Social Scientific Empathy Is A Thing

By Graham Peterson

Social scientific empathy is a real thing.  In 1940, when homophobia was the name of the game, a group of intellectuals who took risks by seeing through gay people’s eyes, that is, by considering that gays were working with the same cognitive, emotional, and social capacities as everyone else, was a transcendent and considered thing to do.

Nowadays that’s the easy pie.

There’s no longer anything remarkable about sociologists who hang out with the homeless, evictees, trans-gendered people, queens, and so on.  It’s mainstream.  In many cases it’s now a real yawn, because students of social science are now drawn overwhelmingly from populations who have been weaned on the philosophy that gay people, women, minorities, and others who we used to put in some lower-than or other-than category, are fully human.

In this new climate, the real task for social scientists is to once again sit back and think, “gee, maybe we ought to apply the same rough model of what a human being is across the population without succumbing to our prejudices about their moral failings.”  Social scientific empathy, these days, implies looking at populations that much of progressive America has decided are dirty rotten exploiters, and attempting to understand them on their own terms.

That’s a dangerous proposition, because it will inevitably lead to many people in social science sympathizing with certain positions of the political right, say, and advocating for them . . . just like it happened with the study of the LGBT community.

But any social science that is not a selective cartoon requires this kind of swallowing of our prejudices and paying sincere attention to people who we otherwise find revolting.  That means no more caricatures of white campus frat boys, nor of suburban real estate owning whites, nor of republicans, and so on.

This project will be even more difficult than the first round of “wait the ghetto isn’t a disorganized nest of impropriety” ethnography, because the people who take on frat house beer pong (say) to show us that frat boys aren’t out of control misogynists, aren’t going to do battle with popular opinion in the White House and on NBC, they’re going to take on most of their colleagues.

It’s not the sociology department versus the world now, it’s going to be a few sociologists versus sociology.

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