Introduction to Empathy: Activation, Definition, Construct

Emily Lord-Kambitsch


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This introduction to the collection offers an initial discussion of the concept of empathy, and its uses in both academic and popular discourse. I aim here to interrogate a general trend, currently observable particularly with reference to educational and corporate settings, in which ‘empathy’ has become somewhat of a buzz-word, an essential component that enhances the ‘human’ quality of the ways in which a company operates, or a curriculum is administered in a classroom. In the literature produced about, or sometimes by these sectors, there is frequent advocacy for the activation of empathy in professional and teacher-student relationships, while concrete definitions of empathy are rarely provided, and often taken for granted. On the other hand, in academic discourse, disciplinary approaches and objectives render it essential for definitions of empathy not only to be thoroughly expounded but also adequately justified in a specific disciplinary (or a specific cross-disciplinary) context. This discussion aims to offer a brief survey of some ways in which the conceptual tension between definitions and practical applications (or activations) of empathy have been, and can continue to be explored. This survey in turn will introduce the featured papers in this collection, initially delivered at a 2013 workshop on ‘Empathy’ at the UCL Joint Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies, contributions which will offer perspectives on socio-cultural, philosophical, artistic, and psychological constructs of empathy, both in its definition and potential activation.



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