‘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.