Empathy and intercultural understanding in the context of international long-term volunteers
First-hand experiences in foreign culture have been suggested as a powerful way to enhance intercultural empathy, whereas empathy itself has been addressed as a path to mutual understanding and peace among cultures. Due to its great implications, the concept of empathy has previously been widely researched in psychology, philosophy, and sociology, but in the context of international volunteering, it has merely been noted among outcomes. Accordingly, the present study placed emphasis on empathy in the context of international volunteering aiming to increase in-depth understanding on the matter. More specifically, it was of interest to identify 1) what aspects of empathy emerge meaningful in volunteers' talk and 2) what the relationship between intergroup contact and empathy is like. For data gathering purposes, 13 young adults who participated in international volunteering programs through Maailmanvaihto ry, the national branch of the international organization ICYE, were interviewed. The group of participants had spent 5-12 months in Asia, Africa, or Latin America during the years 2010-2013. Relying on principals of grounded theory analysis, the interviews were transcribed and simultaneously analyzed. In practice, in the process of analyzing, the data was coded for recurring themes and topics. The results of the present study supported the previous notion that positive intergroup contact may act to enhance empathy development and intercultural understanding as the informants most often talked about increased understanding, new perspectives, identification with immigrants, and openness towards civic actions after their return. The influential power of intergroup contact was found to lie in challenging experiences and intergroup friendships. It was further noted that empathy should not be treated merely as an outcome of intergroup contact. Instead, aspects of empathy seemed to act as motivators for participating in the program in the first place. This initial empathy, however, appeared to be temporarily challenged due to intergroup contact, which was manifested as negative emotions and difficulties to understand representatives of other cultures. Sometimes intergroup contact also seemed to evoke prejudice and negative stereotyping of outgroups. In addition, notably many participants reported decrease of forms of empathy towards representatives of their own culture. In the discussion chapter, it was further suggested that the challenges and acquisition of empathy might have been related to cross-cultural adaptation processes. The results provide beneficial information for Maailmanvaihto ry -ICYE Finland and to actors responsible of similar activities. Understanding of empathy in intercultural contexts may turn out beneficial in future planning of exchange programs and trainings that prepare and support participants before, during, and after stay abroad. ...
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