Sam Richards’ definition of sociology is the ‘study of the way in which humans are shaped by things that they don’t see’. He takes the interpretivist argument to the extreme and argues that empathy is at the core of our understanding of the social world.
In this talk, he insists that, as sociologists, and just as people, we must learn to place ourselves in other people’s shoes, and explores the possibility of human empathy. Personally, I don’t agree with Richards’ choice of term – to me empathy is an insufficient means for achieving that deep understanding of things in their own logic – that elusive but desirable thing that Max Weber called Verstehen. To understand the world in this way, it is not enough to have a gut feeling or to place yourself in someone’s metaphorical shoes. We must also apply reason to understand events in their own logic, without imposing on them our – also partial, unquestioned, and as a result inherently biased – opinions. If we only rely on empathy, we don’t understand, we feel. But OK, perhaps the emotion of empathy is a start and is essential to even begin to understand. It’s nice that a sociologist takes 18 minutes to reiterate its importance to a wide public. Many sociologists, unfortunately, don’t even do that.