On the empathetic approach in policymaking


I have been inspired by a recent blog post by Kit Collingwood-Richardson, from which I took the illustration above. She discusses an issue that is the core of my current research.

Here is an extract from my article that could be titled: “On the empathetic approach in policymaking”.

[...] Participation and local people involvement are two keywords also in the third and final set of considerations concerning the novel, narrative-based approach about researching people and places developed through empathetic interviews and its implications for research and action in the area of food-based, place-making initiatives. The point here is that researchers may contribute in addressing both types of participation gaps, both the internal one, by contributing to better understand the dynamics that prevent people from engaging with each other, and the external one, by functioning as “bridges” between communities and institutions. On the first aspect, personal empathetic interviews promise to be a quite useful resource when studying interpersonal dynamics. Contrary to some of the views that still consider them an obstacle to objective inquiry, I believe that bringing emotions in this context, is an added value. A similar view in defence of an active use of emotion in research is presented in McLaughlin (2003). On this aspect, see also Yeomans (2016) and the references therein on the “affective turn” that has emerged in organization studies, cultural studies and the social sciences. I wish to note how they may be particularly useful in contexts where people’s personal stories are fundamental elements of the “thing” being researched, as it is indeed the case for traditional food products and activities. In this context, the strong intellectual empathy and personal participation that inspired and guided me during the interviews, as well as in studying, analysing and reporting the researched issues, is something also administrators and politicians should consider. In my experience, the feeling of being listened to, let informants be freer to express their own views and to reveal things that otherwise might have been kept hidden. At the same time, it also probably changed their attitudes in listening to what could be offered to them. By talking, debating frankly, exchanging opinions without imposing preconceived viewpoints or solutions, new ideas emerged that may lead to innovative ways to add value to the local food and gastronomy traditions. 

On the second aspect, I note that the relevance, usefulness and distinctive advantages of a narrative-based approach to social research (increasingly recognized for example by Jovchelovitch and Bauer, 2000), is an effective way to inform and motivate policy makers (Ojermark, 2007). Life histories research may be useful to “advance understanding about the complex interactions between individuals’ lives and the institutional and societal contexts in which they lived (Cole and Knowles, 2001, p. 126). As a way to inform development policies, for example, Davis (2006) used life histories in a mixed-method approach, to investigate poverty dynamics in Bangladesh, while Azong et al. (2018) use the life history approach to examine the particular nature of the vulnerability experienced by rural women in a region of Cameroon. In all these cases, the research leading to the compilation and publication of life histories has been found especially valuable as a two-way process in which information is transferred between the researcher and the local people, and the life histories themselves as an effective way to convey relevant information to the policy makers. They may provide a way to effectively give voices to people often neglected, both in the academic research and in actual policy making (see also Cole and Knowles, 2001; Singh, 2018). There seems to be no reason why the same arguments should not be used to promote their wider use in the context of local development in European rural areas. Indeed, I have found life histories to be particularly informative when researching local traditions. My experience also suggests that the empathetic approach taken by a researcher who is recognized as being linked to the institutions that promote an initiative may contribute to close the communication gap between the citizens and the institution, removing one of the obstacles that has, for example, prevented thus far the full expression of a truly participatory approach to local development in Calabria.


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