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Social Empathy

The Art of Understanding Others

By Elizabeth Segal
15-minute read
Audio available
Social Empathy by Elizabeth Segal

Social Empathy (2018) shows how we can widen our sense of empathy and extend it not just to individuals who are different from us, but to entire social and cultural groups. It explains the ways we’re able to not just imagine what it’s like to be another person, but also consider the historical and political factors that have made them who they are, which increases our ability to be more empathetic. It also explores the barriers that block empathy – like stress and fear of otherness – and the steps we can take to overcome them.

  • Compassionate people who’d like to become more empathetic
  • Psychology enthusiasts curious about how empathy works
  • Fighters for social justice interested in understanding the role of empathy in social change

Elizabeth A. Segal is a professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University. She is the author of Social Welfare Policy and Social Programs: A Values Perspective and coauthor of Assessing Empathy.

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Social Empathy

The Art of Understanding Others

By Elizabeth Segal
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Social Empathy by Elizabeth Segal
Synopsis

Social Empathy (2018) shows how we can widen our sense of empathy and extend it not just to individuals who are different from us, but to entire social and cultural groups. It explains the ways we’re able to not just imagine what it’s like to be another person, but also consider the historical and political factors that have made them who they are, which increases our ability to be more empathetic. It also explores the barriers that block empathy – like stress and fear of otherness – and the steps we can take to overcome them.

Key idea 1 of 9

Social empathy looks at a situation’s wider context.

In August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina was battering New Orleans, the news cycle made a big fuss about looting. Images of people grabbing food, water, and clothing from shops went viral. Unsurprisingly, TV pundits condemned these people as criminals. 

In the days following the crisis, some journalists took a more nuanced approach and discussed looting not as a crime but as a result of structural inequality. They described the historical neglect the levees suffered, the effect of the neglect on the poorest communities in New Orleans, and generations of racial discrimination. 

Unlike the pundits quick to point fingers, the journalists who wrote such stories – and their many readers – were experiencing social empathy. 

The key message here is: Social empathy looks at a situation’s wider context.

Empathy plays a part in all levels of social interaction. Interpersonal empathy happens between individuals, and it’s what we usually mean when we talk about empathy in everyday life. We have it in mind when we say things like, “I feel your pain.” Interpersonal empathy includes sharing the other person’s feelings, taking their perspective, and, at the same time, understanding that it’s happening to them, not you.

But empathy is more than just concern with one person’s feelings. You can take a broader view and consider the experiences of entire communities.

That’s where social empathy comes in.

It’s the ability to understand social groups by becoming aware of their everyday lives and historical context. 

It comes down to perspective-taking. In a nutshell, it’s what we mean by walking a mile in another’s shoes. But all too often, instead of imagining what it would be like for another person in different circumstances, we simply imagine what the experience would mean to us as we are. That’s why some people say they’d never resort to looting - they haven’t taken the complete mental leap of placing themselves in the middle of a disaster, but are only thinking about what they would do in their current comfortable situation.

Social empathy helps us overcome this.

With social empathy, we look at context so that we can understand the experiences of other groups. Context includes historical events as well as the challenges and obstacles the group experiences. From a socially empathetic perspective, walking in another’s shoes means fully understanding what came before and led to the experiences the community is having now. For example, it includes thinking about how slavery has shaped the experiences that African Americans have today.

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