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The "Living with Uncertainty" project: Empathy, violence, and conflict
Summary of Findings
Living with Uncertainty (LwU) was a three-year research project into the nature of empathy in dialogue and interaction. It was funded by UK Economic and Social Research Council as a Global Uncertainties Research Fellowship to Professor Lynne Cameron of the Open University.
The project characterized empathy as activity that tries to understand the feeling and thinking of another person from their perspective.
The research produced a five-level, dynamic model of empathy that can be applied to any situation in which people connect with each other. The model and method of analyzing empathy was tested in situations of violence and conflict in UK, N Ireland, USA, Brazil, and Kenya. We examined the reactions of people to terrorism and urban violence in their everyday lives, decisions on giving to charity, processes of conflict transformation and post-conflict reconciliation, and police-community communication. In each case, we also investigated how professionals and non-professionals engage in dialogue, and how these interactions influence empathic understanding.
The research revealed what we call the Empathy Paradox: if it’s automatic to feel another’s humanity, how is violence, conflict, and lack of caring possible between people? The Empathy Paradox was resolved by adding the new idea of ‘dyspathy’ to mean those negative processes and inhibiting factors that resist or block empathy.
Empathic understanding was found to be brought about and reinforced by individual interaction, particularly face-to-face and visually. It was found that dyspathy, on the other hand, works most effectively at social group level, and in three major ways: by distancing the other person, blocking them, or lumping them as a group. The EMPS typology describes possible roots of dyspathy: Emotional - Moral - Personal - Social.
An unexpected, strong connection was found between empathy and places/spaces. The ‘Goldilocks Principle of Empathy’ describes and explains how encounters with others on the streets contribute to people’s dyspathic distancing from people felt to be threatening or demanding, that is extended from individuals to charities. The Brazilian study showed fear of violence leading to a parallel, but enhanced, ‘retreat to the safe space’ in people’s lives and attitudes, with implications for urban architecture and social interaction.
The Kenya study showed how imaginative leadership finds ways to ‘scaffold’ empathy, even during conflict, and how interpersonal relations of empathy and dyspathy connect out into wider contexts of shifting cultural traditions, drought and food security, and neighbouring conflicts. We found that successful empathy at community level requires leaders to first establish their own empathic understanding with those they lead; this finding has widespread implications for commercial, institutional, humanitarian, and non-governmental organisations.
Empathy Dynamics in Conflict Transformation (EDiCT): A Knowledge Exchange project is currently underway in partnership with Birmingham-based NGO Responding to Conflict. Work with organisations in Nepal and Kenya is exploring possibilities for bringing the LwU findings into the field of conflict transformation.
Art exhibition ‘Falling into Place’: The Kenya study led to a series of paintings that will be exhibited at the University of Leeds, Clothworkers' Hall Foyer, 1 August - 31 October 2013. Several workshops on the relation between empathy and painting will be held during the exhibition.
It is hoped to develop the potential for using the LwU findings to carry out organizational "Empathy Audits". These would investigate human relationships in the web of connections that make up a company, institution or group. After revealing the empathy~dyspathy dynamics at work, suggestions can be made for improvement.
More information from: email@example.com.
The Empathy Blog - http://empathyblog.wordpress.com/
Living with Uncertainty is a research fellowship project funded by the ESRC and AHRC as part of the wider RCUK Global Uncertainties Programme.
Increasingly mobile and transient societies present increasing needs for people to understand others who they may find, not only very different from themselves, but also holding attitudes and beliefs which may be difficult to accept. This kind of understanding across difference and emotional ambivalence is 'empathy'. Positive empathy opens up possibilities for alternative responses to uncertainty than apathy, hardening of attitudes or violence. Empathy is constructed, negotiated and resisted through discourse, including the everyday language of social interaction, the rhetoric of politicians, and the language of fiction, song, and news media. The programme of research into the dynamics of empathy will investigate the role of language, and in particular metaphor, in the construction and shifting of people's attitudes to others.
The research has implications for how official communication, media discourse and fiction contribute to fostering empathy and building positive relations between social groups in times of uncertainty.
The following article from the Living with Uncertainty project has just been published:
Cameron, Lynne; Maslen, Robert and Todd, Zazie (2013) 'The dialogic construction of self and other in response to terrorism'. Peace and Conflict, 19(1), pp. 3-22.
In March 2012, Lynne Cameron visited Maralal in northern Kenya with Simon Weatherbed of Responding to Conflict to visit conflict transformation activities. You can read a report of their visit here, and see paintings inspired by the landscapes and people.
(See further details on this website)
A set of stories about how peace builders in Kenya are making change happen and how empathy contributes, is now available, please see the 'LwU goes to Kenya' page on this site.
Click here for an explanation of the multi-level dynamic model of empathy developed by the Living with Uncertainty project.
The sound file can be located by navigating via the link below and following these pages: 'Current Activities'
Metaphor and Reconciliation by Lynne Cameron - click here for information and discount.