Complicated Empathy in Clinical Ethnography: Vulnerability, Care and Doing Ethical Work When the Whole Self Shows Up

Key information

3:15 pm to 5:00 pm
Main Building, Russell Square

About this event

Part of the Anthropology Departmental Seminar Series 2022

Rebecca Lester

Professor of Anthropology, Washington University 


As an ethnographer, a clinician, and a former eating disorder patient, my recent research in an American eating disorders clinic raised a number of ethical quandaries, none of which had a straightforward resolution.  In navigating them, techniques of empathy, vulnerability, and care became invaluable tools in my methodological toolbox.  But these were not clean and easy developments.  They were difficult, sometimes painful, and almost always uncertain.  And they threw into relief a number of issues rarely discussed in anthropological or clinical domains regarding how we (attempt to) feel our way into the lives of others as the foundation for building certain kinds of knowledge, and the potential risks inherent in this practice, for others and for ourselves.  In this talk, I reflect on these experiences and set out a number of guiding principles for doing ethical engaged research.


Dr. Rebecca J. Lester is Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the department at Washington University in St. Louis.  She is also a practicing psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, trauma, personality disorders, mood disorders, and gender/sexuality issues.  Dr. Lester is the author of the award-winning book Jesus in Our Wombs (2005) as well as numerous academic articles.  Her most recent book, Famished: Eating Disorders and Failed Care in America (2019) was awarded a Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing. Her current research is about the politics of intimacy in the practice of polyamory in the United States.