A conversation with Dr. Laura Roselle

"If fear is so important as an emotion, then empathy must be important as well."

We talk a lot about empathy in relationships, in classrooms, and in the media. But this so called soft skill is also finding more credence among scholars working on some of the biggest geopolitical questions facing the world.
Last fall, I interviewed Dr. Laura Roselle, a professor of political science and policy studies at Elon University (disclosure: she was my International Relations professor there) about how the field is increasingly embracing empathy. The traditional ways of looking at geopolitical communication, which tend to focus on the “rational actor” theory that individuals (and states) always make logical decisions, can’t necessarily explain some of the biggest events in recent history, from the Cold War to the 2016 election. So some scholars are pushing for a different approach.
I spoke with Dr. Roselle for this story for Quartz, which ran just before the election. I didn’t have a chance at the time to really dig into some of the changes she is seeing in the field. Below is the rest of our conversation, in Q&A form.
On Empathy [Kaitlin Ugolik]: It can seem a bit counterintuitive to talk about things like emotions and empathy in the International Relations and political science context, but is that beginning to change?
Laura Roselle: Yes. Some feminist scholars are saying there’s more than just power politics, more than just a masculine narrative, to any interaction. Power has traditionally been defined in the sense of getting somebody to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. But there’s a totally different definition that you could use, which is the ability to create consensus, which absolutely requires empathy.
OE: Can you talk a bit more specifically about these new strains of scholarship and how they incorporate empathy?
LR: There are at least two strains of writing within political science that are very interested in this notion of empathy. One is among feminist scholars, who are writing about empathetic cooperation in international relations. It’s this notion that the whole narrative of what IR is, is highly masculinized. Christine Sylvester championed this notion of focusing on empathetic cooperation. The idea is that if we’re going to be talking about power, how we define power is really important.
The other is that in the last decade, there’s increasingly been a focus on emotions in politics and the role of moving beyond this notion of a rational actor—talking about both affect and cognition, both emotions and logic. Some of that’s come from the inability of those who rely on this rational actor model to explain surprising things that maybe emotion would be involved in. There’s a new book our—Emotions in International Politics, edited by Yohan Ariffin—and there’s a section about empathy.
OE: What exactly is the role that empathy might play?
LR: It’s this notion of understanding empathy as a process and not strictly an emotion. If we understand empathy as a process that involves both cognition and affect, involves listening, then you can tie it to trust and to dialogue, which can then be tied into this notion of international politics. In order to understand any kind of cooperation, you need trust and dialogue, but essential to that is empathy.

If fear is so important—and we talked about fear this whole last election cycle—then empathy must be important as well.

OE: Where do you think we are in this evolution of thinking? What might be next?

LR: The field has been moving to encompass more than power politics and rational actor analysis for a while. Probably since the end of the Cold War, which was a pretty big thing they couldn’t explain. Since then, there’s been a move to get at more of that complexity, but the empathy part hasn’t been there until recently. This notion of emotions and empathy coming in is new, and seems like a really good strain to be incorporating in.
OE: Has this evolving way of thinking about IR changed how you teach?
LR: The way I put it to students now is: Which definition of power are you more drawn to? Making someone do something they don’t want to do, or creating consensus? Most people want consensus. Which is harder? Consensus. It’s harder and it requires things like empathy. Especially in a world that is becoming more horizontal, more flat, where you have people able to communicate across state boundaries in ways that are really interesting, this notion of cooperation and building consensus and being empathetic is probably our hope for the future.