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Beyond Empathy: Toward a phenomenological Ethics of Vulnerability

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - BETAPEV (Beyond Empathy: Toward a phenomenological Ethics of Vulnerability)

Okres sprawozdawczy: 2015-04-01 do 2017-03-31

According to a report, titled “Violence against Women: an EU-wide survey” published by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in March 2014, « one in three women (33 %) has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since she was 15 years old, and, slightly more than half of all women in the EU (53 %) avoid certain situations or places, at least sometimes, for fear of being physically or sexually assaulted”. The report stresses that the “feeling of vulnerability” is prevalent among these women. Vulnerability is commonly defined as the “ability to be harmed”, and often associated with weakness or passivity. But the prevalence of the feeling of vulnerability among women in the European Union puts into question this framework and calls for a conceptual revaluation of this notion in order to address its ethical and social significance. This proposal aims to reconsider the moral and philosophical definition of vulnerability based on weakness and harm in order to elaborate a phenomenological ethics of vulnerability that goes beyond traditional accounts of empathy. To do so, the ontological framework of philosophical and psychological theories of empathy will be assessed. Political theories and development policies will be analyzed in order to offer solutions to prevent vulnerability from turning into violence and victimization. weakness and harm in order to elaborate a new definition of vulnerability.

By fleshing out a new understanding of empathy that relies on the phenomenological method, this project aims to understand what it means for someone to feel vulnerable and how another can be responsive to and responsible for this feeling, connecting thereby the explanatory level and the ethical level. Beyond empathy, drawing a phenomenological ethics of vulnerability consists in identifying vulnerability as a universal structure of the human self. This research mixes theoretical analysis (phenomenology) and interdisciplinary empirical work (psychology, cognitive sciences, feminist theories). It bears significant consequences for contemporary philosophical discussions on the nature of the self. Its timeliness echoes a need for new theoretical paradigms to address political and social issues related to self-identity and people’s vulnerability in European societies.

The research methodology is based on (1) theoretical work and (2) fieldwork. Theoretical work consists in thorough analysis and critical assessment of phenomenological works on empathy and vulnerability in order to design a new phenomenological paradigm compatible with social, moral and political theory. Fieldwork consists in observation and interviews with social workers and health professionals working for a NGO, which provide care and assistance to migrants and asylum seekers. The goal is to assess their perceptions of vulnerability and the way they use or refer to this category in their professional practices. Another objective is to study and assess the scope and applicability of the EU recommendations and directives (that refer to vulnerability and vulnerable populations) in such contexts.


The overall objectives of the project consist in elaborating a new paradigm that will consider vulnerability as an intersubjective dynamic rather than an individual state. It aims to show – thanks to theoretical and empirical investigation – that interpersonal relationships are characterized by their openness and affectivity and that vulnerability and precariousness should be differentiated. This conceptual clarification aims to design a theoretical framework on which one could draw new care protocols and policies to thwart the negative effects of vulnerability.
The project has been carried out over two years: the first year was dedicated to theoretical research and academic activities (seminar series, conferences, publications) (M1-M9) and field work (M9-M12). The second year of the project has been divided into three periods: the first period (M13-M17) consisted in carrying out fieldwork analysis, fostering public dissemination through international conferences and developing professional networks 2. The second period (M18-M20) was dedicated to interdisciplinary research, public dissemination, cross-fertilization and collaborative projects at the University of Copenhagen (Centre for Subjectivity Research); Lastly, the third period was devoted to outreach activities, public dissemination through seminars and conferences, and finalizing publications (M21-M24).

During the first year, The researcher studied in depth the notions of empathy and vulnerability as conceptualized by social and political philosophy as well as phenomenology. During this phase, the researcher also delved into the phenomenological understanding of empathy thanks to conference presentations. During the end of the first period (M9-M12), the researcher also conducted fieldwork in a nongovernmental organization. The researcher carried out as initially planned: documents review consisting in reports and publications analysis ; structured observation of the professionals’ activities ; and 12 in depth semi-structured interviews with health professionals and care givers.

During the second year, the Researcher analyzed the data collected during her fieldwork. One of the objectives was to explain the phenomenon of vicarious traumatization among caregivers and to appraise the impact of the perception of vulnerability on care strategies. Research dissemination occurred through international conferences, lectures and seminar series at the host institution and abroad. During the last months of the project (M21-M24), the Researcher presented her results through conferences and seminars. Contributions will be gathered in an edited volume (2017) and results published in articles in the coming months.
Based on these two domains of activities (theoretical research and fieldwork), the researcher has made scientific progress beyond the state of the art, and expects potential societal impact.

Bringing to light the need for phenomenological investigation of the notion of vulnerability, the researcher has had several opportunities to showcase her research project and to gather international researchers (seminar series and international conferences) in order to have them contribute to her project objectives. Progress beyond the state of the art will be made as an edited volume and several articles dedicated to the phenomenological ethics of vulnerability will be published in the coming year. These publications will go beyond the state of the art by: 1. Specifically tackling the phenomenological contribution to the academic debate on vulnerability ; 2. Showing the relevance of phenomenology for understanding contemporary political and social issues – in particular with regard to migrations, displacement and identity politics. 3. Developing an innovative framework that also goes beyond the state of the art in phenomenological research.

In the long run, the researcher also expects societal impact, notably through the results of her fieldwork analysis. Considering the current European migrant crisis, the recommendations for new care policies and strategies dedicated to asylum seekers would have an important impact. Conceptual analysis of the notion of vulnerability might also have an impact on its legal applications, for instance, as this term is widely used in the latest directives implemented by the European Union.
theoretical model to be investigated and tested