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.

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.

New journal: Passions in Context

I just discovered a new online journal on the history and theory of the emotions called Passions in Context. It is a peer-reviewed journal that presents contributions from a variety of disciplines in English and German, and which was first published in the spring of 2010.

Th[e] growing interest in the history and theory of emotions is now both interdisciplinary and international. In particular in the English speaking world and in Germany are developing special centers for the research in the history and theory of emotions. Until now this interest has lacked a forum where contributions with such a wide orientation can be published. Passions in Context will be such a forum.

The first issue “Writing Emotions” featured an opening contribution by Barbara Rosenwein (via whose website I found the journal) on problems and methods in the writing of the history of emotions, as well as articles on staged feelings; emotions in collective viewing; pathos and atrophy. The second issue is called “Atrocities – Emotions – Self” and features the edited papers from the “Atrocities, Emotion, Self” conference that took place at the Center for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, in 2009. If I understand the timeline correctly, a new issue should be forthcoming this spring.


Cross-disciplinary study of the emotions

At VU University Amsterdam, we have recently opened a new centre for the cross-disciplinary study of the emotions and senses, ACCESS for short. The centre is the initiative of cultural historians (myself included) and an anthropologist. We hope to bring together academics from many more disciplines to exchange ideas on the study of the emotions and senses. The interdisciplinary symposium on the Transmission of Emotions that I am organizing on 10 February is one of the ways in which we aspire to stimulate cross-disciplinary activities, such as applications for funding of interdisciplinary projects.

The ACCESS ‘mission statement’ reads:

The Amsterdam Centre for Cross-Disciplinary Emotion and Sensory Studies provides a platform for cooperation between scholars from the humanities, the social sciences, and the life sciences.

Recently the scholarly interest in the emotions and the senses has gained momentum through the ‘affective turn’ informing many new studies in different disciplines. ACCESS aims to enhance this momentum, creating an interdisciplinary platform between historians, cultural anthropologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers and other scholars interested in the cultural production and expression of the emotions and the operations of the senses.

Our research rests on the presumption that both the experience and expression of the emotions and the senses are culturally informed. Different communities shape different sensory and emotional ‘regimes’. To quote Oliver Sacks: ‘culture tunes our neurons’.

 More information on ACCESS and its upcoming activities is to be found on the ACCESS website.


The Transmission of Emotions

An Interdisciplinary Symposium

The Transmission of Emotions
An Interdisciplinary Symposium

Friday 10 February 2012, 12.30-17.30 hrs
VU University Amsterdam, Aurorazaal

‘The business of understanding the transmission of affect has barely begun’
– Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (2004)

How and why do we sense and share the emotions of others? The question of how we are moved by the feelings of others has long remained largely unexplored in psychology, neurology, and language research. It is only recently that various disciplines have begun to unravel the mechanisms of empathy, emotional contagion, and the operations of affect in watching a film or reading a novel.

This interdisciplinary symposium brings together three scientists who explore the transmission of emotions from different disciplinary perspectives: neurology, social psychology and psycholinguistics. Their lectures will introduce current knowledge of the transmission of emotion in these three fields. The symposium seeks to encourage interdisciplinary exchange on this broad-ranging topic so fundamental to understanding human interaction.

The speakers:

  • Christian Keysers (neurology): The emphatic brain
  • Agneta Fischer (social psychology): The regulation of social relations through emotional mimicry
  • Jos van Berkum (psycholinguistics): So what about emotion in language?

Click here to register (before 25 January 2012)

For more information, please see the ACCESS website or contact Kristine Steenbergh (k[dot]steenbergh[at]vu[dot]nl).

This event is organized by the Amsterdam Centre for Cross-Disciplinary Emotion and Sensory Studies, sponsored by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and the Faculty of Arts, VU University.

Illustration by Camilla Engman (