Some Prickly Thoughts on “Emotions in Motion”

By Jeff Goodwin

Scholars have been struggling for some time now to find or create the most effective language to talk about the causal importance of emotions in general and their role in politics and social movements in particular. Our rhetoric generally reflects a familiar and largely unconscious way of thinking about emotions, one which I will call the reification-and-attribution approach.

This approach basically works like this: First, one sums up (and invariably simplifies) the feelings and sensations of one or more individuals with a label like anger, fear, or solidarity. Of course, most people engage in this kind of abstraction all the time in everyday life. (“Man, are they pissed!” “I guess they’re in love.” Etc.) Then, once we have reified feelings and sensations in this way, we speak of them as having their own independent causal force, at least under certain circumstances. We say, for example, that the anger of these people caused them to protest, given background conditions x, y, and z. Or that the fear of those people kept them from protesting, given background conditions a and b. Again, people engage in this process of reification and causal attribution all the time in ordinary life. We can see quite a bit of it in the contributions to the “Emotion in Motion” essay dialogue.

The problem with this way of talking, unfortunately, is that it is incomplete, one-sided and, accordingly, vague. By this, I do not mean simply to say that factors besides emotions are involved in protest (or quiescence), like calculations, opportunities, networks, beliefs, threats, and so forth. This is obvious and uncontroversial for most scholars who have emphasized the importance of emotions for movements. I am speaking of another kind of incompleteness and one-sidedness. For the emotions to which we routinely attribute causal power (in conjunction with the kind of factors listed above) are inextricably entangled with ideas, people, and our ongoing interactions with the world. For example, we are never simply angry. We are angry about something. Or we are angry at someone (or at some others). Similarly, we are not just fearful. We are fearful of something. Or we are fearful of others. And a statement such as “I had a strong sense of solidarity” is clearly incomplete and vague. That’s because one always has a feeling of solidarity with or toward others. Accordingly, to say, as we so often do, that anger, fear, or solidarity caused some action (or inaction) is necessarily incomplete. This way of talking abstracts away from the source, object, and/or target of the emotions that we have reified as causal agents. In other words, this way of talking about emotions omits information that is absolutely essential for understanding what is actually happening in the world.

My friend Jim Jasper, in his contribution to the dialogue, implicitly understands the problems with the reification-and-attribution approach to emotions. This is why, I assume, he urges us to speak of “feeling-thinking processes” instead of just “feeling processes.” (Or instead of just “emotions.”) He recognizes that emotions are not entities independent of beliefs and perceptions which compel people to act as they do, and he understands that it’s impossible to say anything meaningful about how or what people are feeling in the first place without also knowing what they’re thinking about or longing for.

Of course, one might go further than Jasper and insist upon speaking of “feeling-thinking-interacting processes,” since it’s impossible to say anything meaningful about what people are feeling or thinking without attending to their interactions with others. Alas, recognizing that emotions are unintelligible if we abstract them away from the ideas, people, and interactions with which they are entwined implies that integrating emotions into causal analyses of movements might be pretty hard work. Maybe very hard work. One can understand why the simpler reify-and-attribute school is so popular: It’s so much easier simply to say that this or that emotion caused this or that behavior.

Another pal of mine, Colin Barker, once proposed a series of ideas about emotions (drawing on the “dialogical school” of Bakhtin, Volosinov, and Vygotsky) that we would do well to ponder: there are no such “things” as emotions, which denote instead qualities of action, speech, and thought; emotion and cognition are inextricably entwined: there are no emotions without ideas, and no ideas without emotions; we cannot grasp the meaning of emotionally charged action, speech, and thought outside of the social contexts in which they occur; and a shift in context can subtly or dramatically refocus feelings and ideas (Barker 2001, pp. 175-177).

For Barker, these ideas have implications for how we talk more precisely and effectively about emotions. Above all, we should not talk about emotions as nouns but as adjectives and adverbs. Barker quotes Nick Crossley: “We can perform the same behaviours lovingly, angrily, etc., and it is the way that we do it which constitutes the emotional aspect of the behavior” (Crossley 1998, p. 23). In other words, emotions should enter our causal accounts of movements and other social processes not as discreet entities but as qualities of thought and action. So we should stop making vague claims like “Their anger drove them into the streets.” Better to say, for example, “They protested angrily and indignantly because they thought the king’s speech attacked their traditional, inalienable rights.”


Crossley, Nick. 1998. “Emotion and Communicative Action: Habermas, Linguistic Philosophy, and Existentialism.” Pp. 17-38 in Emotions in Social Life: Critical Themes and Contemporary Issues, edited by Gillian Bendelow and Simon J. Williams. London: Routledge.

Baker, Colin. 2001. “Fear, Laughter, and Collective Power: The Making of Solidarity at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, August 1980.” Pp. 175-194 in Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements, edited by Jeff Goodwin, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press).

1 Comment

Filed under Emotion in Motion, Essay Dialogues

One response to “Some Prickly Thoughts on “Emotions in Motion”

  1. Pingback: E(moción) y movimientos sociales contemporáneos | Comunicación y Cultura Popular

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