Discussion Empathy the Self and Social Connection

March 8, 2022
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Discussion Empathy the Self and Social Connection

Discussion Empathy the Self and Social Connection

The impact of digital forms of communication on social connection

Reading: Turkle (Conversation, One Chair, Two Chairs) https://e-edu.nbu.bg/pluginfile.php/849202/mod_res…

Questions: (1) How well do Turkle’s examples of the impact of digital communication reflect your own experience? Has she convinced you of the importance of her concerns about the social impact of the internet? Why or why not?

(2) Try to rebut Turkle’s central arguments in one of these three book sections. How do you recommend that society respond to the tensions Turkle discusses in this section?
Tags: Personal autonomy and the internet

Our social encounters are dizzyingly complex. They not only involve overlapping layers of affective, conative, and cognitive engagements between self and others. They are also deeply embedded in continually-changing environments that shape experiential, emotional, and epistemic forms of sharing distinctive of these encounters—forms of sharing that are, in turn, further modulated by contextual factors such as real or imagined group membership and shifting social identities. Moreover, each of these social processes variously affects and feeds back onto the others. This complex tangle of multi-layered processes supports core social capacities like our capacity for interaction, cooperation, affective sharing, joint agency, and social identification. It also directly impacts our capacity for empathy: our ability to perceive, understand, and respond to the experiences and behavior of others. Empathy is facilitated—but also modulated, biased, or even disrupted by—various aspects of these processes. In other words, empathy is a robustly situated practice, one that is bound up with a rich array of processes that encompass not only the dynamics of our face-to-face engagements but also the complex environments in which these engagements develop and take shape.

To be sure, it is not controversial so say that these fundamental dimensions of our sociality, which can be broadly subsumed under the labels “empathy”, “shared emotions”, and “social identity”, are variously and massively interconnected. Most contemporary philosophers, cognitive scientists, developmental and social psychologists, and social neuroscientists working in these areas will readily subscribe at least to the general contours of this picture. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that little attention has so far been paid to conceptually and systematically clarifying how these different social processes might intersect and impact one another. Instead, most of the relevant philosophical, social-scientific, and empirical work in the past decade has focused primarily on specific aspects of these different dimensions of sociality in isolation, and has not systematically addressed their interconnection.

Discussion Empathy the Self and Social ConnectionThis special issue shifts the focus of these debates by exploring links between philosophical and psychological research on empathy, shared emotions, and social identity. The individual contributions to this special issue are diverse and cover a range of topics and issues. They cluster around the following sets of questions:

What psychological mechanisms underpin instrumental helping and prosocial behaviour?

To what extent does empathy enable joint agency, emotional sharing, and the emergence and maintenance of group and social identity? What role do pre-reflective or subpersonal process play here? What about narrative practices?

Conversely, how do shared emotions, social identity, or group membership modulate or bias empathic understanding at both the interpersonal and the intergroup level?

What is the nature of social identification, and how does our ability to empathize with a particular other impact our identification with a group?

Do complex forms of social identification (e.g., group-identification) presuppose more basic forms of empathy or other interpersonal processes like joint attention and imitation? What exclusionary and ingroup/outgroup mechanisms are involved?

What role do the interrelated socio-psychological processes of stereotyping, social (self-)categorization, depersonalization, or dehumanization play here, and how does self-alienation factor in?

Before we outline how the nine contributions to this issue address these questions, we will first provide context by sketching the most relevant recent debates at the intersection between social cognition, social ontology, and social psychology. Along the way, we shall point to some unresolved issues, desiderata, and avenues for future research.

Discussion Empathy the Self and Social ConnectionResearch Background and Future Avenues
Consider first recent work on social cognition in philosophy and the cognitive sciences, where we can witness a partial shift of focus away from the more established theory of mind debate to explorations of the relation between empathy and affective sharing. One of the central questions in this area of research is whether empathy amounts to some form of affective sharing—that is, whether the sharing of affective states between the subject and the target of empathy is a necessary requirement for (successful) empathic understanding (cf. Michael 2014). According to one trend in current social cognition research, which is gaining increased traction, empathy is conceived in primarily affective terms, rather than as a predominantly cognitive form perspective-taking or mindreading.Footnote1 Here, empathy is characterized as the “simulation of the feelings of others” or as “caused by sharing the emotions of another person” (Hein and Singer 2008; cf. de Vignemont and Singer 2006). Relatedly, it has been argued that empathy is itself an affective state, which necessarily requires “interpersonal similarity”: some relevant similarity between the affective state of the subject and the target of empathy (Jacob 2011; De Vignemont and Jacob 2012). Moreover, according to this view, empathy also entails a “care” for the affective state of the other, which brings it closer to what is usually called sympathy (ibid.) (although none of these authors hold that empathy thereby can be equated with sympathy).

Discussion Empathy the Self and Social ConnectionMeanwhile, authors mainly drawing on the phenomenological tradition, and especially on the work of Edmund Husserl, Edith Stein, Max Scheler or Alfred Schütz, have forcefully challenged this assumption. They claim that empathy—viewed in this tradition roughly as a sui generis ability to perceptually access and understand the experiential life of others (Zahavi 2014; Jardine and Szanto 2017; Krueger 2018; cf. also Michael and Fardo 2014)—is neither itself an affective state nor requires any isomorphism between subjects’ and the targets’ mental or affective states. Empathy does not amount to any form of affective sharing of the relevant states, either. As phenomenologists such as Scheler (1913/1926) or Stein (1917, 1922) have long emphasized, it must be markedly distinguished not only from emotional contagion and forms of ‘feeling-with’ (as in ‘I feel with your loss’), or sympathy, but also from any form of ‘feeling-together’Footnote2 or forms of emotional sharing that today are discussed in terms collective emotions.Footnote3

Debates about collective emotions concern whether and in what sense a collection of individuals can properly speaking share an emotional episode. Consider, for example, members of a football team who are collectively (i.e., jointly, as a team) grieving over their deceased teammate, or who are proud of their success in the tournament (‘We are very happy with the result’).

Discussion Empathy the Self and Social ConnectionBut apart from the phenomenological accounts mentioned previously, there is very little conceptual precision when it comes to determining the relation between empathy and both interpersonal and collective forms of emotional sharing. Incidentally, this relation has hardly been empirically studied either, and is yet very little understood. However one may decide upon this issue—and the editors, as well as most contributors to this issue, tend to side with the phenomenological line of thought—for the present context it is crucial to note the following. Even if one holds that empathy and emotional sharing are in fact clearly distinct social processes—and that, moreover, the former doesn’t necessarily involve the latter—one can still consistently hold that they are interlinked by various social-psychological dynamics.

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In this connection, it’s worth mentioning a bold phenomenologically inspired proposal by Salice and Taipale (2015) that aims to bridge social cognition and social ontology by developing an original account of group-directed empathy. The authors suggest that it is possible to have an empathic act when the target is not an individual or even individual members of a group, but rather the group itself. This possibility, together with the phenomenological insight that empathy is only possible if the empathic target has a (directly) perceptible body, leads them to the conclusion that groups as such are embodied agents; they may properly be attributed a body of their own, i.e., one that is not reducible to the bodies of their individual members. What is more, in discussing the differences between individual- and group-directed empathy, and in particular different display and vehicles of the expression of (shared) emotions, they argue that for structural and essential reasons our empathic grasp of the affective states of groups is more informative, “more extensive, exhaustive”, and indeed “more adequate”, than in the case of individuals (ibid., p. 166). Similarly, one of us (Szanto 2015) has claimed that individual-member-to-group and group-to-individual-member directed empathy might correct for various cases of misidentification regarding shared emotions (even if they are, pace Salice and Taipale, not more reliable or adequate than ordinary interpersonal forms). Such misidentifications include, among others, misidentification what the communities’ standards of emotional sharing are, or whether there are any properly shared emotions between a given member and the group in the first place.

Discussion Empathy the Self and Social ConnectionA number of issues, however, remained unresolved with regard to such collective forms of empathy. For example, what is the relation between such collective empathic stances and feelings of group-belongingness, ingroup homogeneity, or favoritism? Presumably, if a group collectively engages in empathy towards outgroups, this will strengthen ingroup cohesion, for instance, by way of social distinction. Furthermore, if individual members empathize with the shared emotions of their ingroup, they may gain additional affective reasons to retain their membership. For example, a member of a political movement may thus learn that certain values or affective concerns are shared by other members, a fact that she might not have realized simply by focusing on some doctrinal propositions of the movement; and this will typically reinforce her attachment. Identifying the norms guiding emotional sharing via group-directed empathy may also facilitate affective conformity, and help maintain the shared emotional patterns of the given group. Finally, group-directed empathy may reinforce a sense of belonging, if, for instance, individuals become aware that they are not empathized with as individuals, but become targets of empathic stances of other groups or third parties, as members of a certain group. This seems especially salient in settings of intergroup antagonism, such as racism, when social cognition towards (and indeed recognition of) one’s own ingroup is biased or disrupted (cf. Ito and Bartholow 2009; Xu et al. 2009; Losin et al. 2012). Even though there has been some related empirical research on the modulatory effects of sociocultural identity and ingroup/outgroup distinctions on interpersonal empathic encounters (see more below), such effects on group-directed or intergroup empathic relations have so far been underexamined.

Discussion Empathy the Self and Social ConnectionAnother relevant context where the connection between mindreading, simulation, and empathy, on one hand, and forms of collaboration, on the other, has been systematically investigated is the enactivist and so-called “interactionist” paradigm in social cognition research. Different proposals have investigated in what sense social cognition can be viewed as a specific form of (embodied) interaction. From this enactive perspective, the claim is not simply that face-to-face interaction is a contextual factor or an enabling condition for social cognition but rather that is it a constitutive feature of it.Footnote4 Furthermore, there is a related and rapidly increasing body of work exploring, more specifically, links not just between social cognition and interaction but also between social cognition and joint attention and joint agency.Footnote5 For instance, it has not only been argued that collaborating agents are better mindreaders, since they can draw on a situational cues afforded by the very interaction, which might be otherwise unavailable (Butterfill 2013)Footnote6; moreover, classical and contemporary phenomenologists have suggested that more complex forms of experiential we-intentionality and group agency must in fact be founded upon more basic, embodied forms of interaction and, in particular, face-to-face empathic encounters (Zahavi 2014, 2015a, b; León and Zahavi 2016; cf. also Szanto 2015, 2018).

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