Walking a mile in others' shoes

An article at today’s Toronto Star called my attention for its illustration: two chimpanzees sitting together. Their gestures and postures are so ostensibly human that I couldn’t avoid reading the scene as an intimate talk between two old friends. While one of them is sad, maybe hopeless, the other one is looking at his “friend’s” face, smiling and leaning toward him. A hug wouldn’t do better.
The article mentions a study on the way chimpanzees deal with conflicts and consolation. That’s to illustrate that even our ancestors are able to express something we may be lacking: empathy. Douglas LaBier, psychotherapist, business psychologist and researcher, explains what empathy really means in a Washington Post article:

“Unlike sympathy -- which reflects understanding of another person's situation,
but viewed through your own lens -- empathy is what you feel when you enter the
internal world of another person. Without abandoning your own perspective, you
experience the other's emotions, conflicts or aspirations.”

He defends that “empathy deficit disorder” (EDD) develops when people pay too much attention to themselves, focusing too much on acquiring money, power, status, and feeling completely disconnected from other people’s (even close people like spouses, family members and friends’) issues. Luckily, LaBier says, empathy can be developed, regained, learnt.
Apart from the controversy (some say it’s just another label to turn what may be an ordinary emotion or state of mind into a disease) I see an interesting overlap between LaBier’d definition of empathy and my understanding of participation in ethnographic research.
Again: “Empathy is what you feel when you enter the internal world of another person. Without abandoning your own perspective, you experience the other's emotions, conflicts or aspirations.”
Isn’t this what we should strive for when doing fieldwork? Most researchers feel that talking, eating, dressing, and acting like the members of the group being studied will help to develop empathy. Maybe empathy is what determines the difference between the good and the poor participant observation, not so much the length of the fieldwork or the number of informants one has. Any other thoughts?

PS: I know it seems that everything to be said about “Sex and the city – the movie” was already said, but let me give my two cents on this: I always envied their friendship – that was the most amazing thing on the series to me. However, I think the movie stretches their friendship to a point that it becomes unnatural. The characters are too empathetic! When the four are together, it seems there’s no space to self-absorption, it’s everything about the one who is in most need. And because this is not “Carrie: The movie”, each one has the right to become the center of the others’ attention for the same amount of time, but that’s something we’ll hardly get in real friendships.


Here comes an explanation

People are doing crazy things everywhere: pillow fights in Toronto; bubble battles in New York; a gathering of 111 shirtless men in an Abercrombie and Fitch store; all sorts of flashmobs, and the already "classic" free-hugging.

I find all these manifestations great: they're funny and provocative - they make people laugh and escape routine. Besides, they are and secretly organized on the internet but happen at carefully chosen physical places. However, I can’t really understand what they doing, or why they are doing it. Some say it is art, some say it is creative protest. I was forcing myself to accept the thought that there’s no good explanation for these seemingly random acts. And then Clay Shirky comes with the idea of a “cognitive surplus”. The recognition obtained by his book “Here comes everybody” motivated him to a series of talks. You can read the transcript of his talk here
or watch the video here .
In this talk, Shirky tells us about an interview he gave to a TV producer. He describes to her the way people contribute to wikipedia to give her a better idea of what his book is about:

"So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to have a
conversation about authority or social construction or whatever." That wasn't
her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, "Where do
people find the time?" That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I
said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time
comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50

So we know some of this free time comes from people reducing their amount of TV watching. But Shirky defends that we still don’t know what to do with this cognitive surplus:

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't
know what to do with it at first--hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if
people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social
institutions, then it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no
one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting
with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that
integration can transform society.
And - oh! I think - maybe these young people organizing and taking part in all these subway parties, frozen mobs, Matt’s dances, naked bike rides and similar stuff are just trying to do something with their excess of free time and thought. Maybe they are acting accordingly to the general principle “It's better to do something than to do nothing”. Maybe they’re so tired of TV and are trying to figure out a better way to spend their time…
The point here is that all these activities have implications to marketers and organizations in general. That’s why Shirky’s book has been so commented on the blogosphere. I’m just starting a research project with two of my colleagues – one interested in public spaces and the other wanting to study the Critical Mass rides. We hope to have interesting things to say about people’s motivations to take part on these movements and their impacts for marketers and consumer researchers.


Memorial note

Ruth Cardoso had a remarkable academic life. She was one of the first Brazilian academics to understand the emergence of social forces such as feminism; ethnic-, racial- and sexual-oriented movements. Until the decade of 70, Brazilian academy felt that these movements did not have status to deserve the attention of university researchers, but Ruth already called them "new social movements".
Her academic career was marked by innovation. In the mid-50’s, when the topic was still very rare and distant, she studied the Japanese immigration to Sao Paulo and turned her research into a dissertation. When the philosophers Jean Paul Sartre and his wife Simone de Beauvoir came to Sao Paulo in 1960, in the first row of the academic audience there was a couple of prominent teachers of USP - Fernando Henrique and Ruth Cardoso.
After the 1964 military coup, she faced exile along with her husband Fernando Henrique. In Chile, while her husband worked in the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), she was a professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), which received students from many countries. Back to Brazil, she founded the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), one of the most important institutions for social research in the country. In the early 80's, while Fernando Henrique was involved in the political adventure that would lead him to the Senate and later to the presidency of the Republic (1995-2002), Ruth focused even more in her academic life. She set up the first team to research social movements, when the non-governmental organizations were still unknown.
She had a USP doctorate degree and had a post-doc. degree by Columbia University, USA. She was a president of the advisory council to the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) on Women and Development and member of the board of directors of the ILO (International Labour Organization) on Social Dimensions of Globalization.
She died yesterday night, at age 77, in her home in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She was the best First Lady my country ever had and I liked her so much :(

Fat Acceptance

One of the contexts I’m immersed into is the “fatosphere”. The fatosphere is a set of blogs dedicated to Fat Acceptance or related themes. According to the participants/activists, the fatosphere is "a loosely interconnected network of individual blogs, homepages and activism sites conceived with the purpose of countering weight-based discrimination through challenging social and medical misconceptions about fat people”.
Fat Acceptance (FA) is a cause that has mobilized a great number of individuals in the United States and the United Kingdom. Through the internet, the movement against the discrimination of fat people has started to spread all over the world. The movement’s origins can be traced back to the creation of the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA), which remains the largest fat acceptance organization in the world. Founded in 1969 by William Fabrey, NAAFA’s mission was to provide emotional and legal support to fat people within an increasingly discriminatory and fat-intolerant society. The acronym now stands for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, indicating that the association now advocates the acceptance of fat people as a class.
The ideas related to the Fat Acceptance movement have been spread around at weblogs dedicated to the topic. Activists use their blogs to gain self-expression, to denounce the un-natural origin of cultural assumptions about fat people, to find and offer support in escaping the oppressive obligation of being thin, and to invite society to question many of its assumptions about fat people. The number of blogs dedicated to Fat Acceptance and the intensity of their activity has been noticed by the media. Several articles on the topic have been published in journals and magazines, and some TV shows offered space for FA activists to debate their causes with opponents of the movement. Some bloggers are organizing a face-to-face coalition. However, the core of the conversations around FA is still on the internet and the actions of the members of the FA movement can be characterized as cyberactivism – that’s the theory I am drawing on to understand all the information generated by these bloggers and their readers.

Last week, Joy Nash, one of the most popular activists for the movement, released a new video. The “Staircase Wit” will give you an idea of what the movement is about.

My first study focused on the way market offers are reframed by cyberactivists to promote cultural transformation. I used a rhetorical analysis approach and came up with a continuum of intended change and the respective rhetorical strategies employed by bloggers to promote change in their audiences. Now I am working with my professor Eileen Fischer in a new study that will evaluate the way persuasion knowledge is activated in these blogs.
My participation in this context has been timid – I am still more like a lurker. However, the effects of this intense reading on my personal attitude about fat, fat people, and even about my own body have been impressive. Overall, their message is positive; their writing is inspired, their ideas are provocative, and at least one of their arguments is broad enough to touch anyone`s heart: No one should be discriminated by his/her appearance.

The beginning

My husband is a fan of “spaghetti western” movies. I like the simplicity of the plots and the dusty scenarios too. But I just got into the genre after watching “The good, the bad, and the ugly” (1966). This is the last movie of a trilogy by the Italian director Sergio Leone (You may want to listen to the movie's awesome theme song as you keep reading this post). A young and charming Clint Eastwood is the taciturn Blondie, a “good” loner who has a hunter (the bad Angel Eyes) and a Mexican bandit (the ugly Tuco) as rivals. The irony is that Blondie is not exactly the portrait of a good man – he does whatever it takes to have his gold. Leone claims that "In pursuit of profit there is no such thing as good and evil, generosity or deviousness; everything depends on chance, and not the best wins but the luckiest."
This has very little to do with academic research, marketing, consumer culture and popular technology – the topics this blog intends to address. I just like the title and it seems an appropriate metaphor to the ambiguity of our roles as academic researchers moving between corporate and consumer issues. Who’s the Good in this plot? Who’s the Bad? Is the Good any better than the Bad? It’s not on me to label, classify, and judge – I will just describe, understand, interpret, and explain – I’m not bad, not good, I’m the researcher.

PS: It really seems to me that in real life, the one who’s smarter and shoots faster wins.

Other Sources: NYTimes Best 1,000 movies ever made