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"It could have been me": Empathy, civic engagement, and violence in Mexico


Why do some citizens pursue civic engagement after exposure to violence while others retreat from civic life? Existing theories point toward the trauma of victimization. However, these cannot account for the more puzzling choices of those who only experience violence indirectly, like through the media. Why are citizens who are not direct victims of violence provoked to civic action by violence befalling others? This dissertation's central claim is that empathy for victims motivates civic engagement in violent contexts. Specifically, I argue that citizens with no direct victimization experience are more likely to pursue civic action in response to violence against others when their sense of empathy for the victims is stimulated. I develop and test my theory of "empathy politics" through a mixed-methods study that integrates in-depth interviews and participant observation in one case of contemporary conflict, Mexico's drug war, with large-n statistical analysis and an original survey experiment. I inductively generate the theory based on ethnographic research in one key city, Monterrey. This qualitative data reveals important variation in how citizens encounter violence. I develop a "spectrum of victimization" to conceptualize variation between direct and indirect experiences. I find that citizens who experience violence indirectly are more likely to pursue civic engagement in response to violence if they have imagined themselves in the shoes of a direct victim. This empathic re-imagining is activated through social identification with victims. I test the theory in a number of ways. Within the Mexican context, I designed and carried out a nationally-representative survey experiment. To test the theory outside Mexico, I conducted statistical analysis of survey data from Uganda, Liberia, and Tajikistan. These tests are complemented by qualitative comparative analysis of one observable implication of the theory, protest demonstrations in Monterrey. Statistical evidence shows that experiencing violence indirectly mobilizes civic engagement. Violence experienced indirectly is a more consistent correlate of future civic action than violence experienced directly. The comparative analysis also suggests that protests against violence follow a pathway consonant with theoretical expectations. Experimental evidence does not support the theory. This is likely due to limitations of the experimental design.
Thesis (Ph. D.)--Brown University, 2019

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Bell-Martin, Rebecca V., "'It could have been me': Empathy, civic engagement, and violence in Mexico" (2019). Political Science Theses and Dissertations. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.