Emotions are on the bestseller list – and for good reason. Much as an earlier understanding of dinosaurs – as slow moving, dimwitted creatures doomed to extinction – has been overturned, triggering renewed public interest in the Mesozoic era, so, too, are older ways of thinking about emotions undergoing radical challenges, making it evident that emotions have a history, a politics, a sociology, and a gendered, racial, and class dimension.
Two recent books that have received widespread attention underscore a much broader emotional or affective turn in humanistic and social science scholarship.
The first volume, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking by the physicist and science writer Leonard Mlodinow, not only offers an up-to-date overview into the science of emotions, but self-help advice that views a rethinking of our relationship to our feelings as the key to a happy life and better connections with others.
Far from being in conflict, the author argues, thinking and feeling are intertwined. In fact, emotions steer our thoughts. Rejecting Plato’s analogy that likened feelings to horses and intellect to a chariot’s driver, Mlodinow argues that emotions help us make decisions, choices, and judgments more quickly and effortlessly and communicate more accurately than we could with reason alone. We inevitably rely heavily upon gut feelings, hunches and intuition – and on other people’s facial expression and body language. As he puts it: “emotion is as important as reason in guiding our thoughts and decisions . . . While rational thought allows us to draw logical conclusions, emotion affects the importance we assign the goals and the weight we give to the data.”
Our emotions, he insists, not only steer our thoughts but spur action, and not necessarily in negative ways. The author agrees with David Hume famous line that “Reason is and Ought Only to Be the Slave of the Passions” – that it is emotions that motivate individuals to act. Sadness, the author maintains, helps us “do the difficult mental work of rethinking beliefs and reprioritizing goals.” Disgust and fear, too, protect individuals from threats to their safety and wellbeing, while joy encourages people to be “more exploratory, more creative and more risk-taking.” Empathy, remorse, and shame make us more compassionate and considerate. In addition, he suggests that emotions are contagious and are increasingly intensified by exposure to social media.
Much of the book looks at how readers can better gauge their emotional makeup, helping them achieve a higher level of self-understanding. Mlodinow’s concluding argument is that people have the ability to manage, regulate, modulate, and moderate their emotions and can train themselves through a process of reappraisal to achieve the emotional state that they seek.
A second volume that has provoked widespread debate is Batja Mesquita’s Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions, which challenges the assumption that there are certain hard-wired universal emotions. Rather, the author, a social psychologist and self-described affective scientist, argues that the way that emotions are experienced, interpreted, and acted upon differs widely across cultures and societies.
It’s not simply that various cultures use different words to describe particular emotions or that emotions vary cross-culturally in valence (whether they are considered good or bad), persistence (how long the emotion lingers), automaticity (whether it surfaces immediately or more slowly), scalability (in its intensity), or generalizability (whether or not it has a specific trigger). Nor does the difference lie in contrasting views about whether it’s psychologically healthy to vent emotions.
It’s that western and non-western societies tend to think about emotions in radically contrasting ways, or, as the author puts it, in “incommensurable paradigms” – an argument that The New Yorker’s reviewer, the Cambridge philosopher Nikhil Krishnan, fervently rejects. Whereas Western societies tend to see emotions as feelings or impulses that exist inside the private individual’s mind, those outside the West tend to view emotions as relational, public, and situated in interactions among people.
Mesquita’s argument is not, contrary to critic Krishnan’s claim, that the West has an impoverished understanding of emotions. It’s that if we’re serious about cross-cultural understanding and social-emotional learning, we need to recognize that effective intercultural or cross-gender, cross-ethnic, cross-racial, and cross-political party communication requires more than empathy It demands that we recognize that different cultures and subgroups conceive of emotions very differently, socialize children to experience feelings in contrasting ways, and prioritize certain emotions like honor or dignity in their own distinctive way.
Emotions, in Mesquita’s eyes, are culturally specific – and this idea has had far-reaching impact across the humanities and social sciences.
No longer are emotions the exclusive preserve of psychologists. Anthropology, history, literary criticism, political science, and sociology have all undergone an emotional or affective turn, each seeking to understand how context, identity, and life circumstances shape emotional standards, emotional arousal, emotional expression, and emotional responses.
We now recognize that a host of emotions – anger, anxiety, bitterness, curiosity, disgust, envy, fear, grief, guilt, hate, homesickness, honor, humiliation, indignation, insecurity, malice, nostalgia, pity, pride, resentment, shame, vengefulness, and xenophobia, among others – while partly innate, are also products of socialization, life experience, and perceptions that are products of particular cultural, historical, and sociological context.
Much of the new scholarship follows Mesquita’s example and challenges the view of emotions as private, inner feelings that are instinctive, involuntary, and unconscious responses to various triggers. Instead, a growing body of scholarship views emotions not as reflexes, but as purposeful and at least partly culturally constructed. According to this view, emotions are culturally-conditioned emotional states that color people’s perceptions, their appraisal of a situation, and shape their frame of mind and their subsequent behavior.
We now know that emotions are:
- Central to understanding human motivation,
- A stimulus to action a key to identity, and a driver of behavior
- An integral part of politics and international relations
We have also learned that emotions are:
- Taught and learned.
- Influenced by cultural context.
- Gendered, racialized, and class specific.
- Products of history.
Why the scholarly embrace of emotions? It partly represents a reaction against an overemphasis on rationality and discourse, a heightened interest in subjectivity and the emotional interior, and a way to understand the wellsprings of human behavior more holistically. The study of emotions also bridges the chasm separating the two cultures, providing opportunities for humanists to converse with social, behavioral, and brain scientists.
Mesquita is certain right that cultures and subgroups tend to have their own distinct emotional repertoires and styles, which vary in far-reaching ways: in the emotions that particular subgroups recognize, how these emotions are managed, and what are considered appropriate emotional responses in terms of intensity, duration, and expression.
In his 1882 book, The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche asks: “[W]here [can] ‘you find a history of love, of avarice, of envy, of conscience, of piety, of cruelty?’, and if we were to find such a history, what would it look like?”
Thanks to a growing body of scholarship pioneered by such scholars as Ute Frevert, Susan J. Matter William M. Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, Peter N. Stearns, and Ronald Grigor Suny and the work of centers at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at the University of London, the Languages of Emotion Cluster of Excellence at Freie Universität and the Centre for the History of Emotions at the Max Plank Institute, Berlin, and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, it is now possible to speak about the history of emotions.
We have learned a great deal about children’s emotional development from books like Learning How to Feel: Children’s Literature and the History of Emotional Socialization, 1870-1970. Comparative, global perspectives can be found in works like the just released The Routledge History of Emotions in the Modern World.
First of all, we now better understand how the emotions of fear, envy, and resentment have motivated witch hunts, religious conflicts, labor strife, and war. The historian and political scientists Ronald Grigor Suny has done a particularly masterful job of demonstrating how nation states, politicians, the press, charismatic leaders, and other actors instilled, manipulated, and exploited emotions to advance their domestic political and foreign policy objectives. As he has shown, nationalism, ethnic violence, genocide, and the efficacy of extremist appeals can’t be understood simply through rational actor models.
Equally important, we are now more aware than ever about a profound contradiction that underlies the history of emotions. In certain respects, contemporary Western societies has come to expect a degree of emotional control and even repression far less evident in the past. Open displays of anger in public settings are harshly judged, and verbal abuse, fits of rage, and temper tantrums within workplaces or households are considered out of bounds and potentially subject to legal punishment. Older forms of public shaming – with stocks, scarlet letters, and dunce caps – disappeared, only to be replaced more recently by shaming on social media.
Yet at the same time, contemporary Western societies prize emotional honesty and authentic displays of emotion and consider emotional release (“letting it all hang out”) as healthy and cathartic. Tightly disciplined rationality no longer represented an uncontested cultural ideal.
This contradiction is itself a product of history. As Norbert Elias, the early 20th century German sociologist, described in his 1939 classic, The Civilizing Process, since the late Middle Ages, there have been persistent efforts to refine the emotions, increase self-control, instill civility, politeness, and delicacy, invest loss of emotional control with shame, repugnance, and embarrassment, and place instinctual life and manners under tighter control In the 20th century, as the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has shown, salespeople and flight attendants were expected to stage manage their smile and laughter to please customers. But the civilizing process also provoked recurrent reactions that grew more pronounced beginning in the 1960s, evident in a revolt against reticence and repression that manifest in dress, language, and the decline of formal etiquette, even as an ideal of emotional cool, detached, aloof, and disdainful, also gained popularity.
It’s our emotions, we are told, that make us human. If that’s the case, then it makes perfect sense for scholars across the humanities and social sciences to follow the example of literary critics, who have long been interested in how poets, playwrights, and novelists, playwrights, and poets have represented people’s emotional interior, emotional responses, and emotional experiences.
The emotional or affective turn offers, in my view, an ideal vehicle for scholars and students to study how emotional expression and emotional standards have varied across cultures and time, how emotions have influenced politics and international relations, how emotional experiences vary by gender, race, class, age, and other variables, and how children are socialized in the realms of affect and feelings.
More than that, however, this turn in scholarship provides a perfect way to address weighty and personally meaningful issues that the curriculum too often ignores — grief, for example, or hatred or frustration or, yes, love – and, at the same time, contribute to our students’ affective growth and emotional self-consciousness. If one of our educational goals is to cultivate emotional intelligence, empathy, and self-awareness in our graduates, then what better way to do so than to treat emotions as an object of study.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
Source by www.insidehighered.com