The role of empathy in the sociology of everyday life

Apparently there are three types of empathy. In the sociology of everyday life, if we are to understand the motivations for behaviour, the basis of decisions made, be they conscious or habitual, we need to be able to recognise in some nonjudgmental way, the subjective and material experience of the individuals and groups we wish to study.

This is of particular relevance now as a common cry is that ‘experts’ and academics, liberal and political elites and so on, do not know anything about or understand the experience and realities, the fears and concerns of ‘ordinary’ people, for instance those that voted for Trump or Brexit’.

Clearly this need therefore a method of seeing and to some extent entering into the point-of view of others, commonly referred to as empathy. I assume that to identify a point of view is not the same as identifying with a point of view, where through a process of empathy and sympathy there is a danger of #going native’ as the old anthropologist and participant observers used to call it.

The three forms of empathy that psychologists have defined are: Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate.

The type of empathy best suited to a sociological critique of everyday life is a mixture of the cognitive and the compassionate.

I’m currently reading Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life from the point of view of literature . The following are a few notes on this.

The word ‘critique’ is often associated with finding fault, negative criticism. This is not necessarily the case. A film critic can praise as well as condemn a film, can point out its strengths and virtues as well as perhaps things that could have been better. Critique is also a method of disciplined systematic study and can therefore be, or attempt to be, initially neutral with respect to the object of critique. In philosophy it is seen as the methodical practice of doubt, of examining and challenging prejudice and authority. Since the European Enlightenment it can have associations with emancipator projects in conflict with religious and/or political authority.

A critique that aims to challenge and orthodoxy or expose the unwarranted assumptions and constructions of a discourse, must, implicitly or explicitly, hold to some notions of the grounds for challenging the orthodoxy or for claiming assumptions and constructions are unwarranted. In Marxist critique not surprisingly what is being subjected to critique are forms of ideological obfuscations, self-serving distorted accounts of reality,  various political and economic doctrines that describe the world in distorted and partial ways and, relevant to the notion of everyday life, prescribes, reinforces and legislates forms of life, ways of thinking and acting, that both legitimate and to some extent produce the world as imagined and projected by the doctrines. So critique in Lefebvre’s and the Marxist sense challenges various orthodoxies and the common-sense, taken for granted everyday ideas, beliefs, opinions, actions and behaviours that are in various ways, directly and indirectly, produced by the doctrines. For example, if it is taken for granted for the moment that we live in a neo-liberal world, and that through education, the media, the law, political action and policy, this world is reinforced and reproduced daily through the beliefs and actions (chosen and constrained) of the majority of members of society as they live out their everyday lives. A critique of everyday life would reveal the connections between the experience, conduct and understanding of individuals as they lead their lives, make conscious and habitual decisions and interact with other members of their society, family, friends, fellow citizens in various roles and the doctrines and ideologies that produce, legitimate, regulate and, through the actions of individuals, reproduce the neoliberal world.

Two things follow from this. It assumes that ideology is not purely a false account of how things are and that a critique of ideology has as its main purpose to show the truth that is hidden by ideology. If ideology is implemented via the colonisation of the people who shape and produce the world daily, then it has a positive function in that it makes our world, it doesn’t merely falsely depict it. To some extent ideology, rather than being false, makes true, it realises the world according to its own template. Critique lies not in demonstrating its falsity but in revealing the process by which it makes itself real and, by demonstrating the contingency of this and in so doing shows how things are not as they are because they are so naturally but that they could be different. Ideology is not exposed as a false account, a body of false ideas. It is analysed as a process that produces reality whilst offering an explanation and solace for it. Ideology on the one hand produces a reality, a particular one that is in principle one of several possibilities, and then disguises it. The disguise is twofold – it disguises the historicity and contingency of the reality it produces; it naturalises it and forms the ground for claims that there is no alternative, and it obscures the mechanisms and machinations that produce the reality it produces.

So an important part of critique is not just to demonstrate the inconstancies and contradictions in various texts. An indispensable aspect of critique is the analysis of the everyday life of society that is the motor of ideological realisation. Doctrines are translated into the exercise of productive power. The productive power is deployed through various channels, politically, economically, legislatively and culturally. All this shapes the everyday life world of society. This is a text of another sort, the symbolic universe of living. No doubt this can be done anthropologically but anthropology is a different sort of text, a different sort of narrative to that of the everyday. Much research in the post Trump post Brexit shows that individuals are swayed not so much by facts or academic and expert accounts, they cannot be swayed by any sort of education initiative. This if anything reinforces the feelings of many of being patronised, misunderstood and does not recognise the reality and experience of their lives. The contemporary distrust of experts and claims of expert knowledge easily translates into a resistance, even aversion, to patronising condescending offers of education and betterment. What influences people and recruits them to particular ways of thinking, doing, understanding the world and their place in it are narratives, stories fragmentary or complete, that chime in with their experience, make sense to them, gives them ways of understanding their predicaments, disappointments, frustrated hopes. It also offers them a way to feel more positive about themselves, as part of a community of suffering and fate, confronting the same predicaments, and perhaps a hope of personal vindication and happiness. Narrative trumps expert knowledge and paternalistic offers of education, especially if these are seen as being foisted by self-important educated liberal metropolitan elite. A different world will not be achieved by teaching everyone to be an anthropologist, an historian, political scientist of sociologist. It is not just an educational project that will elicit right thinking and right doing.

Most of life consists of being a spectator and reacting to events on the basis of habitual behaviours and internalised routing reactions, sometimes in the guise of independent decisions. At the most general level this perspective sees someone living and reproducing the narrative of their lives. Individuals are not necessarily freed from this determining narrative by turning them into scholars, academics or experts. In fact they are already experts in understanding the realities of their lives and circumstances and coping with them. They are lay experts in the art of living in their world. They make judgments, decisions and plans on the basis of their knowledge as organic intellectuals (in Gramsci’s sense), adapted to and experts in their lives. What they need, arguably, is a different narrative that entails a different art of living.

So the anthropological study by itself is not the best approach although it has an important part to play. Nor is any other formal academic expert account of the reality of their lives. This is possibly where literature comes in. The dominant narratives that are so influential today can best be countered by alternative narratives that also chime in with people’s everyday life. They would have to function the same way as the current narratives, meet the same needs, give people hope, but can only do so if they penetrate everyday life and begin to shape attitudes and behaviours and people’s understanding of the causes of their problems. Literature, radio, film, digital media and to some extent organised experiences can problematise the dominant narrative, tear away the veil of assumed common-sense and inevitability, the naturalness of things, and begin to construct an alternative understanding, an alternative narrative, and open up the possibility of living differently. The critique of everyday life becomes the basis for a counter narrative offering the possibility of a new understanding and a different way of life.