Why is Empathy Important when Conducting Post-Graduate Research?

Higher education can teach you a lot of things but there are nuanced sides to it that can get forgotten when you get to post-graduate study. One of these is empathy, Lexico.com defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy is obviously required if you’re conducting research on living participants, they can feel or see your reactions and will respond accordingly, but what about if you’re dealing with the historical records of those no longer with us?

In my own research, I have been dealing with records from Victorian education that are more than a hundred years old. Many of the standard guidelines do not apply. For example, deceased research participants are not covered by the Data Protection Act which explicitly concerns “living individuals”. Accessing the information is also very different to having to deal with living participants whom might need to be interviewed or asked to take part in a survey.

victorian child

Yet, even though my research participants are deceased, when reading their records, I can put myself in their position and consider the dilemmas they faced as if they were still living. The people in the texts I am examining are dealing with similar problems, worries stresses than those that exist within the education system today.

Scholar John Charles Jackson notes all the problems faced by schools in the 19th century are similar to those faced now, examples of these are concerns regarding punctuality and exam results. This might offer some comfort to those worrying they will fail in all their exams, you’re certainly not the first person in this dilemma!

If you’re doing research with living participants, you have to be sensitive in your approach to them or your data may be distorted.  You have to ensure that you consider how your presence might impact their reactions. This is especially true if you are interviewing them. The “interviewer effect” or “interviewer variance” can mean that people may change their answers dependent on your appearance or what you say.  You also have to consider if your status is different to theirs (for example a teacher interviewing a student) as they may feel vulnerable and change their reactions because of this.

job interview

You might think that the “interviewer effect” wouldn’t be a problem when working with historical data but understanding people’s situations and being empathetic towards them can be extremely important. After all, people still held different positions of power in past centuries just like today. It is usually those in power who create records, as the old adage goes “history is written by the victors” and it is possible to miss some else’s point of view. It is impossible to completely understand the needs of those in the past as our society is quite different but bridging this gap is still important and helps me to look beyond the myths about Victorian schooling and consider that those involved probably had a sense of their situation that might be similar of someone today. Remember, when researching, you don’t have to agree with a participant’s view, but be aware of it and understand it.

So if dealing with historical research it’s important to ask: What would you do in this situation? This means you can give a better account of the person within the context of their circumstances, something very important in history. Empathy can sometimes be ironed out of researchers as deadlines and study mount up. However, empathy allows you to put yourself in the place of another whether or not you agree with their view. It is not a luxury or an indulgence but instead highly useful skill for any postgraduate whether they are researching the living or the dead.


Blog Post Author – Joseph Hayes