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The heuristic value of immersion and empathy in the study of “repugnant” commitments

Open Panel

Abstract

This paper proposes a reflexive return upon a field study of two radical Russian youth organizations – the Nationalist Bolshevik Party (NBP) and the Eurasianist Youth Union (ESM) – that may roughly be classified as “extreme right”. The ethnographic inquiry, aiming to understand the reasons of commitment, confronted me with an exotic and “difficult” environment. It led me to experience three kinds of dilemmas. Two are classical: that between prudence and the ambition to accompany activists in the integrality of their experience; and that between the will to establish closeness and the necessity to keep a distance. But the most salient was the third dilemma which concerned not the objective position or strategy of the researcher, but his interior, subjective frame of mind: considering the studied population as a “repugnant other”, because of its extremist worldview, or as an object of empathy. In this case, empathy prevailed: since the reasons of commitment lied here in the emotions the two organizations manage to provide to their members (pleasure of heroism in the NBP; pleasure of secret in the ESM), empathy revealed itself to be the most heuristic tool. Emotions, indeed, can not be understood, or sometimes even noticed, if they are not felt, at least partially. Empathy was here made possible by the exotism of the object, which minimizes its violence and forbids any temptation of “fusion” with it. This experience leads to reassert the virtue of immersion and of empathy, especially in front of “repugnant” objects, as allowing a rupture with the spontaneous opinion of the researcher.