What is Empathy?
The story of ethnography is like the story of Adam and Eve. We bit into the textual apple of the tree of the knowledge of experience and rhetoric, and now there is no going back…
Broadly speaking, empathy is the ability to share in another’s emotions and feelings. It is not, however, as it tends to be defined in Webster’s dictionary, a matter of projecting one’s own personality into the personality of another to understand him or her better. More frequently, the reverse is the case. Empathy has to do with the projection, in the sense of impact, of the other’s personality and culture on one’s own. The other’s personality and culture create a happening in the open-minded or receptive researcher that requires thoughtful exploration…
The meaning of empathy is in fact more complex than that given above. It is also more than the expectation that the anthropologist be “an unmitigated nice guy” with “extraordinary sensibility, an almost preternatural capacity to think, feel and perceive like a native,” as Geertz would have it (1983:56). And while I would contend that field work is a journey of discovery, it is not quite the quest story as satirized and dismissed by Geertz (1988:44–45). Let us look at empathy more closely.
According to T. Lipps (1851–1914), empathy assumes a common humanity. This assumption is quite the opposite of that of reflexivity which depends on cultural differences and distance (even when none exist or are of minor importance) and is concerned with intersubjective meaning.
Empathetic researchers can experience themselves, in some manner, in the other’s experiences and vice versa. As I converse or interact with the other, the other and/or I will recognize things in accord with our respective inclinations and needs.
It is not the case, as is often assumed, that experiencing oneself in the other’s experiences and vice versa makes for identity. Nor is it the case that the experience is necessarily positive to be empathetic.
Lipps distinguished between positive empathy or pleasure and negative empathy or pain. Positive empathy refers to agreement between the stimulus derived from interaction with the other and one’s inner activity. Negative empathy occurs when the suggestions implied in the interaction conflict with one’s inner self. “Inner activity” or “inner self” refer to the complex activity which involves thought, feeling, intuition, sensation, imagination, and suspected or unsuspected attitudes. In other words, we use all human faculties to make sense of other (and self) and then translate these into written, oral, or visual media—if that is what we want to do.
[Reference: Poewe 2018: 304-307]