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Building Empathy: Tips from Anthropology Class

Posted By Neri de Kramer, Tuesday, September 3, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Building Empathy: Tips from Anthropology Class

One thing I teach my students is how to think less in terms of “us” versus “them” and more in terms of our common, shared humanity. I make it very clear that students should not expect sensationalist accounts of “weird” or “exotic” peoples, but when they do learn about behaviors or belief systems that don’t make intuitive sense, thinking about all humans as one of “us” helps them look for the underlying logics to these diverse ways of being human.

This open mindset helps students better understand others’ points of view. These others are not limited to the cultural groups we read about but also include the others in the classroom. Classroom discussions are guided by the motto “understand, before wanting to be understood.” This forces students to listen to each other with suspended judgment. It leads to more empathic insights into people and their various views. It makes them consider how their opinions might be received by classmates. It improves student collaborations.

Credit: Evan Krape
Copyright: © 2016 University of Delaware


I assure students that these skills are vital in the real world. They are also obviously vital to applied qualitative research, where in fact we get paid to suspend our judgment in order to put ourselves in the shoes of our respondents and uncover their point of view in empathic ways. In addition to our respondents, we can also fruitfully apply this mindset to our interactions with clients, recruiters, facilities, and other teams.

Anthropologist Grant McCracken made a similar argument when he warned against business anthropologists’ habit of criticizing their clients, even “dissing them behind their backs.” He suggested practitioners return to a more fundamental 20th century culturally relativist position. This means we should practice what we preach by placing ourselves in the shoes of not only those we are paid to understand but also of those we work with.

 

 

The benefits are numerous. Understanding others helps us find the common goal all are willing to work toward together. An empathic grasp of what is really going on below the surface of that behavior or request improves our negotiation position. It enables us to solve problems instead of focus on its extraneous expressions. It makes for better proposals. It is helpful in figuring out the power dynamics in a given group. Also, understanding why people respond the way they do might help prevent frustration, which is exhausting.

Fostering Reflexivity

Below, I share three teaching activities I use to instill a more relativist mindset in my students. This may prove useful to our own work with respondents, as well as to the problems we encounter in our daily work lives. They are designed to foster reflexivity, or an awareness of how one’s own background, environment, and mental processes shape one’s views of the world and of others. The goal is to come to see our own norms, values, and way of being in this world as only one out of many other logical possibilities. This is the critical first step to becoming more receptive to points of view that are not our own.

Examine the roots of your deeply held values

Think polygamy is deeply wrong? Well, why? How did you develop that value? How does that value fit into your life and can you begin to imagine how it might be different for others? These are questions my students grapple with when we play the Norms Game.

We first make a list of categories that constitute a person's social identity (gender, nationality, etc.) which students fill out for themselves. Students then receive a sheet with 7 columns. On the left is a list of cultural practices on which opinions tend to diverge. Students are asked to indicate where they stand on these things by placing an X in one of five ranking columns. In the final column they indicate which aspect of their identity, or which culture, informs that opinion.


Table 1: Courtesy of Dr. Adkins-Jackson

The resulting discussion helps students see their viewpoints and those of others less as absolute dividing lines and more as products of situated lives. Students learn that as people’s circumstances change, their identity shifts, which may result in new worldviews. These are important insights for anybody working with diverse groups of people. They show our own ideas as only relative to those of others and help us see where they are coming from. The game has also generated important insights for the clients and research teams for whom I adapted it.  

Explore your subconsciously held biases

The human mind holds associations that people are often not even aware of. Psychologists Greenwald, Banaji, and Nosek study this phenomenon and developed a set of 14 Implicit Association Tests. IATs measure the strength of subconscious associations between concepts and evaluations (i.e. female with career, for the gender-career IAT, or Black people with pleasing, for the race IAT). Anybody with an internet connection and a compatible device can take an IAT. It takes approximately 10 minutes. My students are required to take at least one. They also consider how their implicit biases might affect their social interactions.

The associations we make affect how much empathy we are able to develop for a member of a group cognitively considered “other.” For us, this exercise can make us more thoughtful about our interview questions, our conduct during focus groups, who we are most comfortable working with. See also Banaji and Greenwald’s book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People for the psychological science behind the biases we carry around with us.

Expand your mind

In order to move beyond stereotypes, we need to familiarize ourselves with others and broaden and complicate any implicitly held associations. One way to do this is by purposefully exposing ourselves to unfamiliar perspectives, experiences, and stories. So, for their assignments, I force students to engage with media and social media that doesn’t match their personal interests.

This can be eye-opening. While we researchers already spend a lot of time figuring out others, the more cultural information lives in our brain, the more it will benefit us in interactions with respondents, clients, and colleagues. We need to periodically break out of our own personal media silos and listen to the voices of those we don’t already know and agree with. It’s a behavioral shift that is easy to implement with the proliferation of podcasts, blogs, electronic newsletters, and so on. I consider it a form of anthropological reconnaissance I carry out during my commute or while browsing my phone at the doctor’s office.

Our differences are undeniable and fascinating. But a rigid “us” vs “them” stands in the way of generating empathic insights and prohibits fruitful collaboration. Reflexivity is key to building the empathy we need to succeed in all aspects of our work as qualitative research consultants.

About the Author:

Neri de Kramer, PhD, is a cultural anthropologist specializing in consumer behavior. She has done research in both Europe and the United States, for academic as well as corporate purposes. She is a freelance consultant and professor at the University of Delaware.

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