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Developing empathy and understanding with ethnography

The political divide in the United States has been a stark reminder of how people can experience and interpret the world in very different ways. No matter what side you are on, it can be hard to see where the other side is coming from, what they’re feeling, and what drives them to think and do what they do. Developing this sort of empathy is essential to ethnography and to each part of our research process. We need empathy to ensure that we gather data that is deep and trustworthy. We need empathy to help us organize and sort that data in a way that accurately reflects the experiences and viewpoints of our participants. We need empathy to hold ourselves and our clients accountable and grounded during the reporting phases of our work. Still, maintaining empathy is sometimes easier said than done. Although most of the time we can connect with people and their stories right away, sometimes we just can’t relate to their experiences and viewpoints. Let’s explore some ways that ethnographers can develop empathy and understanding, especially in contexts where those might be hard to come by.

History, physical space, and relationships

Spending time with people is obviously the first step for ethnographers. Developing empathy is typically just a matter of really listening and hanging out with participants, trying to walk in their shoes as much as we can. Usually this goes a long way towards gaining insight into their perspectives. Even if it isn’t directly related to what we’re studying, investing time to learn a little bit about where they come from and about the context of their daily life pays dividends in helping us walk away with an empathetically grounded understanding of our research topic.

Touring a participant’s home or workspace provides another great opportunity to build empathy. Going room to room, sharing stories about their recent purchases and favorite belongings, there’s a good chance that we will run into something that will help us understand what their life is like and what’s really important to them.

We also try to involve our participants’ friends and families in the process whenever we can. They may show a different side of themselves when they’re playing with their kids or when they’re talking shop with a colleague. This can help us see them in a whole new light. People play many different roles in their lives, and the more roles we can observe, the more complete our understanding will be.

Public discourse, media, and marketing

We can also build empathy if we step back and look at the impact of the larger cultural context on our participants’ attitudes and actions. Macro sources of behaviors and beliefs are often ignored, but they can be quite powerful in molding and shaping individuals. Tracing the influences of marketing messages, information sources, government systems, religious structures, and social media all help us gain a better understanding of who our participants are.

We usually do this through “contextual mapping.” This means we examine how what we’re studying is represented in public discourse. If we want to understand cat owners, for example, we’ll dive into social media to see how cat care is discussed. We’ll survey ads about cat care, looking at the messages they convey and the symbols they use. We’ll explore the world of cat care influencers, like Jackson Galaxy, to see what they’re teaching others. We’ll also watch lots of cute cat videos just for the heck of it, but the goal is to understand how all of this background noise impacts and shapes people with cats in their lives. Contextual mapping would help even the most die-hard “dog person” empathize with their cat-loving neighbors.

Colleagues and theory

When we’re having trouble getting our heads around what’s going on with our participants, sometimes it helps to get another perspective. Getting a colleague’s input is great. Sometimes we need someone else to remind us to be more empathetic and to stop letting our own baggage get in the way. Social science theory also helps us reposition our thinking and see our data and our participants from a different angle. As odd as it may seem, reading theory can even help when the theory has nothing to do with the research topic. You can read Foucault when you’re studying paper towels, and it still might spark a big idea. Theory is an ethnographer’s yoga—it resets your mind and leads you straight towards empathy and enlightenment.

Induction and reflexivity

A good ethnographer is always working inductively, but sometimes we put the cart before the horse and start making assumptions. This can prevent us from developing empathy and getting at the heart of what’s going on with our data. If this happens, we need to take a deep breath and brush off those assumptions as quickly as we can.

The whole process requires self-reflection. When what someone thinks or does seems a little confusing, we try to remind ourselves that our thoughts or actions would probably be just as confusing to them. If we continue to have trouble understanding someone’s behaviors or motives, there’s a decent chance that we might be our own roadblock; a prejudice of one sort or another might be standing in our way. It helps to take an inventory of our own beliefs and practices, being critical of their origins and how they shape our viewpoints. This is a key step in developing empathy. If we want to walk in the shoes of the people we’re trying to learn from, we’ve got to take our own shoes off first.

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