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The Anthropology of Empathy

The Anthropology of Empathy: Experiencing the Lives of Others in Pacific Societies

Douglas W. Hollan
C. Jason Throop
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 252
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  • Book Info
    The Anthropology of Empathy
    Book Description:

    Exploring the role of empathy in a variety of Pacific societies, this book is at the forefront of the latest anthropological research on empathy. It presents distinct articulations of many assumptions of contemporary philosophical, neurobiological, and social scientific treatments of the topic. The variations described in this book do not necessarily preclude the possibility of shared existential, biological, and social influences that give empathy a distinctly human cast, but they do provide an important ethnographic lens through which to examine the possibilities and limits of empathy in any given community of practice.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-103-3
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. [Map]
    (pp. x-xii)
  5. The Anthropology of Empathy: Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    After a period of relative academic neglect, empathy has been “rediscovered” (Stueber 2006) in a number of fields, including philosophy (Kögler and Stueber 2000), medicine (Halpern 2001), evolutionary science (de Waal 2009), neuroscience (Decety and Ickes 2009), psychology (Farrow and Woodruff 2007), and psychoanalysis (Bohart and Greenberg 1997). This newfound interest and enthusiasm has in significant part been fueled by the recent discovery of “mirror” neurons in the brain, those motor neurons that fire, without causing movement, merely upon observation of another’s actions, in a mirror-like, imitative way (Iacoboni 2008). The discovery of this previously unimagined and remarkable capacity to...

  6. Part I. History and Fieldwork as Lenses on Empathy

    • 1 Empathy, Ethnicity, and the Self among the Banabans in Fiji
      (pp. 25-41)

      This chapter will focus on the culturally specific conceptualization of empathy among the Banabans, a people originally from west-central Oceania (“Micronesia”) who have been living in Fiji since 1945. In my representation of how they conceptualize empathy, I will explore in particular their emotion discourses on compassion and pity (deeming the latter to have a religious dimension), since these are central components of the empathy concept they deploy. This does not mean that the Banabans associate empathy only with feeling and not with thinking. The Banabans do not, in fact, separate feeling and thinking to the extent found in certain...

    • 2 The Boundaries of Personhood, the Problem of Empathy, and “the Native’s Point of View” in the Outer Islands
      (pp. 43-66)

      The core paradox of anthropological epistemology, method, and representation remains the human inability to experience full empathy with another person. This paradox comes into sharpest relief in ethnographic encounters that pose dramatic challenges to identification, imagination, and understanding among persons whose ways of making sense of the world differ radically.

      Intersubjective understanding has held a privileged position in anthropology since the publication of Malinowski’s first book on the Trobriand Islands (1922). Malinowski, Geertz (1983), and many others justifiably position such understanding at the core of modern ethnographic method (e.g., Gottlieb 2004; Kracke 1987, 1994). So how can I meaningfully imagine...

  7. Part II. Universal and Particular Aspects of Empathy

    • 3 Empathy and “As-If” Attachment in Samoa
      (pp. 69-93)

      Please don’t just yet look further down the page. First, try to imagine empathy as a figure.

      I see mother images: first a woman holding an infant and gazing into its eyes and then, with her arms wide open, making a space for a child to run to; next, I see a Madonna holding the corpse of Christ. An American male friend I asked saw two women, one head bowed in sorrow, the other “facing the camera” but also sad. Another man saw his much younger wife. That wife saw her dog and the Venus de Milo but with arms,...

    • 4 Empathic Perception and Imagination among the Asabano: Lessons for Anthropology
      (pp. 95-116)

      Empathy, an ability to mirror others while retaining one’s own identity, is a deeply important phenomenon for anthropology for at least three reasons. First, empathy is a human specialty. This is evident in the fact that human reliance upon culture requires social intelligence; in order to copy behaviors and attitudes, one must be able to represent what others think and feel. Empathy is thus essential for effective sociality, for enculturation, for linguistic communication, and for theorizing about and knowing one another. Empathy has a demonstrable biological foundation and a deep prehistory in the hominid line. Second, empathy is modeled and...

  8. Part III. Personhood, Morality, and Empathy

    • 5 Suffering, Empathy, and Ethical Modalities of Being in Yap (Waqab), Federated States of Micronesia
      (pp. 119-149)

      In this chapter I will explore the complex ways that empathy is configured in Yapese understandings of subjectivity, social action, and morality.¹ Drawing from research I have conducted on the personal, cultural, and moral significance of pain and suffering on Yap, I will seek to detail the various levels at which differing, at times conflicting, understandings of empathy are implicated in Yapese social life. This will include: (1) outlining local understandings of subjectivity in which the virtue of self-governance is cultivated in the service of privacy, concealment, and secrecy; (2) examining the various communicative strategies regularly employed to foster ambiguity...

    • 6 Do Anutans Empathize? Morality, Compassion, and Opacity of Other Minds
      (pp. 151-167)

      My interest in empathy as a topic for ethnographic investigation flows from a career-long involvement with Anuta, a Polynesian community in the Solomon Islands. During my initial fieldwork close to forty years ago, I was struck by the importance Anutans attach toaropa, the local version of a pan-Polynesian term. Anutans explained much of their behavior in terms ofaropa. They spoke of it in church and on occasions of ceremonial exchange. It lies at the heart of their notions of kinship, and it has occupied a prominent position in many of my ethnographic publications.¹

      Familiar variants ofaropainclude...

    • 7 Bosmun Foodways: Emotional Reasoning in a Papua New Guinea Lifeworld
      (pp. 169-192)

      In this chapter, I shall investigate the realm of empathy or “emotional reasoning” (Halpern 2001: 11) among the Bosmun, a sociocultural and linguistic group of northeast Papua New Guinea (PNG). Empathy is a specific way in which emotional sensitivity is applied to comprehend intersubjective processes created through interpersonal encounters. Central to the notion of empathy is the idea of being able to grasp the “subjective experience of another from a quasi-first person perspective” (Hollan and Throop 2008: 387). Several Pacific societies consider the achievement of such a “quasi-first person perspective” impossible (see Feinberg; Lepowsky; Lohmann; Mageo; Throop, all in this...

  9. Part IV. Vicissitudes of Empathy

    • 8 Vicissitudes of “Empathy” in a Rural Toraja Village
      (pp. 195-214)

      Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionarydefines empathy as, “1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it 2: the capacity for participating in another’s feelings or ideas.” Note that the first part of this definition does not distinguish clearly between empathy as anaccurateassessment of another’s feelings or ideas, and projection per se, which I would define as the attribution of one’s own feelings or ideas to another, whether those attributions match up well with the other’s feelings and ideas or not. Since I believe the distinction...

  10. Empathy and Anthropology: An Afterword
    (pp. 215-224)

    In a recent feature story in theTimes Higher Education Supplemententitled “The Great Divide,” Hannah Fearn (2008) declares that

    Today, anthropology is at war with itself. The discipline has divided into two schools of thought—the social anthropologists and the evolutionary anthropologists…. Put crudely, social anthropologists describe and compare the development of human cultures and societies, while evolutionary anthropologists seek to explain it by reference to our biological evolution.

    Not the least of this collection’s virtues is that, if there is such a war going on, the contributors have apparently not heard about it. All of them seem to...

  11. Notes on the Contributors
    (pp. 225-226)
  12. Index
    (pp. 227-233)