The emotional turn in anthropology and the social sciences.

A cognitive bias in the social sciences prevents us to fully appreciate the contribution of emotions to human (inter)subjectivity. Moreover, the so-called emotional turn in the social sciences has mostly been interested in the cognitive aspects of emotions. Alternative approaches to emotions are available and they rely on convincing neuroscience squarely posited against the cognitivist biases of experimental psychology. Emily Martin, in a recent article, however warns about the risks of the current infatuation  for affects in anthropology and the social sciences. I consider her arguments in the following notes on: Martin, Emily 2013. ‘The Potentiality of Ethnography and the Limits of Affect Theory.’ Current Anthropology online first, .

In her article, Martin reconstructs moments of the coming of age of anthropology (the Torres Strait Expedition of 1898) in light of current debates in order to both re-set in time the historical facts but, also,‭ ‬to learn from those experiences‭ (‬experiences,‭ ‬in this context,‭ ‬to be‭ ‬“deployed as an antidote to affect theory‭”‬ (1‭)); second,‬ she suggests that certain disciplinary infatuations may hinder the ability to produce reliable,‭ ‬usable,‭ ‬effective and politically meaningful (anthropological) knowledge‭; ‬last,‭ ‬but by no means least,‭ ‬she engages affect theory from the point of view of its potential to undermine decades of feminist studies and political emancipatory practice. This last, is, to my mind, the most damning argument against affect theory in Martin’s piece.

Martin’s concerns are framed as follows: “[w]e need to ask whether one result of seeing the affects as biological phenomena is losing the insights that feminism can provide” (9). That would happen because of the separation of affect from intentionality (and the latter’s subordination to the former). If that were the case, I agree, it would indeed be a cognitive and a political disgrace. However, I am not certain that that ‘has to be’ the case. Misunderstandings, a general lack of clarity, and a cognitive bias in the social sciences mystify to a great extent the study of affects and prevent us from appreciating their contribution to subjectivity and intentionality, Martin’s stated interest.

This is how Martin sees the predicaments of affect theory: “Years ago Gayle Rubin (1975) analysed the “sex/gender system” as a “set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity” (159). More recently, in Brainstorm, Jordan-Young (2010) rephrases this: “Gender … is a social effect, rather than the result of human biology. Sex in this regard is conceived as the remainder—the material body, and those bodily interactions that are necessary to reproduce it” (13). Borrowing from this way of putting it, we could say that like the sex/gender system, the affect/intentionality system is a set of arrangements by which a society transforms neurological processes into products of human activity. Affects are a social effect rather than the result of human biology. Intentions in this regard are conceived as the remainder—the material brain and those neurological interactions that are necessary to reproduce it.” (9)

I agree, though I know little about experimental psychology, that the cognitivist bias that pervades the discipline and the black box behaviourist metaphors that are often associated with it, limit their grasp of individual subjectivity and group dynamics. I also embrace her concerns with undermining feminism by using the authority of science, in this case neuroscience. How does this happen according to Martin? In simple terms, mine not hers, by splitting (again) the human self in affective and intentional states and by subordinating the former to the latter. In other words, by splitting the self in body and mind and (this time) subordinating reason to emotion. Evidences are provided in her text that: “[m]any scholars in the humanities have recently engaged with research in neuroscience to posit a view of a precognitive, preindividual stage of human perception that promises unrealized dimensions of potentiality.” She then quotes Nigel Thrift, Eric Shouse and Brian Massumi (among others), affect enthusiasts who seem to overstate (in a blurry way, it would seem too) the role of affects.

She summarises the case for affects (acknowledging differences and nuances in an expanding disciplinary field), with Ruth Leys’s words (2011) “For the theorists in question, affects are ‘inhuman,’ ‘pre-subjective,’ ‘visceral’ forces and intensities that influence our thinking and judgements but are separate from these. Whatever else may be meant by the terms affect and emotion … the affects must be non-cognitive, corporeal processes or states (437)” (7). She then concludes that “they [affect theorists] claim that the role of reason and rationality in politics, ethics, and aesthetics has been overvalued” and that “[t]hey share an insistence that we ignore affects at our peril because they can be manipulated deliberately and because they contain the potential for creativity and transformation” (7-8). Finally, the claims so far recounted are based on “questionable and out of date” (8) science.

Indeed, using questionable and out of date science to make speculative claims does not advance the interest of scholarship. It would, though, be interesting to understand why neuroscience is constructed as a monolithic authority bestower whereas instead one can find in it evidence for a large array of at times contradictory arguments (feminism is also a complex field and Martin could have said a little more about affects in feminist scholarship and political practice). It is true that many affect theorists make the claim that the role of rationality in all spheres of existence has been overvalued. Such overstatements have been caused by a split similar to that that some affect theorists might be culpable of according to Martin. In other words, in the split field of emotion vs rationality each side has supporters that swear by the determinant role played by either party to human behaviour.

Given the dominance of cognitive proponents and rational choice advocates, the contrary overstatements of the role of affects (and their predominantly presubjective and bodily quality) can be considered a political resistance against their prevalence in all sectors of human knowledge and all domains of policy-making. A way to use the hegemonic language to address the current imbalance in the valuation of emotions and rationality in decision-making and action, to highlight the epistemological foundations of the political imbalance. It seems to me that at the heart of the matter is the split itself rather than the ‘political’ dynamics between emotion and rationality (and their champions) for the control of human intentionality. In other words, scholar/political activism is necessary first to bring the split itself in focus for a transparent assessment. A way, one more, to negotiate the non-inevitable tension between nature and nurture.

Attempts to call attention to the unnecessary (and to some, sterile) conflict between innate and acquired traits, between nature and nurture, body and mind, rationality and emotions, have been forthcoming from neuroscientists. The science referred to by Martin points to Antonio Damasio’s work. The same Damasio, however, cautions against a methodological practice, the splitting I mentioned above, which should be used sparingly and whose limitations must be understood. In the same sentence he clarifies his position on affects: “body and mind are parallel attributes of the same substance. We split them under the microscope of biology because we want to know how that single substance works, and how the body and mind aspects are generated within it. After investigating emotion and feeling in relative isolation we can, for a brief moment of quiet, roll them together again, as affects” (Damasio 2003:133, see also 2010 and 2004).

Another eminent neuroscientist and scholar of consciousness reflects on the issues mentioned here in these terms: “Thought cannot be pursued except against a conscious backdrop. But a biological theory of consciousness provides only a necessary condition for thinking, not a sufficient one. Thinking is a skill woven from experience of the world, from the parallel levels and channels of perceptual and conceptual life. In the end, it is a skill that is ultimately constrained by social and cultural values. The acquisition of this skill requires more than experience with things; it requires social, affective, and linguistic interactions. Thoughts, concepts, and beliefs are only individuated by reference to events in the outside world, and by reference to social interactions with others, particularly those involving linguistic experience. What this means is that no amount of neuroscientific data alone can explain thinking” (Edelman 1992:174 see also Edelman 2006 and Edelman and Tononi 2000).

Edelman concludes (contra Leys 2011 and Papoulias and Callard 2010 but also contra some aspects of Martin’s criticisms of biology and neuroscience tout-court): “At a certain practical point, therefore, attempts to reduce psychology to neuroscience must fail. Given that the pursuit of thought as a skill depends on social and cultural interaction, convention, and logic’ as well as on metaphor, purely biological methods as they presently exist are insufficient. In part this is because thought at its highest levels is recursive and symbolic” (1992:175). It is precisely to understand thought and social dynamics at the highest recursive and symbolic levels that ethnography is indeed crucial as Martin convincingly shows (see also Martin, 2010).

I wish to make a final point about the broader implications of Martin’s article. Beyond the complex relations between some affect theorists and the science they invoke, it is necessary to investigate the importance of emotions in human life. A profound cognitive bias in the social sciences has prevented (and largely still does) to understand its contribution to human (inter)subjectivity. Moreover, the emotional turn in the social sciences has mostly been interested in the cognitive aspects of emotions. Alternative approaches to emotions are available and they rely on neuroscience of the kind mentioned above, squarely posited against the cognitivist biases of experimental psychology for precisely the same reasons articulated by Martin in her article. I speak from the perspective of social movement studies and its almost two decades of investigations on the role of emotions in political activism. While cognitive biases are present, psychoanalysis and neuroscience informed research is contributing to the development of the discipline. It is reductive to study human motivation and collective action without considering emotion and rationality, affects and intentionality, bodies and minds that struggle for justice and recognition (see for instance Benski and Langman 2013, Gould 2009, Flam and King 2005, Goodwin, Jasper and Polletta 2001, Goodwin 1997).

Inspiration can be drawn from emotional finance and from David Tuckett’s (a psychoanalyst and a sociologist) research on the emotional component of decision-making in financial markets. This approach is congruent with certain (but by no means all) advances in the neuroscience (Tuckett 2011). Tuckett’s work thoroughly tells the cognitive bias in behavioural economics – a discipline based on the same experimental psychology that is target of Martin’s critique – and highlights how that not only does not dispel the limitation of the mind/body dualism and the domination of an abstract and ideological portrait of the rational utility maximising individual of mainstream economics (and, indeed, mainstream social science), but it does contribute to its entrenchment in policy making. The most glaring issues caused by such attitudes has been the 2007-8 financial crisis and the helplessness of policy makers and the institutions they devised to address its effects.


Benski, Tova & Lauren Langman, 2013 The effects of affects: The place of emotions in the mobilizations of 2011. Current Sociology, online first.

Damasio, Antonio 2010. Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Pantheon

Damasio, Antonio 2004. The Neurobiology of Feeling. New Orleans: International Psychoanalytic Association.

Damasio,‭ ‬Antonio‭ ‬2003.‭ ‬Looking for Spinoza‭ ‬:‭ ‬joy,‭ ‬sorrow,‭ ‬and the feeling brain.‭ ‬New York/Heinemann/London,‭ ‬Harcourt.

Edelman, Gerald 2006. Second nature: brain science and human knowledge. Yale, Yale University Press.

Edelman, Gerald 1992. Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of Mind. New York, Basic Books.

Edelman, Gerald & Giulio Tononi 2000. A Universe of Consciousness. New York, Basic Books, 2000

Flam Helena & Debra King (eds) 2005. Emotions and Social Movements. London: Routledge.

Goodwin Jeff 1997. ‘The libidinal constitution of a high-risk social movement’. American Sociological Review, 62:53–69.

Goodwin Jeff,‭ ‬Jasper James and Francesca Polletta‭ (‬eds‭) ‬2001.‭ ‬Passionate Politics.‭ ‬Chicago,‭ ‬University of Chicago Press.

Jordan-Young,‭ ‬Rebecca‭ ‬2010.‭ ‬Brain storm:‭ ‬the flaws in the science of sex differences.‭ ‬Cambridge,‭ ‬Harvard University Press.

Leys,‭ ‬Ruth‭ ‬2011.‭ ‘‬The turn to affect:‭ ‬a critique.‭’‬ Critical Inquiry‭ ‬37-3:434‭–‬472.

Martin,‭ ‬Emily‭ ‬2013.‭ ‬The Potentiality of Ethnography and the Limits of Affect Theory.‭ ‬Current Anthropology online first,‭ ‬‭ ‬.

Martin, Emily 2010. ‘Self-making and the brain’. Subjectivity, Vol. 3-4: 366–381.

Papoulias, Constantina, and Felicity Callard 2010. ‘Biology’s gift: interrogating the turn to affect.’ Body and Society 16-1:29–56.
Rubin, Gayle. 1975. The traffic in women: notes on the “political economy” of sex. In Toward an anthropology of women. Rayna Reiter, (ed) Pp. 157–210. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Shouse, Eric. 2005. Feeling, emotion, affect. M/C Journal 8(6).

Thrift, Nigel. 2004. Intensities of feeling: towards a spatial politics of affect. Geografiska Annaler B 86(1):57–78.

Tuckett, David 2011. Minding the markets: an emotional finance view of financial instability. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

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