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Rethinking empathy: professional work with persons with PIMD
  1. Halvor Hanisch1,
  2. Synne Kristin Nese Skarsaune2
  1. 1Institute for Health Sciences, VID Specialized University, Stavanger, Norway
  2. 2University of Stavanger, Stavanger, Norway
  1. Correspondence to Dr Halvor Hanisch, Institute for Health Sciences, VID Specialized University, Stavanger, Norway; halvor.hanisch{at}vid.no

Abstract

This article combines ethnographic interpretations with analyses of the conceptual history of empathy. Moving beyond the more common notions, which often rely in psychological theories and terminologies, the conceptual-historical analyses trace its roots to 18th and 19th century notions of ‘Einfühlung’. As the ethnographic work follows the professional work with two young women with profound intellectual and multiple disabilities, the article makes a fivefold argument. First, we argue that empathy is often considered a matter of individual cognition but should be rethought as an embodied process of feeling-into. Second, we argue that this process is characterised by incompleteness—and hence must acknowledge that empathy is always partial, always on the way to understanding. Third, we argue that this incompleteness forces us to think about the underlying ‘connecting force’, and that the conceptual history suggests that we should think about this force as a form of love. Fourth, we suggest that this ‘love’ is highly embodied, and that this suggests that theoretical notions of empathy should relate to notions of kinship. Fifth, we suggest that the combination of this love (affection, appreciation), embodied kinship and incompleteness suggests a final rethinking, namely the notion of empathy as a form of longing.

  • Medical humanities
  • philosophy of medicine/health care
  • cultural studies

Data availability statement

No data are available. Due to the vulnerability of the participants, the ethics board has advised against data sharing.

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Data availability statement

No data are available. Due to the vulnerability of the participants, the ethics board has advised against data sharing.

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Footnotes

  • Contributors SKNS conducted the fieldwork and was involved in the entire analytical process, including the manuscript finalisation. HH led the analysis, and is the guarantor.

  • Funding This study was funded by VID vitenskapelige høgskole (general funds).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer-reviewed.