Handle with caution: empathy as a research tool

Gender, Peace and Protest

The first (properly academic) thing I’ve written since finishing the PhD has been a contribution to book about violence in research, which allowed me to explore my interest in empathy and methodology. The chapter gives a detailed account of my fieldwork, but here I’ve decided to sketch some general propositions for anyone new to these ideas. In short: I’ve come to think of empathy as an important but dangerous item in the researcher’s toolkit. With it, we can do all kinds of things we couldn’t do otherwise, but wielded improperly, it is likely to cause harm both to us and those around us.

Defining empathy

Empathy is notoriously difficult to define. It’s common to distinguish between automatic empathy (or emotional contagion – where we ‘feel’ the fear, pain, anger, sorrow or joy of other people) and cognitive empathy, a distinct neurological process where we imagine how we would feel in…

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“The tip of willow tree was blackened” “Ветла чернела на вершине”, Nikolai Gumilev

lingua fennica

gumilev-2

This was written in 1919, the year after Gumilev divorced Anna Akhmatova, so it is probably addressed to Anna Nikolaevna Engelhardt, whom he married that year. His passion sits uneasily with his wanderlust…

The tip of willow tree was blackened,
For rooks protruded from its crown,
In azure sky-dale there they slackened –
The sheepish clouds grazed on its down.
And you, with gaze of resignation,
Announced: “I am in love with you.”
Like sea was grass’s oscillation,
At one o’clock, what could I do?

I kissed this summer-scented letter,
On rosy cheeks, the grass’s shade,
The fragrant feast of light the better
To study how those bronze curls played.
And you to me were as alluring
As distant place by man unknown,
The promised land of fame enduring,
Of wine and song and rapture’s throne.

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Ветла чернела на вершине,
Грачи топорщились слегка,
В долине неба синей-синей
Паслись, как овцы…

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Hope (Надежда), Vladimir Soloukhin

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Vladimir_Soloukhin

Soloukhin wrote this in 1969. It probably reflects his growing frustration as Brezhnev’s Период застоя (Era of Stagnation) was taking hold. Soloukhin had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet regime in the 1950s – to the point that he had supported the campaign against Pasternak – but by the time of this poem his views had changed.

Perhaps impelled by greedy dreaming
The sailor left his family and
His country on a far-flung voyage
Into the endless blue he’d scanned.

The world was unexplored and silent.
The ship departed, disappeared.
There came no telegrams or letters,
And no one knew where that ship steered.

Don’t bother with your SOS-es
When time of trouble comes to you.
For ages barrels will be floating
Upon the churning water’s brew.

Though cry he might to home or heaven –
Wherever, all attempts fall through.
But sailor’s brought some spirit with him
The…

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Stories from Berlin

Gender, Peace and Protest

There are 7 billion of us on this planet. Over 500 million of us live the EU. Every year, about 5 million babies are born here. These are figures that I am thinking about getting stamped on a t-shirt, because they are the figures that help us put into context the debate about migrants and refugees, a debate that I can’t believe we are (still) having.

In 2015, 1 million strangers arrived on our doorstep, many of them risking their lives and the lives of their children to get here, because it seemed like a less certain death than staying at home.

Because of the incredible selfishness of most EU member states, the majority of those 1 million refugees ended up in Germany. Sweden also took in a high number in proportion to its population. And thousands upon thousands ended up in a bottleneck in Greece.

Arriving home after spending…

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“At Imatra” («На Иматре») by K.R.: my translation

626px-imatrankoski_vapaana

By Falkman, Severin (1831–1889) – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2772464

Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich Romanov (1858-1915), who used the pen name K.R., wrote this poem in two stages, in 1890 and 1907. Imatra refers to the powerful rapids of Imatrankoski, South Karelia, Finland, which were already a tourist attraction in the late 19th century. Today there is a dam on the rapids, but for half an hour every day in the summer the water is released and tourists can see it charge through the rapids at up to 500 cubic metres/second.

Rupert Moreton has also translated this poem, and you can read the translation on his blog.

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“When red October’s dim time-server” (“Когда октябрьский нам готовил временщик”), Osip Mandelstam

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Osip_Mandelstam_Russian_writer

“Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” said Mandelstam. He wrote the following poem in November 1917 – and may well have thereby sealed his fate. He died in the Gulag in 1938. (The execution of Gumilev in 1921 demonstrates that it wasn’t only Stalin who had it in for poets.)

When red October’s dim time-server for us made
A yoke of bloodshed and of malice,
And armoured car, aggressive, then enforced blockade
And loomed an apish gunner, callous –

And “Crucify Kerensky!” irate soldier brayed,
And angry mob on cue applauded:
Then Pilate let them bring us heart on spike displayed,
And heart had stopped – its veins had clotted!

And there, reproachful shadow flickers in the gloom,
Where crimson horse-shoed buildings cluster;
As if on dull October day in misty bloom
“Now…

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Prayer (Молитва), Marina Tsvetaeva

A new translation by Rupert Moreton.

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Marina-Tsvetaeva-Sergey-Efron-1911-300x221 Tsvetaeva with Sergei Efron

Tsvetaeva wrote this on her seventeenth birthday. There is something sadly prophetic here: her reluctance to embrace adulthood suggests an awareness that it would not be easy. It wasn’t. Her daughter died of starvation during the hunger in Moscow that followed the Revolution. After 17 years in exile Tsvetaeva returned to Moscow in 1939. Two years later her husband and surviving daughter were arrested. She took her own life shortly before her husband, Sergei Efron, was executed.

My Lord and God! I crave a wonder
This minute, at the break of day!
Oh let my life be rent asunder
While it’s a book for me, I pray.

You’re wise, so you won’t strictly tell me:
“Be patient, it’s not over yet.”
But you too much have lavished on me!
My craving appetite you’ve met!

I want it all: to go out thieving
To raucous sound of gypsy song,

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