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Intercultural empathy: Myth, competency, or possibility for alliance building?
Oct 1, 2001 - Communication Education Author(s): Deturk, Sara
Empathy, long considered a central intercultural competency, is a concept that scholars have struggled to define clearly, particularly as it is manifest interculturally. The very notion of intercultural competence, furthermore, has been criticized by postcolonial scholars as having inherent ethnocentric biases. Implications of standpoint theory, similarly, challenge the possibility of empathy across social groups. This paper reviews theories relevant to empathy and social power, and explores possibilities for cross-group empathy and alliance building against oppression. It concludes by highlighting the complexity of social identity as an opportunity for mutual understanding and advocacy, and offers implications for educational practice.
When I was 22 years old, I joined the Peace Corps and lived for two years in a remote, rural part of West Africa. I experienced first- hand a culture that was so entirely different from my own, and yet had its own, sensible, internal logic, that the complacency and arrogance of my US American ethnocentrism was shaken to its core. (I do not mean to imply that US Americans are the only people prone to ethnocentrism, although growing up in a society that has so much military, economic, political, and cultural influence that it refers to itself as the world's only "superpower" does have its special dangers.) I came to realize, not only that other societies had valid worldviews and important wisdom, but also that it would take a special kind of attention to take in and understand these other ways of seeing the world.
(My West African years were neither my first nor my last such lesson, but one episode of what I expect--and hope-- will be a life-long education.)
This story will not surprise any interculturalists; most trainers and theorists would probably agree that the most reliable way to transcend ethnocentrism is through immersion into a foreign culture. Clearly, though, this is neither feasible and foolproof for everyone, nor is it the only path to intercultural understanding. So the question remains: What is it about the intercultural experience that helps many of us develop more flexible world views and increased tolerance for differences? And how would this story be different if I were a West African experiencing the United States for the first time?
Trainers and scholars since the 60s have sought to isolate particular traits, skills, attitudes, behaviors, and experiences that lead to "successful" intercultural encounters. Intercultural training has tended to emphasize learning about characteristics and meaning systems of other cultures in order for learners to act according to culture-specific norms, communicate effectively, and "put themselves in the shoes" of target culture members. Empathy has been seen as a key "competency." But what, exactly, do we mean by "empathy"? Traditional definitions of empathy have been disputed by scholars in several disciplines.
The very notion of intercultural competencies, furthermore, has been challenged in the context of power relations among communicators. This paper, therefore, will explore 1) definitions of empathy and the extent to which it is possible in intercultural interactions, 2) special problems of empathy in the context of unequal relations of power, and 3) possibilities for empathy in building alliances against oppression across social groups. While some of the concepts in this paper may seem more relevant to international dynamics and others to those among social groups within a national society, I intend them to apply to both contexts.
One of my goals is to draw attention to the similarities, thereby nudging domestic diversity trainers and social justice scholars to look beyond US borders, and encouraging the more internationally-focused to pay more attention to issues of power.
Definitions of Empathy
Those who work in cross-cultural contexts, whether as participants or researchers, face a unique communicative challenge arising from the necessity of commuting between two or more assumptive worlds, shifting perceptual and cognitive processes to maintain a sufficient margin of empathy to sustain communication (Barnlund & Nomura, 1985, p. 347).
Many writers have argued for the impossibility of empathy in intercultural communication. At the same time, it is argued to be a central factor of intercultural success (Barnlund & Nomura, 1985; Gudykunst & Kim, 1984; Stewart, 1976). Part of this paradox can be attributed to the difficulty of defining empathy. Is it a trait, a learned skill, or a contextually emergent relational state? Broome (1991)-found that "-[i]t has been defined as a personality characteristic. . . , as accuracy in predicting another's internal state ..., as emotional identification with another individual..., as the process of cognitive role-taking.
. . , and as communicating a sense of understanding to another" (pp. 235-236, emphasis in the original). Broome also notes that most of these conceptualizations have come from counseling and psychology. One of the most influential definitions, for example, comes from a 1959 work by Carl Rogers, who describes empathy as "[perception of] the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the `as if' condition" (1959, p. 210). Although Rogers's definition is widespread in common usage, it is problematic (as Broome points out) for intercultural situations, in part because of the difficulty of perceptual accuracy in communication across cultures.
Arnett & Nakagawa (1983) describe two similar approaches. The first is inference theory, which views empathy as inference by analogy to one's own experiences. This requires having direct experience with the feeling or thought being expressed by one's communicative partner. The second is the role-taking theory of G. H. Mead which does not depend necessarily on direct experience, but on imagination or vicarious experience. Arnett & Nakagawa argue that both reflect three problems inherent in the Rogerian definition: First, they reify the self. Second, they treat empathy as a technique for self-actualization rather than a means for understanding.
Finally, the humanistic roots of this empathic tradition reflect a cultural bias in the belief in the person as innately good. This, the authors argue, leads to an ethical neutralism which can be problematic in many communicative situations.
Many scholars and practitioners have posited definitions intended specifically as intercultural communication skills. Hammer (1992) describes empathy as "the ability to understand the other person's message from that person's perspective" (p. 6). Klopf & Park (1984) write that to display empathy is "to try to become one with the other by projecting one's own personality into the personality of the other person; to try to see things from the other person's frame of reference" (p. 112). These definitions, though, go no further than that of Rogers. Howell (1982), recognizing the problem of "feeling what another person feels, or putting yourself into the other person's shoes, or projecting your consciousness into another being" (p.
108), defines empathy instead as "the ability to replicate what one perceives" (p. 107). This definition, however (as observed by Stewart, 1983), essentially evades the "mind-meld" problem by reducing empathy to an intrapersonal phenomenon. This brings us back to square one.
Milton Bennett describes empathy as more other-focused. He suggests that we set aside the "golden rule" in favor of what he calls "the platinum rule: Do unto others as they themselves would have done unto them" (1979, p. 422). Bennett defines empathy, correspondingly, as "the imaginative, intellectual and emotional participation in another person's experience" (p. 418). This brings the definition somewhat closer to theorists who reject the previous psychological approaches to empathy in favor of an interpretive communication perspective that locates the phenomenon in relationships rather than within individuals.
Broome (1991), commenting on Bennett's delinition, adds that "this imaginative participation may be essential to the process of relational empathy, but development of shared meanings must move the focus beyond both self and other to the interaction between communicators" (p. 247). Rather than viewing knowledge and meaning as phenomena that exists prior to communication-an individualist view common to Western thinking-we should instead view meaning as something which is "co-constructed in social interaction" (Eisenberg, 1990, p. 141). Gergen (1985) writes that "knowledge is not something people possess in their heads, but rather, something people do together" (p.
270). John Stewart (1983), similarly, relates a conversation between Maurice Friedman and Martin Buber, who says that one "does not have the wisdom. It literally happens, comes to be, in the between" (p. 372, emphasis in original). This dialogic notion of betweenness is at the heart of the relational approach to empathy. Stewart, building on the ideas of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur, advocates interpretive listening, which focuses on communicative action rather than internal psychological states, and the collective buil\ding of subjective understanding, rather than the transfer of one person's thoughts to another.
This process, according to Stewart, involves decentering, perception checking, and an emphasis on "the productive, creative quality of communication" (p. 389).
Also growing out of the "betweenness" principle is Casmir's (1999) "third-culture building" model. Third-culture building, for Casmir, is "the construction of a mutually beneficial interactive environment in which individuals from two different cultures can function in a way beneficial to all involved" (p. 92). It is a dialogic process whereby "[a] third-culture, or new interactive relationship, which thus evolves, would represent an expression of mutuality, one which can be understood, supported, and defended by all who shared in its development" (p. 108). What, then, can individuals do to facilitate this dialogic process?
Barnlund & Nomura (1985) offer a response: First, it is important for individuals to acknowledge their subjectivity and hold their assumptions in abeyance. Barnlund & Nomura refer to this as "decentering," or "becoming aware of and temporarily suspending the constructs normally used to interpret events so as to consider fresh ways of construing them" (p. 348). The next step is "convergence," or "acquiring an alternative construct through dialogue," which involves "a series of successive experiments in meaning..." (348).
Broome (1991) takes this up as his definition: Empathy, for him, is "a series of successive approximations to the other's point of view during social interaction" (p. 241). Meanings are products of this interaction, from which emerges a third culture. Relational empathy, in this sense, is dynamic and context-dependent, and "emphasizes a productive rather than a reproductive approach to understanding" (p. 240). Broome adds that empathy is behavior which requires not only certain skills, but particular situational conditions, as well. These situational factors, he says, include the verbal manner in which individuals express their feelings and "the nature of the empathee's feeling-state, including certain appraisals about [the] context" (p.
244). One contextual element of communication, particularly in intercultural interactions, is power.
Empathy and Social Power
The dialogic approach to empathy resolves some of the problems of the more psychological viewpoints, especially in intercultural contexts. Consideration of empathy as a process of building shared meaning seems much more realistic than true knowledge of another person's existing thoughts and feelings. Even so, many critical scholars warn that it is impossible for the members of one social group to understand the experiences of another, particularly across divisions of power.
The notion of empathy as an intercultural competency, in fact, is problematic in (at least) two ways: First, it assumes the value of open communication with the aim of mutual understanding. Furthermore, as Mary Jane Collier points out,
competence ... is a construct that is based on implicit privilege. . .' competences and acceptance from whom? Who decides the criteria? Who doesn't? Competent or acceptable on the basis of what social and historical context?' To assume that ontologically interlocutors negotiate mutual rules of appropriate conduct is to deny the power of ideology, historical structures, and limitations in the field of choices (Collier, 1998, p. 142).
The assumption that open communication and mutual understanding are universally valued, in other words, reflects "definitions of `competence' that privilege the communicative style of middle class white Americans" (Moon, 1996, p. 75). For many other groups, open communication may be troublesome.
Social (or structural) power has been defined as "control over the distribution of desired resources by virtue of one's structurally given position in a social organization" (Forte, 1998, p. 30). Miller (1992) shows how social structures uphold the privileges and world views of dominant groups, or those who have the most social power. These groups (both consciously and unconsciously) perpetuate their power in part through discourse that universalizes their experiences. Viewpoints of minority and subordinate groups are silenced in a number of ways, one result of which is that they are misunderstood by dominant group members.
Miller illustrates several steps of this process.
First, to the extent that dominant group members control access to social roles and activities, they will tend to claim the more desirable functions for themselves, and limit subordinates to less valued roles. This has a self-reinforcing effect, in that opportunities for skill development are circumscribed by these roles. Second, subordinates are encouraged to express submissive traits, whereas dominants are encouraged to develop assertive, "dominant" traits. Conformity to these expectations becomes equated with normal psychological adjustment. This creates a double bind for subordinates, in that conformity to these submissive roles reinforces stereotypes, and nonconformity draws punishment.
Women and people of color, for example, are faced with the choice of being perceived either as intelligent or as normal; it is not possible to be both. Those who challenge or express anger at this injustice, furthermore, are rebuked as overly emotional, angry, or violent, and are accordingly controlled through ridicule or punishment. Dominant group members often express shock or disbelief at the experiences and emotions of subordinate group members, which tend to be effectively hidden from the dominants by the hegemonic order: "Suppressing the knowledge and viewpoint of any oppressed group makes it easier for dominant groups to rule because the seeming absence of an independent consciousness in the oppressed can be taken to mean that subordinated groups willingly collaborate in their own victimization" (Collins, 1990, p. 5).
As a result of these dynamics, subordinates learn that direct, honest reactions are dangerous, and that open communication is possible only with each other. Dominant groups are left ignorant both of their own impact on others and of subordinate group members' true identities and experiences. Subordinates, on the other hand, know a great deal about the dominants: first, because they must be carefully attuned to them in order to safely negotiate interactions with them; and second, because the dominant group's values, communication styles, and norms are widely disseminated through cultural institutions.
At the same time, marginalized groups have the potential for greater understanding of the social order as a whole. Feminist standpoint theorists point out that the daily activities of those outside the dominant group "require them to bridge the gap between ideological dualisms such as nature versus culture, professional versus manual work, or intellectual versus emotional work. The perspective of the `other' permits various cultural irrationalities or inconsistencies to emerge into clearer view" (Swigonski, 1994, p. 391). This political consciousness, it must be noted, cannot be taken for granted; if it is not consciously cultivated through daily effort to reinterpret reality, marginalized populations are also at risk of falling into the dominant view.
Swigonski summarizes: "To survive, subordinate people must be attentive to the perspective of the dominant class as well as their own. As a result they have the potential for `double vision' or double consciousness-a knowledge of, awareness of, and sensitivity to both the dominant worldview of society and their own perspective" (p. 390).
Very little attention has been paid to conceptualizations of empathy in relation to these dynamics of power. One exception is Forte (1998), who specifically examines the relationship between role- taking and social power in the context of social work. Reviewing literature from a range of disciplines, he explores variations of the "role-taking and power thesis," which posits that less powerful interactants are more motivated, and therefore more able, to role- take than their more powerful counterparts (Thomas, Franks, & Calonico, 1972; Goldstein & Michaels, 1985; Snodgrass, 1985; Yoels, Clair, Ritchey & Allman, 1993).
Forte finds support for this thesis in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, social class, and organizational position: Domestics, for example, "are virtually invisible to their employers. Yet the same domestics are very conscious of the whims and concerns of employers" (p. 34). In regard to gender, various researchers (e.g. Franklin, 1984; Thomas, Franks, & Calonico, 1972) have found that whereas men have role-taking abilities, they tend not to use them. "Schwalbe (1992) argues that sexual harassment is rooted in men's privilege-based insensitivity to women's concerns-for career advancement, for avoiding male retaliation, for dealing with a sense of violation, and for maintaining composure in difficult circumstances" (Forte, p. 33).
While most of the research reviewed by Forte upholds the role- taking and power thesis in general, there are a number of exceptions. Most of these dissenting studies seem to indicate other variables that may have a greater impact on empathic abilities than social power. High-status work roles, for example, often involve responsibilities such as counseling, teaching, and supervision. Individuals in these roles may come to have stronger role-taking skills as a result of selection, training, or practice. Personality style, in addition, may be a factor: `Jackson (1987) learned that group members with dominant interpersonal styles had high levels of communicated empathy and those with submissive styles had low levels of internal empathy" (Forte, 1998, p. 40).
Hopelessness and lack of self-efficacy, furthermore, both seemed to interfere with empathic abilities. In terms of possibilities for enhancing empathic skills, studi\es of helping professionals (reviewed by Forte, 1998) showed that perceptiveness can be improved by interventions such as group psychodrama and training using humanistic experiential exercises.
Any conceptualization of empathy across cultures or social groups, then (whether domestic or international), must cautiously consider dynamics of power. Miller (1992), in fact, concludes, "mutually enhancing interaction is not probable between unequals. Indeed, conflict is inevitable" (p. 79). There is, however, room for optimism.
Alliance Building Implicature, and Empathy Across Cultures
Not long after my return from West Africa, I took a workshop at the University of Massachusetts that I hoped would increase my understanding of homosexuality and reduce my prejudice against gays and lesbians. The most powerful part of the workshop was the moment I realized that gay bashing was the male heterosexual establishment's punishment, not just for homosexuality, but for flouting gender roles. It was, in other words, a tool of sexism. Homophobia suddenly became my concern.
Anzaldua (1990), Houston (1992), and others remind us of the complexity of social identity. Every individual is a web of identities, including gender, race, age, occupation, sexual orientation, and nationality, to name a few. The groups with which a single person might identify are endless, and these identities may be triggered, or enacted, contextually. The social significance of one's age, furthermore, will vary depending on one's religion, occupation, and ethnicity, for example. Houston (1992) calls for greater attention to the interaction of racial and class differences with gender. We should not, however, simply reduce these combinations to individual differences.
What is most important, Houston exhorts us to keep in mind, is not the differences in traits, cultural practices, or communication styles, but the political nature of differences: "The primary race and class difference among women, like the primary gender difference, is power" (pp. 46 - 47). This is true both domestically and internationally, where neo-colonial power relations shape our interactions.
While this complexity of identity certainly complicates the empathic process, it also opens up possibilities. Anzaldua (1990) illustrates how her Chicana identity allows her to identify with Chicano men, her womanhood connects her with women of other races, and her lesbian identity opens channels for participating in the experiences of people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Allen (2000) describes a specific relationship which she, a heterosexual African American woman, developed with a white, lesbian colleague. While they shared similar teaching styles and experiences of having grown up in lower-class families and becoming communication professors, Allen concludes, "Anna and I would probably not have become such good friends if she were straight. Because of her sexual orientation she can be empathetic with me in ways that my other white, straight friends cannot" (p. 182). Allen, conversely, learned to empathize with victims of homophobia as a result of her own experiences regarding her race-- ethnicity.
Anna and I laugh a great deal ... as well as cry together about personal trials and tribulations and the plight of our world. We talk with each other in supportive ways regarding world events, particularly those having to do with oppression. .., and can openly discuss any sensitive topic related to race-ethnicity or sexuality .... I feel accountable to Anna, which motivates me to sometimes speak out on an issue even when I would rather not take on the burden (Allen, p. 181).
Dace & McPhail (1998), similarly, explore ways in which Whites and African Americans can find common ground in a shared attempt to overcome racism. Their conclusion rests on yet another extension of empathy. They point out that "[e]mpathy, as traditionally conceived, assumes a view of the world in which self and other are essentially separate and distinct" (p. 440). Dace and McPhail challenge this view, invoking physicist David Bohm's (1987) explanation of the "implicate" order, which, he says, reflects "the unbroken wholeness of the totality of existence as an undivided flowing movement without borders" (p.
7). Implicature not only connects human beings psychologically, but physically: "[S]elf and other are never separate and distinct, but are always interdependent and interrelated" (Dace & McPhail, p. 440). In terms of social power, implicature recalls Paulo Friere's (1970) observation that dominant group members are dehumanized by oppression as are subordinate group members: first, by the limitations that the social order places on the range of roles and actions available to them, and second, by their culpability in dehumanizing others. Recognizing and cultivating implicature, Dace and McPhail conclude, is a key to overcoming racism through common ground.
What this does not mean is that we should attempt to share ontological or epistemological beliefs: these, according to Bohm (1987), are what separate us. Instead, we should heed Buber's prescription that, "when an individual meets another, he or she directs full attention toward the other, but not necessarily to garner personal knowledge or experience. Instead, the attention is born of a desire to stand in relation to the other, with full respect for his or her individuality" (Eisenberg, 1990, p. 147, emphasis added).
Returning, then, to the question of empathy in intercultural interactions, it seems that attempting to perceive others' internal frames is not what is important or appropriate. Instead, we should foster relational empathy through dialogue. In terms of transcending oppression, though, there is also value in seeing the commonalties of our existence, both in terms of our shared humanity, and in terms of identifying with the marginalization of others, as described above by Allen (2000).
Hardiman and Jackson (1992) discuss this understanding of others' struggles as a feature of a particular stage of consciousness. Their social identity development theory, an adaptation of Jackson's (1976) black identity development theory and Hardiman's (1982) white identity development theory, identifies five stages. The first, Naive/ No Social Consciousness, is the condition of young children before they become aware of cultural differences or ideologies. The second stage, Acceptance, is characterized by conscious or unconscious internalization of the hegemonic order. Resistance is the third stage: here, individuals become increasingly aware of the existence and impact of oppression.
Stage four is Redefinition, the focus of which is establishing an identity that is separate from the oppressive hierarchy. The fifth and final stage is Internalization. Here the task is to integrate redefinition into all aspects of everyday life.
[A] significant aspect of Internationalization consciousness is the appreciation of the plight of all targets of any form of oppression. Having moved through the liberation process for their own experience of oppression, it becomes easier for the person with an Internalization consciousness to have empathy for members of other targeted groups in relation to whom they are agents.... It is less likely that a target [member of an oppressed group] in Resistance or Redefinition consciousness will be able to acknowledge coexistent agent [oppressor] identities" (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 1997, pp. 28- 29).
Several definitions of empathy have been examined in this paper: Rogerian empathy, role-taking, relational empathy, implicature, and what Adams, et al. (1997) refer to as an appreciation and acknowledgment of others' oppression. Social identity development theory suggests that this last is realistic only for the most enlightened among us, and perhaps (consistent with standpoint theory) only for those of us who have been victims of oppression. It may be argued, though, that everyone has experienced some type of oppression or marginalization over the course of our lives, and thus has the potential for this type of understanding.
Recommendations for Research
My particular goal for this paper has been to explore the limits that oppression imposes and the possibilities that it opens for empathy. I fear that this exploration has raised more questions than it has answered. In particular, it begs for inquiry into the following issues: First, is the ability to appreciate each other's differing forms of oppression really limited to stage five of social identity development theory? If so, are there other conceptions of empathy (implicature, perhaps) that are useful for learners in other stages? Furthermore, to what extent is Hardiman and Jackson's (1992) stage model, developed in a domestic context, comparable to Bennett's (1993) developmental model of intercultural sensitivity, developed with international transitions in mind? Research is needed to explore for whom, and in what situations, might empathy be possible in recognizing each other's oppression.
Second, how can we detect when empathy is present? What characteristics might identify a "third culture" that has emerged through relational empathy? How can training or other experiences encourage its emergence?
Finally, it is important to examine the cultural assumptions inherent in any definition. To what extent are the concepts embedded in the current discussion laden with Western (or even White, middle- class American) values and cognitive tendencies?