Japanese bosses. She reminded us that anyone who had managed to make their way to Japan in search of work was more likely to be a smart and capable adult than an infantile victim of circumstance. They might be stuck or down on their luck, but we could do nothing useful for them if we allowed ourselves to be overwhelmed by our own feelings of helplessness when confronted with their appeals for assistance.

  3. My colleague Douglas Hollan and I have been working to engage a number of the issues covered in Bell’s provocative posts and the related comments. For those who are interested, I would recommend checking out the following articles (which also cover the history of the concept and the links between Einfühlung and empathy in Lipps, Titchener, Husserl, et al.)

    Hollan, D.W. and C.J. Throop (Eds.) 2011. The Anthropology of Empathy: Experiencing the Lives of Others in Pacific Societies. Oxford: Berghahn.

    Throop, C.J. 2012 “On the Varieties of Empathic Experience: Tactility, Mental Opacity, and Pain in Yap. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 26(3): 408-430.

    Throop, C.J. 2010. “Latitudes of Loss: On the Vicissitudes of Empathy.” American Ethnologist 37(4): 771-782.

    Hollan, D. and C.J. Throop. 2008. “Whatever Happened to Empathy?” Ethos. 36(4): 385-401.

    Throop, C.J. and D. Hollan. (Eds). Whatever Happened to Empathy? Special Issue of Ethos. 36(4).

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