empathy, feminist research, ethnography, ‘unloved’ groups, activism


This article discusses the authors’ reflections on empathy in the context of fieldwork on feminist activism in small towns in Poland and Eastern Germany. Our methodological reflection is further enriched by our referencing of challenges faced in researching activists mobilising for protests against COVID-19 measures. While the role and impact of an empathic approach to data collection and interpretation have been controversial since the ‘erklären-verstehen controversy’, empathy can be understood in very different ways, ranging from sympathy or compassion to the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. Against the backdrop of our case studies, we focus on the openness and curiosity we showed toward our interviewees’ emotions and experiences, despite ideological or socio-cultural differences between us. The key themes of our discussion include the relationship between the researcher and the research subjects, the impact of this relationship on the research process, the constantly changing conditions for interpretative social research, and the impact of such changes on the use of empathy.


Download data is not yet available.


Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a feminist life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Anderson, Kathryn, and Dana C. Jack. 1991. “Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses.” The Oral History Reader, edited by Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, 171-185. Routledge: London.

Apel, Karl-Otto. 1982. “The Erklären-Verstehen Controversy in the Philosophy of the Natural and Human Sciences.” In Contemporary Philosophy. A New Survey, edited by Guttorm Fløistad, 19-50. Boston, London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Batson, C. Daniel. 2009. “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related but Distinct Phenomena.” In The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, edited by Jean Decety and William Ickes. Cambridge, London: The MIT Press.

Bielska-Brodziak, Agnieszka, Marlena Drapalska-Grochowicz, Caterina Peroni, Elisa Rapetti. 2020. “Where feminists dare: the challenge to the heteropatriarchal and neo-conservative backlash in Italy and Poland.” Oñati Socio - Legal Series 10 (1S): 38S-66S.

Blake, Megan K. 2007. “Formality and friendship: Research ethics review and participatory action research.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 6 (3): 411-421.

Blee, Kathleen M. 1998. “White-Knuckle research: emotional dynamics in fieldwork with racist activists.” Qualitative Sociology 21 (4): 381-399.

Blee, Kathleen M. 2002. Inside organized racism: Women in the hate movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Blee, Kathleen M. 2018a. “Studying racist activism: methods and lessons.” Understanding racist activism. Theory, Methods, and Research, edited by Kathleen Blee, 1-9. London: Routledge.

Blee, Kathleen M. 2018b. “Methods, interpretation, and ethics in the study of white supremacist perpetrators.” In Understanding racist activism. Theory, Methods, and Research, edited by Kathleen Blee, 88-101. London: Routledge.

Burns, Maree. 2003. “Interviewing: Embodied communication.” Feminism & Psychology 13 (2), 229-236.

Cotterill, Pamela. 1992. “Interviewing women: Issues of friendship, vulnerability, and power.” Women's Studies International Forum, 15 (5-6): 593-606.

Coplan, Amy. 2011. “Understanding Empathy: Its Features and Effects.” In Empathy. Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, edited by Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie, 3-18. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davidson, Larry. 2003. Living outside mental illness. New York: New York University Press.

Depraz, Natalie. 2001. “The Husserlian theory of intersubjectivity as alterology. Emergent theories and wisdom traditions in the light of genetic phenomenology.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 8 (5-6), 169-178.

DeVault, Marjorie L., and Glenda Gross. 2006. “Feminist Interviewing. Experience, Talk, and Knowledge.” In Handbook Of Feminist Research. Theory and Praxis, edited by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber, 173-197. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Ferree, Myra Marx. 2000. “Was bringt die Biografieforschung der Bewegungsforschung.” In Politische Biografien und sozialer Wandel, edited by Ingrid Miethe and Silke Roth, 111-127. Gießen: Psychosozial.

Fielding, Nigel G. 1993. “Mediating the Message: Affinity and Hostility in Research on Sensitive Topics.” In Researching Sensitive Topics, edited by Claire M. Renzetti and Raymond M. Lee, 146-180. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

Finlay, Linda. 2005. “‘Reflexive embodied empathy’: A phenomenology of participant-researcher intersubjectivity.” The Humanistic Psychologist 33 (4): 271-292.

Flam, Helena. 2005. “‘Emotions’ Map. A Research Agenda.” In Emotions and Social movements, edited by Helena Flam and Debra King, 19-40. London, New York: Routledge.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2013 [1975]. Truth and method. London: Bloomsbury.

Gingrich, Andre. 2013. “Methodology.” In The Handbook of Sociocultural Anthropology, edited by James G. Carrier and Deborah B. Gewertz, 107-126. London: Routledge.

Grande, Edgar, Swen Hutter, Sophia Hunger, and Eylem Kanol. 2021. Alles Covidioten? Politische Potenziale des Corona-Protests in Deutschland (No. ZZ 2021-601). WZB Discussion Paper. https://bibliothek.wzb.eu/pdf/2021/zz21-601.pdf (Accessed 07.02.2022)

Hall, Bogumiła. 2019. “Gendering resistance to right-wing populism: Black protest and a new wave of feminist activism in Poland?” American behavioral scientist 63 (10): 1497-1515.

Hervik, Peter. 2021. “Neo-nationalism and far right studies: Anthropological perspectives.” In Researching The Far Right. Theory, Method and Practice, edited by Ashe Stephen. D., Joel Busher, Graham Macklin and Aaron Winter, 92-107. London: Routledge.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American right. New York: New Press.

Hollan, Douglas. 2008. “Being There: On the Imaginative Aspects of Understanding Others and Being Understood.” Ethos 36 (4): 475-489.

Hollan, Douglas and C. Jason Throop. 2008. “Whatever Happened to Empathy? Introduction.” Ethos 36 (4): 385-401.

Kocyba, Piotr and Małgorzata Łukianow. 2020. „The Right in the Streets: The Past and Present of the Polish March of Independence.” The Public Eye, 101: 25-28.

Kocyba, Piotr. 2021. “Die COVID-19-Pandemie als Katalysator der polnischen Impfgegner*innenbewegung.” Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen 2 (34): 311-318.

Kocyba, Piotr, and Sebastian Sommer. 2022. “On (missing) critical distance and (involuntary) alliances - A warning about the reproduction of far-right ideologies in academic papers.” Intersections. East European Journal of Society and Politics 8 (1); 208-212.

Kögler, Hans Herbert and Karsten R. Stueber. 2018. “ Introduction: Empathy, Simulation, and Interpretation in the Philosophy of Social Science.” In Empathy and Agency. The Problem of Understanding in the Human Sciences, edited by Hans Herbert Kögler and Karsten R. Stueber, 1-61. New York: Routledge.

Koos, Sebastian. 2021. Die „Querdenker“. Wer nimmt an Corona-Protesten teil und warum? Ergebnisse einer Befragung während der „Corona- Proteste“ am 4.10.2020 in Konstanz. https://kops.uni-konstanz.de/handle/123456789/52497 (Accessed 20.12.2021)

Kubik, Jan. 1984. “Rozumienie i interpretacja czy wyjaśnienie? Z metodologicznych dylematów humanistyki.” In Wybrane zagadnienia metodologiczno-teoretyczne badań socjologicznych, edited by Jacek Wasilewski, 13-24. Kraków: Universytet Jagielloński.

Luff, Donna. 1999. “Dialogue across the divides: ‘Moments of rapport’ and power in Feminist Research with Anti-Feminist Women.” Sociology 33 (4): 687-703.

Mandal, Eugenia and Mirosław Kofta. 2009. “Wykluczanie społeczne feministek jako przejaw usprawiedliwiania patriarchalnego systemu społecznego.” In Przekonania w życiu jednostek, grup, społeczności, edited by Aleksandra Cisłak, Kamil Henne and Krystyna Skarżyńska, 153-170. Warszawa: Academica.

Mauer, Marcus, Carsten Reinemann and Simon Kruschinski. 2021. Eine empirische Studie zur Qualität der journalistischen Berichterstattung über die Corona-Pandemie. https://rudolf-augstein-stiftung.de/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Studie-einseitig-unkritisch-regierungsnah-reinemann-rudolf-augstein-stiftung.pdf (Accessed 20.12.2021)

Milman, Noa and Folashade Ajayi, Donatella della Porta, Nicole Doerr, Piotr Kocyba, Anna Lavizzari, Herbert Reiter, Piotr Płucienniczak, Moritz Sommer, Elias Steinhilper und Sabrina Zajak. 2021. Black Lives Matter in Europe Transnational Diffusion, Local Translation and Resonance of Anti-Racist Protest in Germany, Italy, Denmark and Poland. DRN #06: Berlin. https://www.dezim-institut.de/fileadmin/Publikationen/Research_Notes/DeZIM_Research_Notes_06_RZ_210702_web-1.pdf (Accessed 04.12.2021)

Mondon, Aurelien, and Aaron Winter. 2021. “From demonization to normalization: Reflecting on far right research”. In Researching The Far Right. Theory, Method and Practice, edited by Ashe Stephen. D., Joel Busher, Graham Macklin and Aaron Winter. 370-382. London: Routledge.

Muszel, Magdalena, and Grzegorz Piotrowski. 2018. “Rozbujać małe miasteczka: aktywistki Czarnych Protestów w Polsce.” Praktyka Teoretyczna, 30(4): 101-128.

Muszel, Magdalena, and Grzegorz Piotrowski. 2020. “‘Czarne protesty’ jako wydarzenie transformacyjne praktyk obywatelskich działaczek z małych miast” Civitas. Studia z filozofii polityki 27: 131-162.

Nachtwey, Oliver, Robert Schäfer and Nadine Frei. 17.12.2020. Politische Soziologie Der Corona-proteste. Grundauswertung. SocArXiv. doi:10.31235/osf.io/zyp3f. (Accessed 20.12.2021)

Oakley, Ann. 1981. “Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms?” In Doing Feminist Research, edited by Roberts Helen, 30-61. London: Routledge.

Oakley, Ann. 2016. “Interviewing Women Again: Power, Time and the Gift.” Sociology 50 (1): 195-213.

Ostrander, Susan A. 1984. Women of the upper Class. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Pasieka, Agnieszka. 2019. “Anthropology of the far right. What if we like the ‘unlikeable’ others?” Anthropology Today 35 (1): 3-6.

Rucht, Dieter. 2016. “Conclusions. Social Movement Studies in Europe. Achievements, Gaps and Challenges.” In Social Movement Studies in Europe. The State of the Art, edited by Olivier Fillieule and Guya Accornero, 456-487. Oxford, New York: Berghahn Books.

Rucht, Dieter. 2019. “Politically Engaged Scholarship in Social Movement Studies.” In Marxist Historical Cultures and Social Movements during the Cold War. Case Studies from Germany, Italy and Other Western European States, edited by Stefan Berger and Christoph Cornelissen, 141-162. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sanders-McDonagh, Erin. 2014. “Conducting ‘Dirty Research’ with extreme groups: understanding academia as a dirty work site.” Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal 9 (3): 241-253.

Smyth, Lisa, and Claire Mitchell. 2008. “Researching conservative groups: rapport and understanding across moral and political boundaries.” International Journal of Social Research Methodology 11 (5): 441-452.

Taylor, Jodie. 2011. “The intimate insider: negotiating the ethics of friendship when doing insider research.” Qualitative Research 11 (1): 3-22.

Toombs, Austin., Shad D. Gross, Shaowen Bardzell, and Jeffrey Bardzell. 2017. “From empathy to care: a feminist care ethics perspective on long-term researcher-participant relations.” Interacting with Computers 29 (1): 45-57.

Ulbricht, Justus H. 2017. “Die haben alle verstanden, dass die Zeiten des Abduckens und Abtauchens und ‘Wir wollen das alles friedlich haben’ längst vorbei sind.” In Pegida als Spiegel und Projektionsfläche. Wechselwirkungen und Abgrenzungen zwischen Pegida, Politik, Medien, Zivilgesellschaft und Sozialwissenschaften, edited by Tino Heim,197-210. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Waldhaus, Christoph. 2021. “Von Covidioten, Corona Leugnern und anderen rechten Verschwörungstheoretikern. Eine Analyse medialer Frames.” Synergies Pays germanophones (14): 45-167.

Walsh, Russell. 2004. “The methodological implications of Gadamer’s distinction between statements and speculative language.” The Humanistic Psychologist 32 (2): 105-119.



2022-12-30 — Updated on 2023-01-26

How to Cite

Kocyba, P., Muszel, M., & Trogisch, C. (2023). EMPATHY AND MUTUALITY IN QUALITATIVE RESEARCH: REFLECTIONS FROM THREE DIFFERENT RESEARCH FIELDS. Ethnologia Polona, 43. https://doi.org/10.23858/ethp.2022.43.3018

Most read articles by the same author(s)