Christopher Stephan

Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer

I am an ethnographer who practices a blend of psychological, medical, and linguistic anthropological approaches to the study of subjectivity and interaction. Phenomenological concepts and lines of inquiry have been central to both my MA thesis research on religious experience and narratives of self-transformation and to my doctoral research project examining empathy and collaborative activity in design. I received both my MA (2013) and PhD (2020) from UCLA. I am now a Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer in the Bioethics Program here at the University of Virginia.

At the core of my intellectual project is a desire to understand the dynamic relationship between the decisions we make concerning how to care for others and the cultural and social cognitive capacities shaping our experiences of others. Every effort to act on behalf of or influence others’ health and wellbeing takes place at the nexus of intersubjective processes like empathy and perspective-taking, and a patchwork of embodied skills, moral commitments, and explanatory models. While the outcomes are often imperfect, each occasion of care offers us an opportunity to learn how occurrent forms of interpersonal understanding, cultural knowledge and habit interrelate, as well as how we might intervene to help people imagine better care.

To this end, my recent research examines practices of “human-centered” and “empathic” design for healthcare in the United States. In particular, I draw upon phenomenology and interactionist methodologies to examine the constitution of “user types” and design solutions, as well as the implicit forms of valuation involved in the construction and navigation of trade-offs throughout the process of designing healthcare environments. My doctoral dissertation, “Focus on the Users”: Empathy, Anticipation, and Perspective-taking in Healthcare Architecture, makes a critical intervention into the nature of empathy and its role in the design process. Over the last 25 years, “empathy” has been invoked as an ethical panacea across diverse fields from healthcare to development studies. Within design, empathy is framed as the royal road to beneficent and efficacious intervention. This notion is accompanied by methodological innovations in design practice which are intended to facilitate reflectively and individually undertaken empathic acts. Without denying these possibilities, my research points to a more subtle and pervasive manifestation of empathy. In particular, I analyze and theorize the basis of tacit, multi-party empathic processes which rarely catch participants’ attention but hold tremendous sway in the work of group deliberation. The interactionist and phenomenological perspective utilized in my research thus allows me to challenge our conception of the ethical implications and possibilities of empathy and points to an underrecognized determinant of healthcare practices.

While a lecturer at UCLA, I taught the anthropology of religion, the history of anthropology, and visual anthropology. At UVA I am teaching The Ethics of Design and Technology (Fall 2021), Biopolitics (Spring 2022), and class on care and empathy (Spring 2022).