How do we measure empathy?

Manuel Portela
4 min readDec 12, 2018

I’ve focused my research on a definition of empathy that means an ongoing reality of ‘becoming together’. Although, empathies have many forms that can be thought according to different points of observation. In plain words, empathy is a condition of existence that implies that we are entangled in the experience of reality with others. That condition makes bodies inseparable one from another.

Nevertheless, someone asked me, ‘how we can measure empathy?’.

‘What does it means?’, I asked myself, ‘can we measure such thing?’.

Tough question.

About Empathy

If empathy implies to break the classical psychological distinction between subject/object, that separation is a clear difference. Though, intersubjectivity is hard to perceive and requires self-cultivation (this is an important word). Cultivation is a form of being attentive, to practice an observation to the liminal. For such, researchers try to avoid subjective judgement by different ways. In practical terms, conceibing a separation from the other, in any sense, could be understood as an empathic bleakness.

“When empathy is understood as the experience of ‘co-feeling’, it is suggested, this not only invites problematic appropriations or projections on the part of privileged subjects, but it also risks obscuring their complicity in the wider relations of power in which marginalisation, oppression and suffering occur. ” (Pedwell, 2014, 10)

To the question if empathy ensures any type of good, or any benefit. I should advice, that like any other affect (remember, empathy is thought here as an affective translation) it implies that there are no good or bad. Instead, affects are in the midst of any relation, from the most comprehensive to the more oppressive one.

“And yet empathy, like kindness, is ambivalent in that it cannot (and should not) be extracted from conflict and aggression.” (Pedwell, 2014 ,16)

In that sense, Pedwell described in her book how different forms of empathy are used for political purposes, and also the way that empathy are conceibed as it generate disjunctions and discrimination.

About feelings of dispossession

Empathy is an ontological, proto-political approach to study relations. What is the contrary of empathy is dispossession. As with affects, we study empathy to understand ‘what bodies do’ (or what representations do). When relations between bodies result in a withdraw, deny, or exclusion, it is a form of dispossession. In affective terms, dispossession means that, we diminish the capacities of other bodies to act.

“Whilst understood multiply, dispossession is treated as a process of the production of ‘non-being’ (Butler and Athanasiou, 2013) that involves the (more or less violent) removal of something previously held that, in some way, supported or promised to support a life beyond mere survival. […] Recent Dispossession is ordinary, barely noticed — it does not happen and is not felt as an intense event…” (Anderson, 2017, 505)

We should account that dispossession not should be thought only in terms of oppression, but an absence of power. It is good to link it to the eastern philosophy of absolute-nothingness and emptyness. So far, I believe, the connections between Spinoza (if not Deleuze and Guitar works) and the Kyoto School were closer, but that is another story.

Between empathy and dispossession

We have empathy and dispossession, two extremes of power, as forces that bring/break connections in the world. It is not a dichotomy of being or not-being; or, being connected or being unconnected. Both become connections, thus, both come-into-being. The power to act, and the responsibility that bring that power is what can be measure, not its cause.

That is to say, we cannot measure empathy or dispossession, but its consequence. But that is enough. We have two options here. Embrace a form of understanding the ongoingness or the liveliness of phenomena, that is to pay attention to the procedural. Something which human geographers, artists and architects have been doing during the last decade. Or, to study the past events, in a sort of traditional understanding in sociological terms.

We can use technologies and methods to capture, analyse and study phenomena, but we cannot escape from the contingency of the time-spaces that we live in.

To the question of how we can measure empathy, I would answer that we cannot. However, we can study how empathic relations are made, shaped, transformed. It is a richer way to understanding the world, the networks of power and the forces that act upon our existence.


Anderson, Ben. 2017. “Cultural Geography 1: Intensities and Forms of Power.” Progress in Human Geography41(4):501–11.

Pedwell, C., 2014. Affective Relations: the Transnational Politics of Empathy, London: Palgrave Macmillan.



Manuel Portela

HCI, STS, Urban Studies or something in between. @geoC_EU PhD Candidate at @geotecUJI. Sarcastic, Skeptic, almost an idiot. From Buenos Aires, living abroad.