The uses of a history of emotions

In Australia, the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions came under fire this week. In an article in The Australianthe  shadow minister for Finance of the centre-right Coalition claimed that the current government is wasting money on academic research that he considers to be “of limited value,” “unjustifiable” and not “genuinely meaningful.” [1] The government should fund only studies that support innovation, produce growth and productivity or lead to “genuine medical and scientific advances.”

In the article, the director of the Centre, professor Philippa Maddern, responded by stressing the relevance of historical research into the emotions. The centre contributes to better political and social decisions, she said, as well as to “modern-day wellbeing”:

A study of the reasons for suicide and community reactions during this [historical] period helped fill gaps in understanding for psychiatrists today. “We need that information so that we can better prevent suicide today.”

At The Conversation Rebecca McNamara, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the centre, yesterday defended the research project on similar grounds. She argues that there are “continuities in the ways that humans deal with struggle and change” and that the history of the emotions is therefore relevant to the wellbeing of people living in Australia today.

How were people’s emotions in the past understood to lead to these self-destructive situations, and how did family, community, and the state respond to their suicides? Though the cultural settings, geography, and time period are different, we are asking the same questions now in Australia.

She emphasizes that she liaises with medical practitioners and counsellors, and shares her outcomes with the public in the hope that her research will help prevent suicide by raising awareness (an aim that Andrew Robb would most likely support).

Both Maddern and McNamara, then, respond to Andrew Robb’s article on his own terms. They stress that the Centre’s research does contribute to medical advances and is therefore relevant to Australia today.

Of course the Humanities should respond to characterizations such as Andrew Robb’s. Scholars in the humanities are sometimes quite defensive about the work they are doing and seem to assume that each and every research project in the exact sciences contributes directly to the cure for cancer rather than to a better understanding of, say, evolutionary forces shaping sexual attraction in noctuid moths.

The question is, should we accept the (neoliberal) framework that shapes arguments such as these, or should we look at the relevance of humanities research from a broader perspective? Is research only valuable when it produces an immediate profit in terms of economic growth or medical advances? Such an approach not only threatens the humanities, but fundamental research in the exact sciences as well. If only those research projects were funded that led to such directly useful outcomes, a lot of discoveries would not have been made. Research needs a broad base of a wide variety of projects, questions, methodologies in order to reach results.

Indeed, the interesting thing is that whereas in politics this distinction between useful and “unjustifiable” research is a current vogue, at the same time the divide between the exact sciences and the humanities is being breached: we are creating consilience. Whereas Robb’s remarks seem to assume that humanities research is far removed from “scientific advances,” certain areas in science are beginning to turn to culture.

Cultural neuroscience, for example, is interested in the question “how cultural traits (e.g., values, beliefs, practices) shape neurobiology (e.g., genetic and neural processes) and behavior” [Wikipedia]. With regard to the emotions, Margaret Wetherell in her cross-disciplinary overview of recent research shows how neurology, anthropology, cultural history and the social sciences can fruitfully compare and contrast their frameworks to come to a working approach to emotion research (see my review).

Another example is economic theory, which is abandoning the model of the homo economicus and rational choice and is now looking at the role of the emotions in stock markets and financial crises. An affective turn has also taken place in sociology and political sciences:

The return of emotion is, in part, an attempt to counter the growing salience of rational choice and formal economic models in both political science and sociology; and is, in part, fueled by real-world problems such as ethnic cleansing, addiction, greed, and (a theoretical problem but welcome in the real world) altruism. Theories that exclude the affective dimension of social life have difficulty explaining individual or collective behaviors that rationality does not appear to govern. [Mabel Berezin]

Since the emotions are in part shaped by cultural practice, a history as well as anthropology of the emotions are essential fields of research necessary to gain insight into this affective dimension of social, economic, political – well, human life, really.[2]

Finally, I think we need to keep an eye on the ideological framework from which such questions originate. The kind of innovation that Andrew Robb looks for is the kind that delivers economic growth, not the kind that questions whether economic growth and increased productivity are the best way forward. One of the other examples of unjustifiable research that he provides is “a study into the emotion and morality of climate change at the University of Queensland.” The denial of the relevance of this kind of research to me seems precisely the problem that a study like this addresses: how is it possible that we are so slow to react to the effects our economic growth and productivity have on the environment? Robb seems interested neither in the past of human experience, nor in the future of our planet.


[1] The Australian asks you to buy a day pass to read the article. Andrew Robb reproduced the article on his website.

[2] On the question ‘Why study the history of emotions?’ see also “What is the History of Emotions?” Parts I, II, and III at the History of Emotions blog.