Monday

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.

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