Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Teaching Empathy: A Framework Rooted in Social Cognitive Neuroscience and Social Justice

Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Teaching Empathy: A Framework Rooted in Social Cognitive Neuroscience and Social Justice

Article excerpt

SHORTLY AFTER WORLD WAR II, social scientists attempting to understand the atrocities of the Holocaust began searching for explanations about the catastrophic failures of humanity that had occurred during the conflict. One of their most basic discoveries was the importance and centrality of empathy in sustaining the social contract (Laub & Auerhhhn, 1989). Lack of empathy underlies the worst things human beings can do to one another; high empathy underlies the best. Social work can almost be seen as an organized manifestation of empathy--to such an extent that social work educators and practitioners sometimes take it for granted. We propose that a targeted and structured explication of empathy is an extremely useful, if not essential, foundation for all social work theory and practice. Moreover, recent advances in the analysis of subjective human experience and corresponding activity in the brain have helped define the components of empathy both as a subjectively experienced phenomenon and as an observable activation of identifiable "neural networks." We posit that both the analytical and physiological identification of empathy will be of great benefit to social work educators and practitioners.

Evidence suggests that practitioner-to-client empathy is critical for effective social work practice (e.g., Berg, Raminani, Greer, Harwood, & Safren, 2008; Forrester, Kershaw, Moss, & Hughes, 2008; Green & Christensen, 2006; Mishara et al., 2007; Sale, Bellamy, Springer, & Wang, 2008). We also know that empathy is essential to adequate moral development (Jollife & Farrington, 2006) and healthy parent-child and partner relationships (Busby & Garnder, 2008; Curtner-Smith et al., 2006). Given these imperatives, we might expect to find a consensus in the social work literature on how to conceptualize, define, and measure empathy. We might also expect to find a consistent standard for how to teach and cultivate empathy in our students. However, no such consensus or consistency currently exists.

In fact, the treatment of empathy in social work literature and education has been described as haphazard and narrow (Freedberg, 2007; Raines, 1990). In this article we briefly outline a social work framework for empathy, one that is rooted in an interdisciplinary context, emphasizes recent findings in the field of social cognitive neuroscience, and yet is embedded in a social work context. The framework lends itself easily to identifiable education components that social work educators can implement across the curriculum.

Social Work's Historical Treatment of Empathy

For more than 45 years schools of social work have included empathic responsiveness as part of their skills training (Kaplowitz, 1967). Today this effort is most often reflected in the use of dyads and triads to practice empathy-related skills such as paraphrasing, appropriate self-disclosure, and articulation of feelings. Although virtually every social work educator would probably agree that empathy is an essential ingredient of successful social work practice, empathy has not always been well-articulated as a communicable and teachable concept. In addition to skill building, the profession needs a stronger heuristic tradition to convey empathy, both as a construct and as an experience, in social work education. Consider the simple, one-sentence definition of empathy in the Social Work Dictionary: "the act of perceiving, understanding, experiencing, and responding to the emotional state and ideas of another person" (Barker, 2008, p. 141). This definition leaves many unanswered questions: Is empathy innate or learned? What factors may augment or inhibit empathy? Why do some people have an empathy deficit or no empathy at all? We expected to find the answers to these questions in the 20th edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Work (National Association of Social Workers, 2008)--instead we found no entry at all for empathy. …

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