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Becoming Empathetic through Sociology

Learning sociology helps us to further develop our ability to empathize. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how learning about gangs beyond statistics can help us to develop our own sense of empathy.

One skill that students of sociology should develop and refine through their training is the ability to empathize.

What is empathy? There are two types of empathy: affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy most closely aligns with the sociological imagination. Cognitive empathy “refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions.” The sociological imaganation tasks us with understanding the perspective of other people. Doing this can enable us to understand why people make choices very different from our own.

I assign the book Gang Leader for a Day in my Sociology of Deviant Behavior course. I have three main reasons for assigning this particular book, which I won’t bore you with, but the reason pertinent to this posting has to do with empathy.

Most of my students pick up the book with a strong negative reaction to gangs. They can’t imagine why anyone would choose to join a gang. For most of my students, joining a gang was never an option. There was no gang in their community. They have never met a gang member. To be sure, this does not mean no gang presence existed in their communities, it means they were isolated from gang life. Moreover, while they have lived in communities with limited opportunities, opportunities still exist. For them, joining a gang was never a decision they had to make.

By the time they finish reading the book, they tend to still have negative reactions towards gangs, but most students are also much more empathetic to the reasons why people join gangs. They begin the semester with the attitude that people just have to be strong and refuse to cave to the pressures of joining a gang. That if a person just works hard enough and stays out of trouble, he or she can escape a gang-controlled community. After reading the book, they still may harbor some of this sentiment but they also understand that exercising one’s agency to resist gang involvement is a lot more complicated. Further, some of their assumptions about why people join gangs (e.g., lack of education) are challenged when they learn that some gang members do hold bachelor’s degrees.

Even the author, Sudhir Venkatesh, of Gang Leader for a Day at times has difficulty empathizing during the course of his research. The title of the book comes from his cavelier attitude regarding how easy it looked to be a gang leader until the gang leader, J.T., allowed Venkatesh to be the leader for a day. Our ability to empathize may enable us to understand another person’s perspective but until we literally walk in another person’s shoes, we still might not fully understand.

This is why sociologists do research that is not only quantitative, but also qualitative. Quantitative research deals with numbers (think surveys and statistics). The National Gang Survey Analysis is an example of quantitative research on gangs. Qualitative research tells the story behind the numbers. Venkatesh fell into his research project by going to the Robert Taylor Homes as a University of Chicago graduate research assistant. His task was to gather survey data from residents. He realized that while there is value in quantitative research, qualitative research on poverty and gang life was also needed.

Qualitative research allows us to uncover the motivations for joining and staying in a gang. Venkatesh provides a portrait of what day-to-day life is like for gang members. He is also able to crush stereotypes about gangs. For instance, he found that drive-by-shootings were not something that gangs just do on a whim.

I ask my students to read Gang Leader for a Day because it helps them empathize with a group of people (i.e., gangs) despised by most. They also get to see how empathy itself is hard work through reading about how Venkatesh stumbles along the way in his own ability to understand how gangs work.

Finally, keep in mind that empathizing with gang members is very different from justifying or excusing that person’s choices. It is very easy to tell a person to make better choices. It is much more difficult to understand why they made the choice they did and develop public policies that might lead to different (and presumably better) choices.


Want to learn more about empathy? Watch this great video by Sam Richards: A Radical Experiment in Empathy

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is empathy? How does sociology help us develop our ability to empathize? Give an example from your own life in which you have used empathy.
  2. What is qualitative research? How can it help us develop empathy?
  3. Read “The Children of the Drug Wars: A Refugee Crisis, Not an Immigration Crisis” and “Fleeing Gangs, Children Head to U.S. Border.” Why are children fleeing Honduras? What would you do if you were a child living in Honduras?
  4. How might developing our own sense of empathy inform public policy on issues such as deporting the influx of children from Honduras? How should the U.S. government respond to the immigration/refugee crisis?