Emotions and Social Relations


Ian Burkitt

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    About the Author

    Ian Burkitt is Professor of Social Identity at the University of Bradford where he teaches sociology and social psychology. His research interests are in the areas of social theory, theories of identity and embodiment, and the social and psychological understanding of feelings and emotions. In his work he has pioneered a relational understanding of the self and of emotions, and future projects include the application of this approach to the understanding of agency. He is the author of Social Selves: Theories of Self and Society (2nd Edition, Sage 2008) and Bodies of Thought: Embodiment, Identity and Modernity (Sage, 1999).


    I would like to thank all the people who have supported me in the writing of this book. Mary Holmes was instrumental in suggesting that I begin to write it in the first place and not just muse about it. My friends and colleagues at the University of Bradford were also tremendously helpful, particularly Paul Sullivan and Nathan Manning who took the time and trouble to read and comment on the second major draft of the book. Jason Hughes also gave incredibly helpful macro and micro comments on the full draft. Friends outside of academic life provided the distractions and emotional support necessary for sustaining a project like this, especially Alan Scott, Charles Stones, John Smith and Yasar Amin.

    The publishers and the author wish to express their thanks to SAGE Publications for kind permission to reproduce extracts from ‘Powerful Emotions: Power, Government and Opposition to the War on Terror’, Sociology, 39: 4, 2005.

  • Epilogue

    What I have been arguing throughout this book is that feeling and emotion are about patterns of relationship, or, more specifically, social relationships which are intersected by personal biographies that are interwoven through them. Many of the psychobiological explanations of emotion I have considered are limited precisely because they ignore patterns of relationship, including social and personal meanings, and the emotional reason that accompanies the human experience of feeling. Feelings and emotions cannot, therefore, be understood as things in themselves, such as physiological or neurological responses that alone can be identified as the emotion, for these things are part of a complex in which feeling and emotion take on a wider reason as they follow the pattern of relationship. Social relations, though, are moving patterns because they are always in a shifting state of play, so that while we bring emotional dispositions from the past into present circumstances and situations – evaluating contexts through the lens of prior values and identifications which follow the trajectory of our own biography – these relations are constantly in flux as they move into the future, so that what we feel is constantly changing. Feelings and emotions are a dynamic part of this change as they are both produced by and yet produce effects upon the relational configuration. In this sense, emotions can both unify and threaten social relations, configuring and reconfiguring them in the same process. I hope to have illustrated something of this in the last chapter, whereby strong feelings brought people together into a temporary collective to challenge and attempt to change global configurations of power relations. Even if this attempt failed at a political level, many things changed at a more local level through the political action itself and its effects on people's identities and their feelings of power.

    Furthermore, social relations at a local level, which form particular situations of interaction, are not bounded entities but are multiple and intersecting networks of practices that connect up to more generalised and, sometimes, more abstract or imagined groups such as social classes and factions. At both the general and local level, social relations rest on material and economic factors which support and make possible different types of practices, as I showed in Chapter 2where higher standards of living created lower rates of infant mortality, allowing different types of emotional bonds to form between parents and children. Material standards in themselves do not determine the emotional cultures found within patterns of relationship, but they do allow people the possibility of forging different relations and emotional cultures.

    Thus the broader patterns of social relations and the local scenes of interaction are ontologically connected, yet this can only be grasped temporally. Practices at a local level are structured by both social and personal history, because they are informed by the past in terms of dispositions towards habitual patterns of action which create what we recognise as social structure – the familiar and regular patterns of relations and practices that are immediately identifiable. At the same time, however, the current moment presents us with novelty as no two situations are ever exactly the same, and, especially where there is radical novelty in situations, habits must begin to adapt themselves to these new circumstances. This is the scene of practical and subjective consciousness in which there is no division between thought and feeling in the moment, as individuals must flexibly attune themselves to shifting circumstances and to a continually unresolved future. In these moments we engage in real relations with others, where more established meanings and values are lived and felt in the immediacy of our interpersonal connections. Here, imagination and desire also come into play as we sense the pre-formations of possible new meanings and futures, which are open to articulation when new semantic figures are created to give them more form. It is in these moments that our feelings of tendency connect old ideas and experiences to new and emergent possibilities in ways that are highly sensitive and oriented to situations as they develop. In this way, feelings and emotions are prime examples of how the body and bodily sensations are fused with social meanings in the patterned relational weavings of social encounters.

    It is within these encounters with others that we are affected – moved or changed by a feeling or an emotion in relation to someone or something, and we are always open to some degree to being affected by the emotional-evaluative stance that others take towards us. However, because of the position put forward in this book, I am against many of the propositions of those who support the ‘turn to affect’. This is because, in this stance, affect comes to be seen as a force or intensity in itself that mysteriously emerges from outside social relations and, as such, is a threatening or disruptive intensity. I am arguing here that emotion can be threatening and disruptive of existing relationships and is part of the dynamic of change constantly going on within relations; but that does not mean that affect is some intensity that is not itself a product of shifting patterns of relationships, and of the conflict and contest of diversity, opposition and divergent forms of resistance within them. Equally, I do not share the view that affect is an intensity that is pre-discursive, non-conscious and non-rational, as I have been arguing here that there are forms of emotional reason which come into focus more clearly if we see emotions as relational phenomena. While this does not mean that emotion is always experienced consciously and is continuously subject to reflection, it does lead us to think about the more subtle shadings and degrees that exist between the unconscious and the conscious, the non-reflective and the reflective, the involuntary and voluntary, and the necessary relationship between them. Indeed, this is where poise becomes an issue as people are threatened by being overwhelmed by the emotional experiences that have affected them, struggling to remain in touch with themselves and in possession of the skills and capacities that give them a habitual level of control over their everyday world, keeping them in balance. Even if we argue that much of our activity is motivated by feelings and emotions that are non-reflective, as I have been doing here, this does not mean that affect is not in a necessary relation to reflection – indeed I have been arguing this is the very basis of reflection itself. Even the style of reflective thought that proceeds through rational principles has at its core abductive inference, its attendant feelings and the metaphorical imagination that is so central to human emotion. It is also impossible to separate out feeling and emotion from discourse, as all our thoughts and feelings are modulated to the tone of metaphor (so basic to the creative use of language) and unarticulated word meanings. Although the latter are not full blown discourse, they can at any moment be turned into discursive utterance within our affective practices as we are moved by the relations we have to others or to situations. And those vague feelings that cannot yet be articulated still insist somewhere in our consciousness for the words to give them form as full verbal articulation, either for ourselves or others.

    Affective practice, therefore, has to do with the kind of aesthetic embodied making and experiencing of meaning that goes on within the interactive pattern of our relationships. It carries forward the moods, feelings and values that come from our past biography, orienting us within the present and towards the future. But there is always within that present moment a myriad of small and large possibilities that can surprise us, can open us to a very different future, and can challenge the way we feel and think. These are disruptive possibilities that will no doubt spark a range of ambivalent, contradictory and alternating emotions – fear, excitement, resistance and longing for the new – working themselves out in complex ways as they attempt to both close us off from, and open us up to, the change that the future brings. Emotions are part of and never independent of these relational dynamics: in fact they follow the often contradictory pattern of relationships as they take and lead us to who knows where.

    What I have also been arguing here is that emotions are complexes in that they cannot be reduced to any one element that goes into their making. Emotions are complexes in the way that bodily rhythms, energies, tensions (and release of tensions), heart-rate, neural processing networks and neurotransmitters are patterned together by social relations, meanings and interactions. Indeed, neural activation patterns are recurring structures based in habitual action and experience, yet open to setting and resetting within certain limits through practice, learning and enculturation. It is this overall social patterning of bodily practice within social relations – and their attendant and emergent meanings – that we know as emotion. This complex patterning is open to individual variation within cultural differences, both regional and local; they are also open to change within the novel and dramatic circumstances of everyday life as they tend towards new articulations. Language is the main mode of adult emotional articulation, but this is supported (and at times contradicted) by the repertoire of the bodily sounding-board which includes vocal intonation, gestures, looks and body posture. Neural systems and processing support this, as visual and other forms of perception – including those forms known as feelings – are connected to and modulated by language through ‘top-down’ and ‘cascade’ processing. These things also allow us the creativity to play on, and play with, images, metaphors, meanings and words, both to experience and to create meaning.

    Human persons are, then, loosely constructed selves that are continuous, various, ambiguous, ambivalent and creative, with a polyphonic and dialogic subjectivity that reflects and refracts in imagination the various meanings it has for others, the self appearing only in the communication between self and other. At the heart of the self and its perception of the world are the emotional tones that colour all our experiences. So-called objective or rational modes of thought are not emotionless, but only the more impersonal stances that are open to a dialogically reflective consciousness; one that is reflective to varying degrees within different circumstances. Yet emotion and our own feelings about our self and world remain at the heart of everything we know and everything we are. There can be no living experience of the world, of ideas, music, art, self and others, without feeling and emotion. They are as essential to being a living bodily self as movement, thought and sensation: indeed, feeling and emotion are so intimately tied to these things as they are developed through social practice as to be ontologically, if not necessarily analytically and reflectively, inseparable from them. Feeling and emotion, then, are part of a global, meaningful, bodily being-in-the-world that defines what it is to be human.


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