Social Opacity and the Dynamics of Empathic In-Sight among the Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas, Mexico



Abstract In this article, I explore local constructions of empathic access and social knowing among the highland Maya of San Juan Chamula. I argue that a pervasive sense of social opacity—a presumed inability to accurately know the motivations, potencies, and identities of social others—gives rise to a moral-interpretive dilemma centering on the degree of concordance between the publicly presented self and the subjective or “private” self. I introduce the phrase “empathic in-sight” to refer to those processes—both real and fantasy based—intended to produce an understanding of the inner states of others (in terms of underlying emotions, feelings, motivations, thoughts, and desires), thereby restoring a degree of transparency to everyday social interactions. The phrase is meant to suggest a dynamic and active process of “seeing within,” through which one attempts to gain access to, and understanding of, otherwise occluded conative and cognitive states—particularly those dimensions of the self that are actively hidden from view. [Chiapas, Tzotzil Maya, empathy, emotion, ethnopsychology]