Emotions and social theory: Reflexivity, critique and structure

Erin Carlisle, Flinders University:

Among the trees at the lush green central campus of the University of Wollongong, a collective of sociologists – theorists and emotions researchers alike – met to debate the points of contact between the seemingly disparate fields of social theory, on the one hand, and contemporary emotions research, on the other. These varied standpoints opened up lively and robust debates about central sociological questions, such as human subjectivity, the interrelation of structure and agency, and projects of happiness and recognition in social worlds. Not only did this workshop create a vibrant space for the sharing of ideas, it showcased the promise of interdisciplinary approaches to sociological analysis.

This event was the first official workshop of the Social Theory Thematic Group (established in 2013), which received TASA Thematic Group funding and support from the Contemporary Emotions Research Network (CERN; University of Wollongong). Drs Jordan McKenzie and Sharon Ee Ling Quah (University of Wollongong) took the lead in organising the workshop event as a collaboration between the research fields of TASA Social Theory and CERN. Nicholas Hill (Monash University) and Maree Martinussen (University of Auckland) received postgraduate scholarships from the TASA funding that facilitated their attendance at the workshop.

The day consisted of three main paper sessions, the keynote panel session, and closing ‘Reflections on emotions from a social theorist’, by Professor Alan Scott (University of New England). Jordan McKenzie opened the workshop with remarks on the place of emotions in social theory, and vice versa; this set the scene for the ensuing discussions, which challenged these disciplinary oversights by demonstrating the significance of emotions, intimacy, and corporeality for theorising the social world.

The first session drew attention to the aspects of emotions and theory research at the level of lived experience. Dr Maree Pardy (Deakin University) highlighted the affective force of pain despite the sheer subjectivity of the experience of pain. Pardy’s paper drew attention to the imagined certainty of pain and the way that imagined notions of pain underpin notions of suffering and rights protections against forms of pain across varied social contexts. Dr Sharon Quah (University of Wollongong), in turn, theorised the emotions work that arises through divorce, played out across inter- or trans-national contexts. She demonstrated the ways in which the intersections of nationality, class, and gender shape the renegotiation of family structures across transnational spaces, which results in a myriad of diverse and often conflicting emotional work for those involved. The next paper was co-authored by Drs Adrian Franklin (University of Tasmania), Roger Patulny (University of Wollongong), Nick Hookway and Bruce Tranter (University of Tasmania) and Barbara Barbosa Neves (University of Melbourne). Their presentation laid out the complex problem of men’s loneliness in Australia. In light of longitudinal and quantitative research data, they argued that sociology must play a role in theorising loneliness to offer an alternative to the psychological approaches that predominate at present. Franklin, Patulny, Hookway, Barbosa Neves and Tranter highlighted the relation between loneliness, gender cultures, and patterns of belonging as the first step to fully theorising gendered dimensions of loneliness within Australia. A shared presentation from Dr Shawna Tang, Dan Perell, and Dr Peter Bansel (Western Sydney University) brought the first session to a close. They leant upon a notion of ‘cruel optimism’ to interrogate the practices – and fantasies – of a ‘good’ academic life. The pathway that they offer out of the competitive, self-managed cruelty of contemporary academia can be found in collaboration with like-minded peers; or, as they put it: a ‘community of survival tacticians’.

The second session of the day was a dedicated postgraduate concurrent session. Vasudha Mohanka (University of Wollongong) unpacked her theorisation of the emotions involved in human IVF and reproductive technologies. Taking India as a case study, Vesuda drew particular attention the ideals of happiness involved in IVF as an ‘affective economy’ within projects of nation-building, which highlights an alternative approach for discussing the emotional aspects of assisted reproduction. Georgie Harwood (Queensland University of Technology) explored the emotional dimensions of belonging through an ethnographic study of young refugees’ involvement in sport, before Ramón Menéndez Domingo (La Trobe University) elaborated a cluster of the central tenets of modernity – especially disenchantment and individualisation – via Elias and the ‘shipwreck’ narratives of Poe, García, Marquez, Verne, and Melville. Just as many social theoretical debates cast modernity as a bifurcated project of promise and peril, the ‘shipwreck narrative’ reveals the shift toward the primacy of individual action by the adventurous hero in the face of the increasing chaos of ‘the unknown’. Next, Maree Martinussen (University of Auckland) offered an alternate ‘touchy-feely’ approach for empirical analyses of social identity- and meaning-making, while the last presenter in the postgraduate session, Gao Chunyuan (Australian National University), took a Hegelian route to highlight the convergences between ‘happiness’ and ‘capability’ approaches to the questions of human poverty and wellbeing.

The keynote panel took place in the middle of the workshop programme. Professor Jack Barbalet (Australian Catholic University) opened the panel with an argument on the necessary emotional aspects of social exchange. Barbalet suggested that social exchange such as the gift incorporates social and emotional dimensions of obligation, trust, and reciprocity, with inherently coercive and agential elements. Next, Dr Mary Holmes opened her presentation with the confession that, according to a random online survey, she is 92% optimistic! A shock to us as cynical sociologists, Holmes employed this frame to discuss her new approach to ‘critical optimism’, which emerged through her work on Sociology for Optimists. Although sociology is typically rendered as the doom and gloom discipline of dire warnings of the consequences of modernity, Holmes turned this view on its head by revealing the inherent hope for a better future within the so-called ‘classical canon’ of sociological theory. Following his quip that ‘poor old neoliberalism cops it a bit!’, Professor Rob Stones expanded upon his work with structuration theory to draw attention to the interrelation of structure and agency within what he terms as ‘contextual fields’. Just as a sociologist can be a ‘critical optimist’, as per Holmes’ presentation, Stones’ illustration of contextual fields complexified the notion of the actor, as socially-structured emotional and imaginative agents within the social world.

The third session opened with a presentation by Dr Eduardo de la Fuente about the emotional landscapes of built environments, whose atmospheres engender emotional dispositions from its inhabitants and passers-by. He contrasted examples of modernist rationalism against open-plan contemporary designs in Australian universities, highlighting their potential and destruction as not just learning spaces but ‘emotionscapes’. Next, Dr Craig Browne (University of Sydney) continued his reflections on the struggle for recognition via Honneth. Browne argued that, in dialogue with Honneth, the under-explored notion of the dialectic of control offers a potentially fruitful path through which to consider contemporary forms of resistance to injustice. Nicholas Hill (Monash University) closed the final session by highlighting the ways in which emotional self-care is linked to the maintenance of social relations. Leaning on Honneth, Hill suggested that projects of self-esteem are undertaken to regain agency and to counter notions of disrespect, for the individual to maintain their moral status as a person. Hill’s work points to the precarious character of personal identity, which is often subordinated to the production and performance of social roles. Professor Alan Scott (University of New England) then brought the workshop to a close with his reflections on emotions and sociology ‘from a social theorist’. While Scott’s remarks ended the workshop day, the discussion that the event sparked continued well into that evening and through the conference week at the University of Western Australia thereafter.

Although adopting different approaches, the papers presented at ‘Emotions and social theory: Reflexivity, critique and structure’ together highlighted the promise of interdisciplinary encounters for sociological inquiry. The discussions continued beyond the official close of the workshop over (numerous) bottles of wine at the University tavern and a local Thai restaurant. Held on the Friday before the TASA Annual Conference in Perth, the workshop event was a fantastic, thought-provoking opening to the conference week, and provided an opportunity for those unable to attend in Perth to engage with our sociological ‘community of tacticians’. On behalf of the Social Theory thematic group, I would like to thank all attendees and participants at our first workshop event. Many thanks also to Sharon and Jordan for their dedicated leadership in organising this collaborative event between the TASA and CERN networks.


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