Looking for Love (and Other Emotions) in All the Right Places: Thinking Broadly about Emotions in Social Movements

By Nancy Whittier

Is studying emotions in social movements a distinct agenda from studying movements’ interactions with institutions or the state?  Are some movements oriented toward emotional change and others toward policy change? Are movements such as the one against child sexual abuse, which I have studied, fundamentally different from those that stick to topics where emotions are less apparent, or those that focus narrowly on policy demands?  My own work, and that of others, suggests not.[i]  

Early activists against child sexual abuse, in the 1970s, confronted a landscape devoid of emotional or other resources for those who had been sexually abused as children.  Emerging from the feminist anti-rape movement, they did what feminists of that era excelled at: they built the resources they sought, forming support groups and prevention programs, developing experiential knowledge, and pushing institutions like police, hospitals, schools, and the state to respond.  Over time, these roots grew into a diverse movement that sought to change policy, institutions, and individuals’ thoughts and feelings about their experiences.  It contributed to changes for professional therapy, social work, medical procedure, law enforcement, education, research, and public policy.  Changing emotion was an important element of this movement, but did not always take the form we might expect.  Conducting research on this movement taught me some important lessons about how emotion is related to other aspects of social movements and where to look for emotion, methodologically.

First, scholars tend to draw the distinction between psychotherapy (that is, efforts at transforming emotion that are not linked to social change) and activism more narrowly than activists.  In my research, activists consistently described their own efforts at “healing” as intrinsically political and inextricable from their other forms of activism.  They saw changing their own feelings as a way of standing up to the forces that led not only to their abuse, but to inadequate societal response.  These forces ranged from the way fathers are empowered over families with little intervention from outside, to a culture that renders children silent, to a medical industry that doesn’t provide effective mental health treatment, to a legal apparatus that doesn’t work to prevent abuse.  Changing how they felt, interviewees believed, entailed taking power back from these outside forces, refusing to be defined or limited by them.  Activists also believed that changing others’ emotions was important for loosening cultural strictures against speaking out about or intervening in child sexual abuse.  They sought to change others’ emotions through speaking about their own experiences and, especially, through art – theater, music, visual art – which they hoped would reach onlookers at an emotional rather than cognitive level.

Scholars can be quick to dismiss this kind of activism as “merely” therapeutic, as if emotion were apolitical or solely individual. But we know that authorities use “therapeutic” techniques to achieve social control and that inequality manifests at internal as well as external levels.[ii]  Movement resistance to this kind of authority can take the form of rejecting the therapeutic altogether, using tactics and goals that are solely cognitive and policy-oriented.  But it can also take the form of constructing alternative selves and developing tactics that confront the emotional dimensions of movement grievances and goals directly.

In my view, the distinction between the therapeutic and the political, or between movements oriented toward social support and those oriented toward social change, is not useful.  Instead, we should look at what groups seek to change, how they go about doing so, and the varying place of emotion in these efforts.  This approach grows from fundamental sociological understandings of the self, emotion, and identity as inextricably linked to both culture and institutions.

Second, tactics aimed at changing emotion are not always solely focused on individuals, but can also target the larger culture and institutions.  In the case of activism against child sexual abuse, speak-outs, work with journalists, and movement art sought to change how the emotions associated with abuse were represented in the larger culture.  At an institutional level, self-help organizations grew, over time, to provide professionalized services, in a pattern similar to that of anti-rape organizations.[iii]  These groups and their more professionalized counterparts are an institutional outcome of the movement, one that had an impact on the structure and focus of the fields of social work and psychotherapy.  Within the state, activists’ attempts to change how police departments responded to abuse reports were not just about policy, but also about the routinization of emotion within institutions: Were law enforcement officials sensitive to the emotional experiences of victims?  Did they refer them to self-help or professional support groups?  When activists testified before Congress, they expressed emotion, described emotional dimensions of legislation, and elicited (often ritualized) expressions of emotion from lawmakers.  In short, emotion permeates movement tactics and targets, including those that legitimate their power through discourses of rationality (like the law).

Third, how can we think about the outcomes of movements that engage emotion?  Critics from a variety of perspectives on the left argue that therapeutic tactics such as those used by activists against child sexual abuse are not a means of resistance to the therapeutic state, but a capitulation to it, and that they represent a turn away from genuine political challenge to domination.[iv]  Indeed, movements that seek to change emotion differ in form, practice, tactics, and frames from those that defined the theoretical outlooks of our field and shaped the political sensibilities of many progressive academics.  Ultimately, however, the question of the consequences of such movements is an empirical one.  As with any outcome, emotional outcomes are rarely straightforward, and entail partial successes and unexpected effects.  The degree to which they challenge or uphold existing social arrangements, too, is an empirical question rather than one that we can answer with theory or ideology alone.

In the end, if we see emotion as constitutive of social life – including the institutions and enduring inequalities that all social movements tackle – we need to think broadly about emotion’s importance for social movements.  Methodologically, this means looking for emotion and its impact on movements not only in movements’ internal dynamics or recruitment processes, but in their engagement with the state and other institutions.


[i] See Nancy Whittier, 2009.  The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Emotion, Social Movements, and the State.  New York: Oxford.

[ii]  On therapeutic modes of social control, see Nikolas Rose, 1990. Governing the Soul. London: Routledge; James Nolan, 1998. The Therapeutic State. New York: NYU; Andrew Polsky, 1991. The Rise of the Therapeutic State. Princeton: Princeton University Press.  On emotional manifestations of inequality, see, for example, Kimberly Springer, 2005. Living for the Revolution.  Durham: Duke; Deborah Gould, 2009. Moving Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago.

[iii] Nancy Matthews, 1994.  Confronting Rape.  London: Routledge; Patricia Yancey Martin, 2005. Rape Work.  New York: Routledge.

[iv] See, for example, Wendy Brown, 1995. States of Injury. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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Filed under Emotion in Motion, Essay Dialogues

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