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Understanding children's empathy: an ethnographic study among the indigenous Runa of the Ecuadorian Amazon

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ChildEmp (Understanding children's empathy: an ethnographic study among the indigenous Runa of the Ecuadorian Amazon)

Berichtszeitraum: 2018-01-12 bis 2020-01-11

At this time of the Anthropocene, debates about how we should positively transform our relationships with the environment and nonhuman beings have come to the forefront of both civil society and social theory.Such debates have often been framed in terms of empathy, which is understood as an individual and group capacity for understanding and sharing the feelings and perspectives of others, including nonhumans. Recently, a growing number of social theorists have argued that it is precisely Western society’s lack of empathy with nonhumans which underpins the contemporary environmental crisis. In particular, the question of how one learns to feel empathy towards the environment and the beings which inhabit it has been identified as a key issue to address in order to face the current environmental crisis. Building upon contemporary interdisciplinary research on empathy, the proposed project aims to understand how an empathetic attitude towards nonhuman entities is gradually learnt during childhood. More specifically, it investigates how indigenous children in the Ecuadorian Amazon learn to be empathetic with nonhuman beings. Amazonian indigenous societies are known in the anthropological literature for engaging in empathetic relationships with a vast array of nonhuman beings, including trees, rivers and other inanimate entities.
Connecting the various interdisciplinary approaches to empathy and the anthropological literature on Amazonian human-nonhuman relationships, the proposed project aims to fill this important gap by investigating how indigenous children in the Ecuadorian Amazon become empathetic towards nonhumans through early intersubjective processes of learning and material interactions. It raises larger philosophical and anthropological questions of how empathy is culturally acquired, manifested and actively learnt during childhood. With a focus on the process of learning empathy, this project is a particularly timely endeavour as it may provide an alternative model for interacting with nature, which could help us face the challenges of the current environmental crisis.
Extending on my previous research among indigenous Runa people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, the main objective of this research is understand how empathy towards nonhumans is gradually learnt during childhood. This overall aim can be broken down into other objectives: 1. To explore how children learn to perceive others as human-like in a setting which is inductive to such learning. The following questions will guide my methodology: How is perception shaped by intersubjective encounters with nonhumans? In such interactions, which phenomenal aspects are highlighted, which are downplayed? How do adults emphasise particular characteristics of nonhumans? What sensorial faculties are deployed by children in the recognition of human-like features? 2. To explore children’s perception and understanding of personhood and intentionality (including emotions and other dispositions). In particular I will focus on the following issues: What are the Runa children’s conceptions of personhood? How do Runa children understand ‘intentionality’? Do children’s views differ from adults’? 3. To understand the nature of ‘empathy’ among indigenous Runa people and compare it with Western ideas of empathy.

The project was concluded in January 2021. Outputs of the project included: 1) Publications (including an edited volume forthcoming with Routledge) 2) Dissemination activities (workshops, organisation of panels at major disciplinary conferences) 3) Ongoing contribution to the writing of a report on indigenous schooling and learning in Ecuador.
During WP1I compiled a robust multidisciplinary literature review on the topic of empathy; 2) I extensively researched the use of experimental fieldwork techniques, particularly those used in sensory anthropology and developmental psychology (e.g. filming, children’s play) and complement this with two postgraduate courses (SE995 Visual Anthropology Theory and SE881Visual Anthropology Project) and participated in a workshop at Northwestern University on experimental psychology 3) I prepared a written document and a powerpoint presentation in Kichwa, the local language of fieldsite, detailing the methods and aims of the project to present to local authorities and to a public village assembly.

During WP2 and WP3 I undertook 8 months of fieldwork in Ecuador and I worked towards publication of results. As part of dissemination activities I organised an international interdisciplinary workshop, Conversations on Empathy held in May 2019 at the University of Kent, a panel at the Meetings of the Association of European anthropologists in June 2019 and a panel at the Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in November 2019. I also edited an interdisciplinary volume that focuses on empathy which will be forthcoming in 2022 by Routledge.
Preliminary results of my research have been presented in a public meeting in the town of Puyo (Ecuador) are currently being integrated into a proposal for an intercultural curriculum in Amazonia by the local indigenous council in Pastaza.
The innovative aspects of this research are manifold. First, current anthropological research on human-nonhuman empathy focuses only on adult experience, leaving thus unexplored the process through which children learn to perceive nonhumans as humanlike and are thereby able to develop empathy towards them. Building upon developmental psychology research which demonstrates how early processes of learning are fundamental for the constitution of conceptual categories in adult life, this research will generate innovative data which offers explanations for how empathy towards nonhumans is effectively learnt and taught during early intersubjective experiences. In addition, the project will contribute to cutting-edge debates on human-nonhuman relationships in anthropology and social theory by providing data which accounts for how different relationships to the nonhuman world are developed during childhood. Finally, this research offers a highly original application of anthropological methods to a topic which has thus far only been studied in psychology through experimental tests or short-term observations of Western subjects. The understanding from ‘within’ granted by long-term anthropological fieldwork, coupled with methods from visual anthropology and psychology, will provide a unique, culturally sensitive approach to empathy. However, the originality of this project goes well beyond the study of empathy: by linking two different theoretical and methodological approaches, the anthropological and the psychological, which are often separated, this project makes an important intellectual contribution to the study of the interface between culture and child cognition.
Amazonian river