New guide to the field of emotion studies

Margaret Wetherell, Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding (London: Sage, 2012)

Research into the emotions is rapidly expanding and deepening in all kinds of disciplines. Cultural historians, psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists, biologists, researchers in cultural studies and political science – everyone is turning to affect as an essential topic of research. This makes for a  lively and exuberant field of research, but it can also sometimes give me the overwhelming feeling that I will never be able to read up on everything that is going on. My research focuses on early modern drama and I am taking in current thinking on the emotions in cultural history and cultural studies, but how am I to relate to new insights in the relation between emotion and cognition, mirror neurones, or the transmission of affect?

Margaret Wetherell’s Affect and Emotion is a pragmatic and down-to-earth guide to what is currently happening in the landscape of emotion studies. A professor in social sciences and social psychology, Wetherell conducted what she calls a ‘reading marathon’ across all these disciplines to see what they had to offer. “With some navigating,” she writes, “it did seem possible to put together integrated readings of the somatic, discursive, situated, historical, social, psychological and cultural bases of affective activity” (4). The model that she puts together is based on the flexible concept of “affective practice.”  She develops a working model for empirical social science, but the book certainly has its uses for the cultural historian as well.

Wetherell pits her model against three views of affect that she considers to be wrong turns in emotion research. The first, not surprisingly for a sociologist (or a cultural historian) is the idea of basic, universal human emotions pioneered by Paul Ekman. The second approach that Wetherell considers to be leading us in the wrong direction is the separation of affect from discourse in cultural studies (Clough; Massumi) and human geography (Thrift). She stresses that current research in neuroscience shows that body, brain and mind are all dynamically connected and involved in affective practice, and it would therefore be a mistake to separate affect from speech, text, cognition and interpretation:

I agree with Massumi, Thrift and Steward that it is time to take the effervescent, the mobile, the concrete, and ordinary social action seriously. But, I think one can’t do this without sustained attention to discourse. What is needed is an eclectic approach that investigates how the organisation of discursive formations or ‘big discourse’ intertwines with the patterning of everyday, dynamic and immediate discursive practice. (56)

[Note: Tony D. Sampson disagrees with her view on affective contagion in his review of the book (series of 5 blog posts)]

The third approach that Wetherell considers less useful is the view of the transmission of affect as something ‘uncanny’ in much recent work that employs terms such as ‘contagion’ or ‘group minds’ to describe the way passion moves from body to body. Examples she gives of this approach are Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect and the field of social psychoanalysis, which works with an outdated model of the self.

Another key figure in emotion research whom Wetherell disagrees with is Antonio Damasio, “social scientists’ current, number one, favourite neuroscientist” (28). Basing her critique on psychobiological research, neuroscience, anthropology and social sociology as well as genetics (she could have added cultural history to the list), she takes Damasio to task for still adhering to the basic emotions model and for distinguishing between affect and emotion. Drawing on the work of Klaus Scherer, she emphasizes that emotion processing is distributed in different brain circuits, and that cognition is not sealed off from affect in neurobiology.

The book provides a very lucid and useful overview of recent developments in emotion research. Wetherell is one of those people who can digest an awful lot of information and report on it in detail (even neuroscientific detail), but never lets you lose sight of the bigger picture. She is very clear on the reasons why she considers certain approaches less useful. But the book does not only guide you through the wrong turns of emotion research. Based on her magisterial overview of state-of-the art research in various disciplines, Wetherell also puts forward a new model for social scientific research. In her model, affect is a flowing activity, but with ‘affective ruts’ (14) formed by interweaving patterns resembling Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling, but more flexible: “something that comes into shape and continues to change and refigure as it flows on.” Thirdly, power works through affect and affect emerges in power. She deftly weaves together elements of the theories and models she surveys to form her own. In Wetherell’s view, affective practice is always situated, material, embodied, and contextual. One of the very useful examples she gives of how affect can be read, is that of conversation analysis, in which the exchanges between people are meticulously written down. The nitty-gritty level of a transcribed conversation soon confronts the researcher with all the specific contexts that need to be taken into account when analysing affect. In Wetherell’s words: “The concept of affective practice, then, encompasses the movement of signs but it aso tries to explain how affect is embodied, is situated and operates psychologically.” (159)

Wetherell’s style is pragmatic and no-nonsense; she takes you by the hand and guides you through the “deeply murky territory” of affective meaning-making (51), or through psychobiologists’ descriptions of emotion that read “rather like weather reports” (49). She is open about her own reading experience and the obstacles she ran into, and it can sometimes feel as if you are having coffee with her during a break in her reading marathon. She reports, for example: “When quoting Massumi it is almost impossible to stop. His words are so evocative and dizzying. What he is suggesting is so vague, breathless and escaping.” This sounds a tad dismissive of cultural theory as a whole, but that is not the case – Wetherell quotes Lauren Berlant approvingly throughout, and Sara Ahmed’s work on affective economies figures prominently in her model.

How is this book useful to the cultural historian? To begin with, cultural history is part of the framework in the book. Wetherell discusses the work of William Reddy most prominently, but also draws on Barbara Rosenwein and Thomas Dixon. Also, I think the model that Wetherell proposes, although most suited for empirical social science research, is food for thought for cultural historians – especially in its emphasis on the need for attention to the material situatedness and the embodiedness of emotions.


5 thoughts on “New guide to the field of emotion studies

  1. Pingback: New guide to the field of emotion studies « simonebelli

  2. Thanks for writing this piece – it is really useful and sounds like a valuable book to investigate further. Lots of social science authors make the link between the emotions and body (e.g. Shilling and Wacqant), but there are lots of multi-disciplinary parallels to taken from people like Butler and even philosophers such as Sartre…..its a mine-field (or should I say ‘mind-field’)! So any book that attempts to consolidate these issues is crucial.

  3. Pingback: Monday Starters #13 « AFFEKT

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