Quoting Burbank on Empathy and Ethnographic Methods


‘Though she disavows a complete dismissal of the psychobiology of human emotionality, Lutz casts emotions as “preeminently” cultural (5); emotion words provide “an index to a world of cultural premises and scenarios for social interaction” (210). Here emotions become cognitions in the commonsense meaning of the term, cognitions about self and social interaction. Thus, it is not surprising that Lutz sets empathy aside, in favour of translation. Empathy is not particularly useful because emotions are not, as she puts it, “universal, nature and precultural” (42). She agrees with Rosaldo (1984) that the fieldworker can draw upon prior interpersonal, and by definition, emotional relationships, “to create a shared emotional understanding” (217). But empathy doesn’t get us very far because emotions are really about relationships and “The ethnographer’s position in the field would often seem to prevent the full development of the central conditions necessary for emotional understanding which is a shared social position, and hence a shared moral and emotional point of view” (217).


Hollan and Throop (2008) remind us of a long-held anthropological suspicion of empathy as a research tool. I think, however we should ask if Lutz was only thinking when she felt surprise. To my eyes she has clearly used her own feelings – an important step in evaluating the validity of one’s resonance with another (Kirmayer 2008) – to great effect in producing what might be described as a “preeminently” empathetic treatment of emotional life on Ifaluk. Following her example, though counter to her methodological position, I count empathy as an important tool in my research, which is not, of course, to claim a perfect accord with any person at Numbulwar.


In a major Western philosophical tradition, empathy has been recast as einfuhlung (feeling into), “as a process of involuntary, inner imitation whereby a subject identifies through feeling with the movement of another body” (219). Einfuhlung is contrasted with verstehen, understanding. Understanding according to this contrast “is reflective, empathy is prereflective” (Makkreel 1995). I, however, prefer the definition of Fenichel in his work The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neuroses (1945): “Empathy consists of two acts: a) an identification with the other person, and b) an awareness of one’s own feelings after the identification, and in this way an awareness of the object’s feelings (511).


Recent neural imaging research indicates that entering into the thinking and feeling states of others – abilities most humans are believed to have from their early years, if not days, onward – draws on separate neural structures. Nevertheless, it is thought that an account of many empathetic experiences requires an account of both forms of brain activity – activity that in this literature is referred to respectively as “mentalising” and empathy” – as these activities are assumed to interact (Singer 2006).


The greater accord of Fenichel’s postulation of the near identity of thinking and feeling with current findings in neuroscience encourages me to think of empathy as the capacity to imagine/feel what another is feeling, yet know at the same time that one is not feeling what another is feeling. It also requires me to include translation as an inseparable part of empathetic ethnography.


One day, TeeJay, an adolescent girl, accompanied by her younger sister Brady, entered my flat with the words, “Auntie, I just threw up, because I’m not used to walking in the hot sun.” Once seated, a glass of cold water in hand, she continued:


Yesterday I got a phone call on my mobile, from [TeeJay’s aunt] in Darwin. And I could hear near her [her husband] growling. He was angry. He want the truck, red one, got the bull catcher, gonna come and pickem up, bring him back here to Numbulwar [probably for a funeral]. He was mad. He was saying he would call the police if they didn’t com and pick him up [ … ]  ’


~ Victoria Burbank 2011, An Ethnography of Stress: The Social Determinants of Health in Aboriginal Australia, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp. 16-18.



Filed under Anthropological Awesome, Anthropology, Ethnography

4 responses to “Quoting Burbank on Empathy and Ethnographic Methods

  1. Marcoiac

    Lots of interesting issues raised here. I’ll comment only on a couple of them, to avoid making a comment longer than the post itself!

    In the empathy literature there are many definitions of empathy. Hard to say which is the best one. Obviously, the definition of empathy adopted by the scholar/researcher influences the work/conclusion. I like to think that empathy is such a complex thing that all definitions apply. It really depends on the context. The real issue is that nobody has ever even tried (to my limited knowledge, at least) to propose a taxonomy of empathy, an inclusive classification of the different observable forms of empathy. I think that having such a framework would be highly beneficial to discussions about empathy.

    The reflective/pre-reflective dichotomy is misleading, in my opinion. Of course there is a pre-reflective level and a reflective one. If we think in terms of levels, we realize that the pre-reflective level is the foundation of the reflective one. Often the literature, and this passage seems to hint the same kind of approach, casts the issue as reflective and pre-reflective are two separate modules. They may interact, as the quote suggests, but they are fundamentally different. I don’t think so. I think the reflective level is grounded onto the pre-reflective one. 

    Most neuro imaging studies have been designed to look for differences between the reflective and pre-reflective systems (BTW, mirror neurons definitely belong to the pre-reflective level). I think this creates an ‘artifact’ of sorts, such that the literature emphasizes differences and largely neglects similarities. 

    I like to think more in terms of evolutionary trajectories and situation demands. The pre-reflective level came online earlier (duh!) and is sufficient in many situations. The reflective level came online later on, and must have used some of the structures/functions used by the pre-reflective one. Critically, the reflective level gets activated when the pre-reflective one is no longer sufficient to cope with a complex scenario that requires a more sophisticated form of empathizing.

  2. Thanks for such interesting thoughts and comments. The non-anthropological literature on empathy is very much beyond me and not something I have read into much at all (save those scholars like Victoria who write at the intersection of neuroscience and anthropology).

    I must say though, a taxonomy of empathy – what a project that would be – and what a fantastically useful and valuable framework it would create. On a much broader and abstracted level I think the anthropological debate about independent/interdependent cultural persons reflects something of a continuum of identification/dissociation(?) in many ways. In the earlier literature (and still in some quarters) this was a debate about ‘dividuals’ or partible-persons and ‘individuals’. That latter terminology also makes me think of that scene though, from the film ‘I [heart] Huckabees’ when the main character has an existential crisis and dissipates into fragmented building blocks. Very silly (wonderful) movie.

    One third thing – current/ongoing debates about the concept and value of autonomy in philosophy and political philosophy have come to something of an impasse between the ‘processual autonomy as a value’ camp and the ‘substantivist autonomy as a value’ camp and I am almost certain it is because there has been no discussion in light of the mind. It is interesting to think of empathy and its relationship to the value of autonomy I think.

    The distinction between pre/reflective – if you could recommend a paper on this topic – on the distinction or similarities etc. I would be very appreciative.

    Thanks once again for interesting food for thought. Good Day Sir.

  3. Marcoiac

    What’s the difference between processual and substantivist autonomy? I agree with you that leaving out empathy when thinking about the value of autonomy isn’t ideal.

    I am afraid I can’t come up with any specific good paper on the pre/reflective distinction. I think it’s because researchers tend to focus on one or the other, rather than trying to connect them. A philosopher of mind, however, has written many papers on the pre/reflective distinction (even though he calls them with some other terms, terms that also change over the years). His name is Alvin Goldman. He has a chapter on a recent edited book called ‘Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives’ (Coplan & Goldie, editors, Oxford UP) on that. He argues that imagination plays a big role in the reconstructive route to empathy (which is how he basically calls what we call here the reflective form of empathy). I think that imagination is probably what connects the low level of automatic mirroring (pre-reflective empathy here) with the higher level of reflective empathy. How? I have very fuzzy ideas about it, not even worth trying to spell them out until they get a little clearer 🙂
    But, I can say one thing about neural systems and neurons. We recorded individual mirror neurons in neurological patients that were implanted for neurosurgical reasons and found mirror cells in areas well beyond the ‘classical’ mirror neuron areas. Indeed we found them even in areas that are typically associated with reflective empathy (what Burbank calls areas for mentalizing). So, while in terms of neural systems our single cell recordings in humans tell us that the dichotomy that is often discussed in the imaging literature between systems for mirroring and mentalizing is probably wrong, in terms of connecting the two levels, the fact that mirror neurons are widespread in the brain is a nice finding. (that was a loooong sentence)

  4. Pingback: Notes and thoughts on the concept and value of ‘autonomy’ | Fieldnotes & Footnotes

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