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Does Sociology Breed Empathy?

While developing students’ empathy isn’t a universal goal among sociology faculty, many instructors feel it is an important foundation for helping students develop their sociological imagination. Without empathy, it may be harder for students to understand the structural factors that shape the lives of people different from themselves. A few studies have examined empathy in the classroom, but measures and findings are inconsistent and only analyze individual, short-term class exercises.

In their article in Teaching Sociology, AshleyRockwell, Chris Vidmar, Penny Harvey, and Leanna Greenwood investigate whether sociology courses promote empathy development among 619 undergraduate students over the course of an entire semester. They collected and analyzed data on student characteristics and perceptions of instructors, instructor interviews and teaching philosophies, and used a scale that measured student empathy at the beginning and end of the semester. They expected that completing an introduction to sociology course would increase empathy among undergraduates generally, and that different teaching styles could differentially impact this development.

The authors found that a variety of factors influenced changes in levels of empathy among participants, including participant characteristics, instructor characteristics, and classes that have been taken. Students who identified as conservative were significantly less likely to develop increased empathy. However, students who cared more about what the instructor thought of them or were in majors receptive to sociological ideas were more likely to experience greater positive empathy change.

Empathy development was negatively affected by a greater focus on writing in instructors’ teaching methods. Most importantly, the findings strongly suggest that taking introductory courses in sociology, compared to courses in other disciplines, results in greater increases in empathy. Having taken previous courses in sociology also compounded this empathy development. These findings suggest that exposure to basic sociological ideas stimulates empathy development, largely regardless of instructor characteristics or goals, to produce such empathy.

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