Affect and Emotion
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Affect and Emotion

A New Social Science Understanding

Margaret Wetherell

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eBook - ePub

Affect and Emotion

A New Social Science Understanding

Margaret Wetherell

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"Absolutely essential reading for those wanting to understand the recent ?turn? to affect. Offering an extensive analysis of all the perspectives available, including the psycho, neuro, bio and social, Margie Wetherell treads a magisterial path through the radically different offerings, one that illuminates key ideas and will save the uninitiated wandering down many pointless avenues. A path-setting book."
- Professor Beverley Skeggs, Goldsmiths In recent years there has been a huge surge of interest in affect and emotion. Scholars want to discover how people are moved, and understand embodied social action, feelings and passions. How do social formations ?grab? people? How do roller coasters of contempt, patriotism, hate and euphoria power public life? A new social science understanding of affect and emotion is long overdue and Margaret Wetherell?s voice is timely, providing a coherent and pragmatic text. It will be invaluable reading for those interested in this fascinating field across the social and behavioural sciences.

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Introducing affect: Lines of argument

Affect (1)
vb […] (tr)
  1. to act upon or influence, esp in an adverse way damp affected the spark plugs
  2. to move or disturb emotionally or mentally her death affected him greatly
  3. (Medicine) (of pain, disease, etc.) to attack
n […]
(Psychology) Psychol the emotion associated with an idea or set of ideas. See also affection
[from Latin affectus, past participle of afficere to act upon, from ad–to + facere to do]
Affect (2)
vb (mainly tr)
  1. to put on an appearance or show of; make a pretence of to affect ignorance
  2. to imitate or assume, esp pretentiously to affect an accent
  3. to have or use by preference she always affects funereal clothing
  4. to adopt the character, manner, etc., of he was always affecting the politician
  5. (Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Biology) (of plants or animals) live or grow in penguins affect an Arctic climate
  6. to incline naturally or habitually towards falling drops of liquid affect roundness
[from Latin affectare to strive after, pretend to have; related to afficere to AFFECT (1)]
(Collins English Dictionary, Sixth Edition, 2003)
In recent years there has been a huge surge of interest across the social sciences in the study of affect. What is ‘affect’, though? For a psychologist or neuroscientist, this is pretty much straightforward. Affective scientists (as they are now called) investigate emotional states and the distinctive perturbations they cause in the body and mind. Sometimes ‘affect’ includes every aspect of emotion and sometimes it refers just to physical disturbance and bodily activity (blushes, sobs, snarls, guffaws, levels of arousal and associated patterns of neural activity), as opposed to ‘feelings’ or more elaborated subjective experiences.
So far, so conventional – but the term ‘affect’ could also key into much more general modes of influence, movement and change. We could talk, for instance, about ‘being affected’ by an event, even if it is not quite clear what the impact is. Affect in this sense need not be confined to humans or even animate life – the sun affects the moon, a magnet affects iron filings, and the movement of waves affects the shape of the coastline. Damp affects spark plugs as the Collins Dictionary pro-saically puts it. Affect now means something like a force or an active relation. The term loses its moorings in studies of human emotion and expands to signify disturbance and influence in their most global senses. Thus, for Felicity Coleman (2005, p. 11), ‘affection is the intensity of colour in a sunset on a dry and cold autumn evening […] affect is that audible, visual and tactile transformation produced in reaction to a certain situation, event or thing’. While, for Kathleen Stewart (2007, p. 1), affect is evident when ‘something throws itself together in a moment as an event and a sensation; a something both animated and inhabitable’ (emphasis in the original).
We have, then, two alternative connotations – a familiar psychologised notion focused on ‘the emotions’ as these are usually understood, and also a ‘wilder’ more encompassing concept highlighting difference, process and force in more general terms. With these two contrasting meanings in play, what Clough and Halley (2007) describe as the new ‘turn to affect’ in social research could become quite a complex act. It could become very confusing.
For many social researchers, the new interest in affect is principally topic-based. It is about infusing social analysis with what could be called psychosocial ‘texture’. The turn to affect is mainly a stimulus to expand the scope of social investigation. It leads to a focus on embodiment, to attempts to understand how people are moved, and what attracts them, to an emphasis on repetitions, pains and pleasures, feelings and memories. How do social formations grab people? How do roller coasters of contempt, patriotism, hate and euphoria power public scenes? The advantage of affect is that it brings the dramatic and the everyday back into social analysis. It draws attention to moments of resentment, kindness, grumpiness, ennui and feeling good, to the extremities of distress that can result from ill use, and to the intensities of ecstasy. Interest in affect opens up new thinking about nebulous and subtle emotions like schadenfreude, or mixed and ambivalent phenomena such as reluctant optimism, intense indifference, or enjoyable melancholy.
For others, however, the turn to affect involves more than adding emotion to the inventory of social research topics. It signifies a more extensive ontological and epistemological upheaval, marking a moment of paradigm change. An interest in affect badges a particular theoretical attitude or standpoint supported particularly by the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, but also the philosophies of Baruch Spinoza, Alfred North Whitehead and Henri Bergson. In the hands of these proponents, the turn to affect becomes a decisive shift away from the current conventions of critical theory, away from research based on discourse and disembodied talk and texts, towards more vitalist, ‘post human’ and process-based perspectives. (Recent Special Issues of journals exploring this broad theme include Adkins and Lury, 2009; Ahmed, 2007/2008; Blackman and Cromby, 2007; Blackman and Venn, 2010; Davidson et al., 2008; and Fraser et al., 2005.) This focus on affect – generalised as the process of making a difference – slides over distinctions between human and non-human, animate and inanimate. Advocates are often intensely critical of previous research on discourse. Attention is thrown onto becoming, potential and the virtual (e.g. Massumi, 1996) in preference to the already formed objects that are the usual fare of social science (institutions, identities, economies, social classes, etc.).

A Way In

This book is driven by a desire to develop a pragmatic way of thinking about affect and emotion as a basis for social research, especially new empirical research. I will be arguing that neither of the two connotations of affect already in play, and the ways in which these have been taken up in social research, provides quite the right foundations. Conventional psychological research on emotions is too narrow and restrictive to support all the things social research could do in this area. Ordinary ‘basic emotion’ terms used by psychobiologists (sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust and happiness) do not adequately describe the range and variety of affective performances, affective scenes and affective events. But, although I will borrow fairly substantially from this general line of thinking, some dominant approaches applying Deleuzian inspired concepts of affect understood as force don’t always work well either.
The conceptualising of affect as influence, intensity and impact is part of a broader philosophical project (see Patton, 2000, on Deleuze’s notion of the aims of philosophy and the function of concepts). Translating this into the registers of social research requires care. Formulating a philosophy of force, becoming, potential, encounter and difference is a different enterprise from working out the most useful approaches for investigating specific affective phenomena and their consequences, such as the forms of liberal well-meaningness that infuse some white citizens’ relations with indigenous people in settler societies, for instance, or the prevalence of feelings of victimhood in niches of contemporary political life, or understanding why emotions of ‘righteous indignation’ might maintain a status quo rather than undermine it. I will be arguing in Chapter 3 that, although Deleuzian concepts are valuable for thinking about process, some applications of Deleuze and related philosophical traditions (e.g. Clough, 2008a; Massumi, 1996; Thrift, 2008a) have been radically unhelpful in their assertions about the functioning of affect, and in their disdain for previous work.
These various complications mean that the turn to affect in social research currently struggles to deliver a way of working that is consistently productive and generative. To decipher why this is so, and what might work better, I conducted a reading marathon across psychology and neuroscience, critical and social psychology, cultural studies, and the sociology of emotion, seeking to understand what was around, and what was available. Why does the new field of affect take the shape it does, and how might it be twisted and distorted by the past it reacts against?
I found myself drawn to some of the other connotations for affect the dictionary throws up, such as performance and pretence (affecting the persona of the politician, affecting an accent) and habit and character (affecting roundness, affecting an Arctic climate). I kept coming back to pattern and order, since these are comforting and familiar standbys in empirical research. I became interested in how the affective textures and activities of everyday life are shaped. A central aim was to develop a way of thinking and a line of argument that might flow from psychobiology through to social analysis. It took quite a bit of detective work to understand the blocks preventing this, leading to cul-de-sacs. Some of these initially seemed so serious as to scupper the whole enterprise, but with some navigating it did seem possible to put together integrated readings of the somatic, discursive, situated, historical, social, psychological and cultural bases of affective activity.
I settle in this account on the concept of affective practice as the most promising way forward. Practice has old and familiar connotations in the social sciences, and these are useful and still extremely valuable. But, practice is also capacious enough to extend to some of the new thinking available about activity, flow, assemblage and relationality and to follow translations of aspects of Deleuzian and other philosophical projects into social research. Practice conjures forms of order but recognises their ‘could be otherwise’ qualities (Edwards, 1997). Affective practice focuses on the emotional as it appears in social life and tries to follow what participants do. It finds shifting, flexible and often over-determined figurations rather than simple lines of causation, character types and neat emotion categories.
Despite the advantages of toppling sovereign human subjectivity, and expanding the range of social agents to include animate life and material objects, I have to confess that I am not really interested in non-human affect in this book. Research on affect in cultural studies (e.g. Thrift, 2008a) is often obfuscating when it elides together affect as topic (the study of emotion) with affect defined as becoming and intensity so that sunsets, iron filings, talking parrots, financial meltdowns, earthquakes, sobbing Englishmen, angry Libyans, etc., are studied under the same rubric. By affect, I will mean embodied meaning-making. Mostly, this will be something that could be understood as human emotion.
This first chapter introduces the field and the lines of argument I will be developing throughout the book. First, though, I want to look at three brief examples, sketching affect in action, presented with minimal commentary. These illustrate the kind of phenomena I think the study of affect should pick out, why affect is interesting and important for social research, and why it is so incredibly difficult.
Frenzied bodies
14 July 1518 – Somewhere amid the narrow lanes, the congested wharves, the stables, workshops, forges and fairs of the medieval city of Strasbourg, Frau Troffea stepped outside and began to dance. So far as we can tell no music was playing and she showed no signs of joy as her skirts flew up around her rapidly moving legs. To the consternation of her husband, she went on dancing throughout the day. And, as the shadows lengthened and the sun set behind the city’s half-timbered houses, it became clear that Frau Troffea simply could not stop. Only after many hours of crazed motion did she collapse from exhaustion. Bathed in sweat and with muscles twitching, she finally sank into a brief restorative sleep. Then, a few hours later, she resumed her solitary jig. Through much of the following day she went on, fatigue rendering her movements increasingly violent and erratic. (Waller, 2008, pp. 1–2)
In his book, A Time to Dance and a Time to Die, historian John Waller re-constructs Frau Troffea’s frenzied jig as the first manifestation of the dancing plague that would spread through Strasbourg in 1518. The epidemic travelled rapidly and lasted throughout the summer. It was spooky, eerie and extreme in its effect. At its peak, hundreds of people succumbed, with perhaps as many as 15 dying each day. Waller states that similar plagues had occurred for several centuries previously (equivalent events had been recorded from 1017), but this late 16th century example seems to have been the second largest of Europe’s dancing epidemics and is the best documented.
Waller describes how among the various possibilities for explaining what was going on, contemporary observers settled on the view that Frau Troffea, and those who followed her, were suffering from a visitation from St Vitus, who was punishing the people of Strasbourg. Frau Troffea’s fellow citizens apparently briefly considered the possibility that she was rebelling against her husband, showing him up with an insubordinate display, or had been taken over by Satan or a demon. But, after much discussion, and as the plague spread, they concluded that this was a heavenly omen. Perhaps this interpretation was favoured because something practical could then be done. Sufferers were taken by cart to Saverne, to a grotto and chapel dedicated to St Vitus, to appease the Saint and to recover.
Over 500 years later, historians make sense of this event through very different theoretical apparatuses. For Waller, it becomes an example of mass suggestion understandable in the context of the times. He argues that Strasbourg’s dancing plague was not so extraordinary viewed in the light of the contemporary ‘environment of belief’ and in light of the misery of the ordinary population in 1518. The dancing plague was preceded by severe famine, waves of sickness and disease, and unusual extreme cold. Waller describes the great anguish, distress and foreboding of the population, their loss of faith in the goodness of the clergy and their landlords, resulting in pervasive feelings of abandonment and uncertainty. While they were suffering, their priests and landlords were well off. They had the spare capital to stockpile grain and other essential commodities and were selling them at hugely inflated prices.
Waller points out the investment of the citizens of Strasbourg in the idea of the supernatural. Everyday events were explicable in terms of the battle between God and the Devil, rendering people permeable to demons and spirits. He argues that Frau Troffea’s actions, the dancing plague she set off, and the trance-like state the dancers seemed to enter, were a kind of hysterical manifestation. The epidemic was an over-determined symptom of the times. It was an act of muted rebellion expressing a huge dissatisfaction. This distress, Waller suggests, could be performed and assuaged only by turning suffering and anguish self-destructively against one’s own body in forms of dance which in better times had been familiar ways of escape and pleasure.
It is not my intention with this illustration to set up the citizens of 16th century Strasbourg as poor benighted fools, although, inevitably, the dancing plague is a spectacle and the reader does become a judge and voyeur. I cite this example because in this case affect emerged as something enigmatic and difficult to interpret. The push of the body seemed particularly strong and intensely located in a nexus of relations. This did not appear, however, to be an example of emotion in any conventional sense – Frau Troffea’s actions do not seem to fit any list of standard emotions in a psychology textbook. Yet something was felt. Bodies became organised and a situation was formulated, evaluated, negotiated and, crucially, communicated. It demonstrates why social researchers might want to expand the connotation of affect beyond the familiar emotion palettes.
Melancholic communities
At the end of the day, if you’re coming over from another country, you’ve got to understand how our country works, do you know what I mean, so you know, you should respect and understand what our law … you know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. You can’t come into another country and get everything handed to you on a plate. I’m sorry, I just don’t agree with that.
There was a case about an Indian family staying in a hotel and they just kept paying for them. And I said to them, if I was black or wore a sari and had half a dozen kids, I said, you’d put me in a place right now. They said, that’s not very nice, Mrs Butler. I said, ‘no it isn’t’, but that happens to be true … And I’m not prejudiced, but we should come first, we are British, we are born here.
… going up to Liverpool on a stag weekend that he’s organised because he is a passionate Everton fan, he’s a second generation Asian, but you just wouldn’t know it because he is a Scouser, and he waves the flag for England for the cricket … That’s my kind of immigrant. If everybody was like that, there would be no problem, you know but they aren’t. They want to have, they want to import somehow too much …
… some census that they’re doing and it had every nationality, every denominal (sic) mixture, anything that you could possibly think of except English.
And I just think, the Scots can be Scottish, the Welsh, you know, they’re Welsh, but we have to be British. … I had never bothered about it before, but I am bothering about it now.
(Extracts from Clarke et al., 2009, pp. 141–9)
These extracts come from interviews with white English citizens living in middle-class residential areas and working-class estates in Plymouth and Bristol in the South West of the UK. They were interviewed twice between January 2005 and May 2006 in a study conducted by Clarke, Garner and Gilmour, covering a range of topics including home and community, Britishness, immigration, the European Union and welfare policies. Clarke et al.’s work on this material (e.g. Clarke and Garner, 2009) has contributed to whiteness studies (Garner, 2007), and they have developed psychosocial analyses of how public identities and affili...

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Citation styles for Affect and Emotion
APA 6 Citation
Wetherell, M. (2012). Affect and Emotion (1st ed.). SAGE Publications. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)
Chicago Citation
Wetherell, Margaret. (2012) 2012. Affect and Emotion. 1st ed. SAGE Publications.
Harvard Citation
Wetherell, M. (2012) Affect and Emotion. 1st edn. SAGE Publications. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Wetherell, Margaret. Affect and Emotion. 1st ed. SAGE Publications, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.