Empathy is Hard. What We Need is (Sociological) Imagination

Photo by David Drexler (Source: Flickr)

I live in the liberal bubble of Kent, Ohio, home to a large public university and a diverse faculty. I had never befriended a Trump supporter until I joined a martial arts studio in my town last year, owned by a Trump Republican and patronized by a handful of mostly men who voted for and continue to support the current president. Before COVID hit, we concentrated on our kickboxing or jujitsu skills, tacitly agreeing to cultivate friendships despite our political differences. We sweat together, talked about our children and new local restaurants, and reminisced with one another about past exploits and romantic relationships. I loved it. I cared about my friends at the gym and I was proud to know and get along with people who held views in fundamental opposition to my own. I felt superior to my cadre of highly educated, self-righteous friends whom I believed lacked the empathy to see the good in people unlike themselves.  

Then COVID descended and I realized my empathy was neither boundless nor irrevocable. I encountered what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls an ‘empathy wall,’ an “obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.” As I masked up and retreated into my COVID pod, many of my friends at the gym continued to work-out and socialize unmasked, despite the known risks.  n a matter of weeks, I estranged myself from the routines and friendships that fueled my pre-COVID life. I fled to my like-minded friend’s garage where we exercised together ten feet apart and lamented the ignorance of our former workout buddies. I did not reach out to my gym friends to see that they were well, nor did I make any effort to convince them to take COVID seriously. I hid their Facebook profiles from view and hunkered down at home to take care of my own.

In the current cultural landscape, empathy is having a moment — regaled by politicians, journalists, and pundits as the cure for what ails us as a nation; an emotional panacea for the vitriol and conflict that divides us. Republicans and Democrats alike call on the public to cultivate empathy and implore us to vote for them because of their track records as compassionate leaders. In her moving speech to the country during the Democratic national convention in August, Michelle Obama reminded us that “most of us practice this [empathy] without a second thought. If we see someone suffering or struggling, we don’t stand in judgment. We reach out because, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’ It is not a hard concept to grasp. It is what we teach our children.” It was a powerful plea, one that moved me. And judging by the number of friends and acquaintances referencing her speech in their social media feeds, I am not the only one seduced by the sentiment.

But while empathy may not be hard to grasp in the abstract, it can be extremely difficult to practice. Why? The answer is in part tied to the uncomfortable reality that empathy does not always lead to connection with others and that, at its core, empathy is a skill rather than a trait or disposition. But knowledge is power, and once we recognize that empathy can be cultivated, we can seek out tools to engage in perspective taking, arguably the core component of empathic engagement.       

The first step in cultivating empathy is recognizing that it is not always harnessed for good. Psychologist Paul Bloom, for example, argues that empathy actually reinforces solidarity with those who are most like us, often at the expense of those who are outside of our social milieu. It can reinforce walls. Lending support to this theory, a 2020 study by Elizabeth Simas and colleagues found the more empathic a person is, the more politically partisan they are.We also know there can be psychological and social costs to empathy, especially when the emotions we feel for others cannot be translated into compassionate action or when certain people (namely women) are asked to disproportionately carry the weight of empathic engagement. For some people, then, the problem is empathy wells, not walls.       

Despite known drawbacks, empathy is an emotion state that has the potential to benefit the giver as much as the recipient. And it can be learned. Neuropsychologists like Lisa Feldman Barratt and Jamil Zaki have shown through countless experiments that individuals become more empathic towards racially and politically different others when subjected to interventions that promote empathy. In fact, Zaki found in his work with Karina Schumann and Carol Dweck that simply believing empathy is a skill rather than a fixed trait increased the likelihood that people will work harder to empathize.  

Outside of the context of a lab, however, it is unclear how people develop the skills necessary to place themselves in another person’s shoes. Given the reality that many Americans work, socialize, and learn in homogeneous environments, how do we learn to imagine what it is like to be someone different from ourselves? 

Enter sociologist C. Wright Mills, who in 1959 introduced the concept of the sociological imagination. At its core, the sociological imagination encourages us to place ‘individual troubles’ in the context of broader ‘public issues.’ For example, rather than viewing the refusal to wear a mask solely as a (questionable) individual choice, the sociological imagination considers how such a choice is linked to larger structural realities, such as poorly coordinated public health policy or convoluted messaging from the federal government. The sociological imagination not only coaxes us to listen to others and imagine the circumstances of individual behavior; it also asks us to consider broader realities that condition and shape a person’s life and decision-making. It is a tool with the potential to foster empathy across difference and across divides.     

Applied to my own empathy wall, the sociological imagination nudges me toward a more compassionate view of my friend’s decision to keep his martial arts studio open and to ask questions about the context in which he lives and works. Small businesses are struggling and federal promises for loans have fallen short. Last year, the same gym owner lost his job as a high school teacher and now relies on his income from martial arts to feed his family and pay his mortgage. His faith in Trump reflects, in part, an unquestioning patriotism and masculinity that was required of him while he served in the Marine Corps. Compare his situation to that of my cousin Neil who lives in the UK. As the owner of several fair-trade boutiques, he was able to close his businesses for nearly three months, pay his employees, and receive support from the British government to offset serious profit loss and take care of his family. Both men had to make decisions about safety and livelihood, but they made these choices in the context of profoundly different social supports and government policies.  As it happens, Neil detests Boris Johnson as much as my friend valorizes Trump. For both men, these political persuasions are largely irrelevant to the broader realities that shape their life chances. Recognizing how individual choices are shaped and constrained by social policies and forces is the essence of the sociological imagination.    

As a tool, the sociological imagination allows us to more readily appreciate the reality of another person, a key step in the cultivation of empathy. It manifests as a willingness to ask questions about why someone acts or believes as they do and to then seek out reliable information to answer those questions; information that can be gleaned from educators, journalists, or even from the mouths of those in question. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes must be carried out with intention and purpose. It takes work and commitment and a willingness to hold judgment in abeyance as you seek greater understanding of the context that informs a person’s life. It is not, however, blind altruism. Empathy does not mean accepting or excusing racism, sexism, homophobia, cruelty, and unkindness. Empathy does mean understanding the context of individual actions and beliefs, while simultaneously holding people accountable. I remain steadfast in my belief that it is unsafe to sweat in a small indoor workout space during COVID and I will not patronize businesses that flout public safety. I can, however, scale the empathy wall a bit and sit with my friend and have a beer, talk about the challenges and constraints of life that inform his decisions, and contemplate areas of common ground. I have no doubt that he would lend an empathetic ear in return.    

If we really want to practice empathy, not merely tout its virtues, we must embrace tools like the sociological imagination and treat empathy as a learned skill rather than a moral disposition or innate trait. Only then can we transcend the insidious empathy walls that separate our communities and move closer toward Michelle Obama’s vision of Americans as “compassionate, resilient, decent people, whose fortunes are bound up with one another.”      


Clare L. Stacey is Associate Professor of Sociology and co-director of the Healthy Communities Research Initiative at Kent State University. She is currently researching the development of clinical empathy in medical students in the US.

Comments 9

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October 21, 2020

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October 21, 2020

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Liza Grossman

October 22, 2020

Wonderfully written and argued! I think this has bearing on the social emotional learning (SEL) conversation happening K-12 around our state and the nation. Would you say that these 'empathy walls' are linked to our implicit and explicit biases?


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