Essay on Reflexive Embodied 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 …show more content…

I call this practice ‘reflexive embodied empathy’.

To define and explicate this concept, I start by exploring some of the literature on empathy. There is an extensive empirical literature on empathy in the fields of neuroscience (see Thompson, 2001) and social psychology (see Davis, 1994). However, I confine my discussion here to the equally extensive (though sometimes overlooked) literature from phenomenology. Here, I draw on a range of theoretical ideas but the philosophical ideas of Husserl (1928/1989) on intersubjectivity and of Merleau-Ponty (1964/1968) on ‘embodiment as intertwining’ are particularly influential. While the focus in this literature review is on empathy, concepts related to embodiment and reflexivity are integral.

The literature review is followed by an analysis of the concept of reflexive embodied empathy in practice. I use three examples of significant moments from various hermeneutic phenomenological research projects to demonstrate reflexive analysis of my own embodied, intersubjective relationships with participants. I characterize these moments of reflective involvement with the data as fluid, interpermeating ‘layers’ whereby different dimensions of experience are called to the fore. Three co-existing layers of reflexivity are described: • connecting-of the Other’s embodiment to our own • acting-into the Other’s

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