Sympathy? No thanks!

This post, like Devon's on Oct. 4, touches on issues of subjectivity.  I considered not posting this because of that, but I think that this is such a broad and important issue that it merits a wide-ranging discussion.

Anyway, something that Knight mentioned in this week's reading really bugged me, for lack of a more elegant description of my thoughts.  It was when he was discussing sympathetic vs. empathetic research, and how certain researchers and scholars believe that sympathy is an asset, particularly when dealing with subjects disadvantaged by unequal power relationship in their society.  A direct quotation is useful here.  Knight states that "their [the sympathy-loving researchers'] view is that only by sharing and endorsing the standpoint of the people in the study can the researcher directly or vicariously appreciate that condition" (p. 56)  Presumably such a position then enables better research.

This just seems all kinds of wrong to me.  Our society is politicized enough as it is (well, we're not as bad as the U.S., but we're not great, either), and I don't see how politically-subjective research alleviates this condition (presuming that scholarly research is meant to help society in some small way or another).  I remember when I took a course in Middle Eastern history as an undergrad, and I wrote a paper on an issue related to the early Israel-Palestine wars.  It was then that I realized how biased supposedly scholarly research could be.  It seems as if every scholar dropped themselves on one side of the issue or the other, and spent their time trying to "prove" that their position was the right one.  You had Israelis arguing for Israel, Palestinians arguing for Palestine, and then you had maverick Israeli scholars also arguing on behalf of the Palestinians.  Trying to get a coherent picture of events that happened only about half a century ago was next to impossible.

Anyway, I'm not trying to suggest that all sympathetic research is going to be as bad as that.  Nor do I believe that "pure" objectivity is possible.  We can't shuffle around in white lab coats taking notes on folks going about their lives.  But we can at least try to see the whole picture, can't we?

- Matt


Stephanie Lauren said...

I think that you make a good point Matt. I was also a little perturbed when I read this part in Knight's chapter. It seemed strange to me that some scholars would advocate sympathizing with their research subjects - especially to the extent that only one type of person could research specific populations (i.e. only women can conduct feminist research p. 56).

I liked how Knight showcased this viewpoint but still brought it back to what I think is a more reasonable way to approach social science research: using empathy "to appreciate the reasoning and perceptions of the people who are the subjects of research" (p. 56). While I think being sympathetic skews results (and the usefulness of research), being able to engage empathetically with research subjects probably allows for social science researchers to put their research subjects at ease and achieve their goals more effectively.

Devon said...

I think the problem with that (as with all biases) is that we're already compromised from the start.
For anyone to come up with an idea to do research they have to see a problem at the very least (and maybe a potential solution) and we can't really help it.
Here's the best not politically sensitive example I can think of. At one time people used science to explain how white people were superior. If I noticed that this reasoning was being used to justify oppression and felt like it was wrong, I would try to prove it from science. But the fact is I decided it was wrong before I did the research. I didn't like something in my society so I wanted to prove it wrong through research.
Is it possible to do social science research without that?

ps - that's a really simple example compared with your Israel/Palestine which is 200% more complicated but I think that means even more emotional investment

Amy. said...

I too found this quite interesting, but what I found issue with was the wording of the quote that Matt has posted: "their [the sympathy-loving researchers'] view is that only by sharing and endorsing the standpoint of the people in the study can the researcher directly or vicariously appreciate that condition" (p. 56). 

Oftentimes (as we've discussed already) research is used to explore the uknown, and to contribute to a greater understanding (useful research, if I may call it that) of a particular phenomena. I truly feel that it is possible to vicariously appreciate a condition without whole-heartedly sympathizing with the subjects, and such is very possible, as Stephanie mentioned, through empathy. As an example, I can appreciate why my grandparents share some very conservative views of the world, but I don't have to share or endorse those standpoints to gain an understanding of how they see the world and why (tradition, their upbringing, life experiences, etc...) 

Although I doubt that sympathy is the only characteristic that enables a researcher to understand her subjects, I have yet to be convinced that sympathy will always make bad research - what do you think?

- Amy Weir

mwells said...

I should make it clear that I understand that Knight was not endorsing this type of research. He actually does a good job of presenting numerous types of research, while pointing out the benefits and flaws of each (though it does get a bit depressing reading about how *every* research method is flawed...but at least he's honest).

On Amy's point, I suppose that sympathy is often a natural part of the research process. After all, most people research disadvantaged communities in part because they do sympathize with them, and that should be acknowledged. I suppose it's just a matter of emphasis, and allowing your feelings to guide, but not distort, your research.

- Matt

Amy. said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Matt. I agree that Knight seemed to provide an overview of the different approaches to research, which for me was quite eye-opening. Considering Knight's explanations of how all research methods are in some way flawed (or rather that there are pros and cons to each), I would be interested in learning more about particular research methods that benefit from, or are fueled more by sympathy, such as in the example described by Matt. Evidently there are so many different methodologies, each with very unique characteristics and very individual benefits and disadvantages. Lots to ponder here!

Sara M. Grimes said...

Definitely - I like Knight's insightful overview of the various methods and ability to identify key paradigms among scholars who tend toward particular types of research, methods, etc. The sympathy issue is really interesting - particularly when thinking about the contexts out of which these discussions (sympathy, empathy, objectivity) emerged...positivist foundations, and then later studies of people conducted by very advantaged/powerful (both discursively and in terms of their own social, gender, race and socio-economic status) academics. Perhaps a helpful counterpoint would be to think of an interview where the interviewer attempted NO sympathy or empathy? would there be a greater risk of exploitation and misrepresentation, bias, etc.?

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