On Sympathy in Sociology: (Re)reading Through the Classics


by Adrian Popan

Little attention is paid today to the social thinking of Harriet Martineau. Martineau was a well-respected writer who left her mark on the philosophical debates of the nineteenth century, and one of the few women who achieved a high status in a world considered the almost exclusive playfield of men. Some of the textbooks and syllabi of classical Sociology in the 2010s present her work, but most of the time the effort seems merely a convenient means to address University requirements of diversity, at the expense of allowing the necessary time for discussing the more serious, bearded sociologists[1]. What are we losing by not discussing Martineau? A whole paradigm, I argue.

In How to Observe Moral and Manners (published in 1838, where she elaborates for the first time a systematic method for Sociology), Martineau writes:

The observer must have sympathy; and his sympathy must be untrammeled and unreserved. If a traveler be a geological inquirer, he may have a heart as hard as the rocks he shivers, and yet succeed in his immediate objects: if he be a student of the fine arts, he may be as silent as a picture, and yet gain his ends: if he be a statistical investigator, he may be as abstract as a column of figures, and yet learn what he wants to know: but an observer of morals and manners will be liable to deception at every turn, if he does not find his way to hearts and minds.

So many questions come to mind: What makes sympathy so important for Martineau to place it at the very heart of the sociological approach? And why should we care about it today? Isn’t it opposed to objectivity, and thus isn’t it delegitimizing our discipline? Isn’t it synonymous with Weber’s verstehen, and thus part of our discipline anyway? Should sympathy be employed in contemporary sociology, if so, what would it look like?

Sympathy, to be sure, is not a concept first introduced by Martineau. In fact, she cites Adam Smith, with whom she agrees, partly, but also departs in important respects. As this is old stuff, not central to my line of reasoning, it suffices to say that for Smith, sympathy is primarily a concept to be studied (i.e. on others), while for Martineau it is first and foremost a necessary quality of the student of society.

And no, it is not the antonym of objectivity. In fact, Martineau also recommends objectivity as a necessary quality of the observer. For Martineau, sympathy safeguards objectivity. On the other hand, sympathy for Smith stems from the capacity of a person to imagine the others, but this implies the lenses of one’s own culture, class, etc., therefore objectivity is severed by one’s known or unknown biases. For Martineau, sympathy “means that the action of the heart will meet a corresponding action, and that the nature of the heart will meet a corresponding nature.”  Sympathy, therefore, emerges from direct interaction, and is in fact mitigating between culturally different moral systems on the basis of two very basic statements:  “to torment another without any reason, real or imaginary, is considered wrong all over the world”; conversely, “to make others happy is universally considered right.”

What is the antonym of sympathy? The notion, emerged later from the work of Karl Marx and best summarized by Friedrich Engels, that the populations we study have a false consciousness dictated by social structures via ideology. “Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.” In other words, it is the task of the researcher to identify the real motives, and consequently the real wants and needs of the researched. Sounds like a good legitimizing basis for Sociology. But isn’t it patronizing? And is it really helping? And furthermore, doesn’t it legitimize, rather than the discipline as a whole, the preeminence of the researcher’s specific biases as a member of academia over the real people we study, but who through this lens, become merely objects to be studied, like the rocks for a geologist? Clearly, Engel’s statement, if taken to heart, excludes sympathy from Sociology’s paradigm. To be sure, the apparent lack of sympathy from today’s Sociology is nothing more than a methodological issue. It is not a sort of self-selection directing only those who lack sympathy to embrace careers as sociologists. By contrary, everybody I know in Sociology (a convenience sample, I know) are sympathetic toward the people they study. However, to admit it, what an outrageous sin!

But hey, what about the rational choice theorists? Don’t they assume that everybody makes decisions rationally, and isn’t this the sympathy I am talking about? No, not really. In fact, it is the same practice of projecting the motives from theory to people, and assuming a rationality that we, hyper-educated members of the academy, perhaps understand.

And no it’s not the same as verstehen, although there is certain overlapping between the two concepts. While verstehen is a cognitive tool which requires a certain degree of sympathy to be accomplished, sympathy goes beyond verstehen in that it unifies the curiosity of the scientist with the theory of moral sentiments, plus a touch of ineffable humanness.

How should we interpret sympathy as a useful tool for our own research? I suggest we think of a backwards reading of C. Wright Mills’ famous preface to The Sociological Imagination – the Promise. Its main message is that Sociology can help us better understand our own problems by integrating them into the larger social structures and historical processes that shape our lives. The backwards reading which I suggest is to keep in mind that at the other end of our theories there are always real people with names, desires, joy and sorrow, wants and needs. And albeit most of the time only at the level of ideas, our theories can hurt or relieve suffering. Sympathy, therefore, is the urge to turn sociology upside-down and place people before theory!


The wisdom of the classics didn’t pour miraculously onto my longhaired head, so I am fixin’ to fix the injustice right now by revealing my sources:

a)     Primary readings:





b)    Other resources:




[1] Note the progressive loss of facial hair as we consider the founding fathers of Sociology in the order of their importance, regardless of the period they wrote: Marx and Engels -> Weber, Durkheim and Simmel -> Mead -> Parsons -> Comte

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