Academic journal article New Formations

Curious about Others: Relational and Empathetic Curiosity for Diverse Societies

Academic journal article New Formations

Curious about Others: Relational and Empathetic Curiosity for Diverse Societies

Article excerpt


Two characters in Iris Murdoch's novel, The Black Prince, argue about curiosity. Arnold, a prolific novelist, is interested in everyone and the details of their lives and relationships, and this is reflected in the breadth and volume of the stories he tells. Bradley, an unsentimental and isolated older man, prefers to be left alone with his thoughts and his writing desk, where he struggles with work that, he convinces himself, has more literary integrity:

'Bradley, you mustn't reject people, you mustn't just write them off. You must be curious about them. Curiosity is a kind of charity.' 'I don't think curiosity is a kind of charity. I think it's a kind of malice'. (1)

Most immediately a dispute over the ethics and consequences of being curious about other individuals--their personalities and psychologies, affairs and life stories--this exchange also speaks to wider issues: the advantages and disadvantages of an open disposition towards and interest in other members of society. The argument between Bradley and Arnold can to be extended from immediately personal to broader social relationships. Curiosity offers a fresh perspective on the implications of different ways of relating to other members of society: whether it is better to show an interest in others or to hold back, maintaining a respectful or indifferent distance.

I will suggest that, if we get it right, being curious about others can be a way of reaching out to them, forging relationships that can have particular significance in diverse and arguably fragmented societies. In this paper, I develop and begin to answer a series of questions about sociable curiosity: What is sociable curiosity? How is it experienced and practiced? Is it a good thing? Is it good for those who are curious? And what about those--things and others--they are curious about? What are the power relations of sociable curiosity? These questions prompt others about the limits of curiosity: whom or what it may be good or defensible to be curious about, whom it may not, and who can decide such matters. These are increasingly challenging questions, which have been occupying philosophers, religious and cultural critics for centuries. (2) These questions will not be resolved here, of course, but they provide the context for this, more focussed paper, which unpacks the idea of sociable curiosity.

I explore sociable curiosity through readings of theoretical literature on curiosity and related terms, through the novel introduced above and through a series of more tangible encounters, drawn from experiences of anti-war activism and museum projects in the UK. This is not primarily an empirical paper; it is more conceptually driven. Still, there is empirical content, so the methods of data collection and analysis demand some introduction. This paper draws upon research involving Glasgow museums, which was conducted in 2013-14. This research focussed upon a project, introduced later in this paper, which was entitled Curious and which encompassed a series of workshops and an exhibition involving children and adults drawn from Glasgow communities. This project worked on the premise that curiosity about others can be socially cohesive. A number of museums were visited, and collections and exhibits examined; secondary data was also collected through the organisation's website and through reports and documents provided directly by curators, who were also interviewed. These interviews were conducted by the author. Permission to record interviews was sought and interviewees signed a statement of informed consent, granting permission to use information either anonymously or in their own name.

This paper also revisits and reinterprets some empirical material that was collected in 2006-08, involving interviews with anti-war activists. That project investigated how groups with different political, religious and geographical identities converged through the anti-war movements that sprung up in the context of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.