Reflexive Embodied Empathy

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  • Topic: Phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, Empathy
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Paper for 2005 Methods issue #4 The Humanistic Psychologist

‘Reflexive embodied empathy’: a phenomenology of participant-researcher intersubjectivity

By: Linda Finlay

Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks go to Scott Churchill for reminding me to return to Husserl’s work on intersubjectivity to better anchor my concept of ‘reflexive embodied empathy’. I am also indebted to Maree Burns who first drew my attention to the idea of embodied reflexivity.

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In this paper I’m advocating a research process which involves engaging, reflexively, with the embodied intersubjective relationship we have with participants. I call this practice ‘reflexive embodied empathy’. First, I explicate the concept of empathy through exploring ideas from the philosophical phenomenological literature. I then apply this theory to practice and offer examples of reflexive analysis of embodied empathy taken from various hermeneutic phenomenological research projects. Three interpenetrating layers of reflexivity are described, each involving different but coexisting dimensions of embodied intersubjectivity. The first layer – connecting-of – demonstrates how we can tune into another’s bodily way of being through using our own embodied reactions. The second layer – acting-into – focuses on empathy as imaginative self-transposal and calls our attention to the way existences (beings) are intertwined in a dynamic of doubling and mirroring. The third layer – merging-with – involves a “reciprocal insertion and intertwining” of others in ourselves and of us in them (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, p.138), where self-understanding and other-understanding unite in mutual transformation. Through different examples of reflexive analysis from my research, I’ve tried to show how our intersubjective corporeal commonality enables the possibility of empathy and how, in turn, empathy enables both understanding of the Other and self-understanding. I discuss how the co-existing layers of empathy and the resultant understandings can be enabled through hermeneutic reflection and collaborative research methods.

‘Reflexive embodied empathy’: a phenomenology of participant-researcher intersubjectivity

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person, My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe. (Whitman, 1917) “The body is the vehicle of being in the world”, says Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962, p 82). More than this, the body is the vehicle for understanding the world, he argues. It is through our own embodied consciousness that we gain an understanding of the Other. In his later work he elaborates this idea to argue for ‘incorporeal being’, an intersubjective intertwining. Using the metaphor of the chiasm – criss-crossing – he suggests that a kind of corporeal reflexivity is the foundation upon which self-reflection and personal identity rests.

Applying Merleau-Ponty’s ideas of embodiment, understanding and self-reflection to the phenomenological research process, I argue that empathy is not just about emotional knowing, it is a felt, embodied, intersubjective experience. It is also an experience which underpins our ability to understand our participants. For this reason we need to learn to read and interrogate our body’s response to, and relationship with, the body of our research participant (the Other). Firstly, as we study a person’s life world, their sense of embodiment is a significant existential dimension that requires our fullest attention. We need to try to grasp something of the Other as a ‘living, lived body’. Secondly, we also should attend to our own bodies as researchers – specifically the body that is in relationship with our...
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