Exploring the role of empathy in social enterprise

  • Anna Kopec-Massey

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


An exploration into why communities cooperate and what enables us to take another person’s perspective into account transpires as valuable for social development and crucial in many situations in everyday life. The root definition of empathy, a term coined in 1858 by Rudolf Lotze based on a translation of the Greek term: empatheia, defines empathy as an ability to recognise oneself in another. Simply put, empathy is the experience of putting oneself in the shoes of somebody else. Multi-disciplinary interest in empathy provides a rich source of prior literature from where to begin to explore the under-researched role of empathy in Social Enterprise (SE). SE is increasingly recognised as an important contributor to societal and/or environmental regeneration through its pursuit of a social and/or environmental mission. In tackling social inequalities and unmet need, SEs address social problems in entrepreneurial and innovative ways. Inherent to SE is the need to connect and work with others in a much more collaborative way to traditional business, given that the beneficiaries of a SE are the central focus of the social mission and also valuable stakeholders. In working together a sense of reciprocal benefit is shared between the SE and its beneficiaries. The fieldwork took the form of a five month ethnography within one SE based in London. The organisation was established in the 1980s and has grown from a small workforce to now employ approximately one thousand people. The results of the research offer contributions to theory combined with practice, as the ethnographic methods provided the researcher with an opportunity to explore what is said about SE and what is done, in practice. The current research emphasises the connected nature of people and the dependence people have on one another, and this dependence is particularly related to SE. Emergent findings suggest empathy is like a ‘currency’ in SE. The SE and beneficiaries are as reliant on each other to achieve the collective social mission. Empathy emerges as vital for working together with a range of stakeholders, for the purpose of sharing viewpoints and creating welcomed services in the community. Furthermore, empathy emerges as a key contributor in sharing perspectives, motivating action for collective ends and striving for joint goals.
Date of Award2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Northampton
SupervisorRichard Hazenberg (Supervisor) & Frederick A Seddon (Supervisor)

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