Report on the ‘Emotional State’: Nov 3rd 2017, Queen’s University Belfast

by Madeleine Rungius


Speakers: Dr Jonathan G. Heaney (Queen’s University) invited Dr Daniel Savery (National University of Ireland, Galway), Dr Emmet Fox and Madeleine Rungius (University of Liverpool) to explore and discuss the conceptualization of the (Western industrialised) ‘emotional state’.

The event in Belfast organised by Jonathan Heaney reflects and reinforces interests and concerns shared between the writers and readers who make up the States, Power, Emotion blog. The Belfast event started with Heaney pointing out that the political sociology of emotions has been to a large extend under-explored. Looking at emotions in classical theories of the state (Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes etc.) and modern accounts (Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Elias etc.) he argued ‑ in contrast to dominant interpretations of the state as a rational construct ‑ that emotions play a central, if occluded role in states. Heaney argued: All states are fundamentally emotional states. This argument resonated in all presentations and set the tone for following discussions. Using the example of Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ Heaney argued that passion and happiness in the pursuit of power and glory form the epicentre of the state that organizes power for the emotional life. Therefore, it was the lack of common measure of emotions that brought about the state.

Heaney’s conception of the ‘emotional state’ is influenced by Pierre Bourdieu – the state “as the symbolic underwriter of the constitution of emotional life, within a dispositional theory of social action, where emotions are understood as practices generated by social (emotional) habitus” (Scheer). Hence, the control of emotions is fundamental to the idea of the state as such. Heaney used the concept of habitus to flesh out the emotional state, which he provisionally understands as “the various ways in which the nation-state has been directly and indirectly involved in the construction and deconstruction of the emotional life of the polity; the degree to which it reflects (and constructs) the dominant emotional regime(s) and norms; and how these processes change through time.” Heaney demonstrated how the emotional state becomes visible in education, a space in which the habitus is constituted in social, historical and cultural context. Using the example of the global emotional literacy movement (SEL/SEAL) that teaches children emotional literacy he demonstrated how children learn ‘desirable’ emotional behaviour, how education is underpinned by the emotional state and its symbolic power.

Savery approached the topic of the ‘emotional state’ by discussing the relationship between emotions, freedom and republican theory. He referred to Rousseau to discuss: What does it mean to be free? Rousseau argued that desire and passion make a person less free. Rousseau’s amour propre describes compassion, empathy but also the desire for the good opinions of others and most importantly the channelling of good behaviour for the state. Giving it a Bourdiesian twist, Savery argued that being concerned with freedom means being concerned with habitus; suggesting the existence of a desired set of emotions in a republican state and therefore an emotional habitus of the state.

Fox discussed the state as a monopoly of symbolic violence and the cleft emotionality of climate change. He argued that analysing symbolic violence makes the emotional state visible, bodily and emotionally, and emphasized the materialistic side of emotional practices. Here, symbolic state violence structures emotions into an order with ascribed values to different emotions. He argued that states presently do not engage with climate change on an emotional level for there is no social capital for it. This suggests that the government has no sincere interest in discussing and tackling climate change since motivating emotions like anger and resentment are not given a stage. Thus, policy making is bound to a hierarchy of emotions that lies within the symbolic power of the state.

Whereas Heaney, Savery and Fox position Bourdieu’s habitus as origin of their thought, Rungius departs from Stjepan Mestrovic’s interpretation of Emile Durkheim. Rungius explored the emotional state through moral facts. Moral facts are understood as representations of values embodied in emotional practices in a specific time and place. Using the example of the guillotine during the French revolution, Rungius argued that modern state sanctioning is essentially embedded in emotions in a reasoned world which is supposedly more humane and civilized. She argued that modern states try to hide emotions (like vengeance and anger) that surround practices of sanctioning behind rational narratives, and suggested that moral facts can help seeing how the rational (self-)imagination of the state translates into actual practices that are emotional, like all practices are. This is where the emotional state reveals itself.

Throughout the discussions it became obvious that particular epistemological and ontological traditions in sociology and political science make it difficult to discuss states as emotional states. The Kantian and Neo-Kantian tradition were specifically addressed as problematic since they reproduce the image of the state as a rational construct and thereby limit imagining the state as emotional. This reproduces a cognitivist approach, the very dualism between rationality and emotions the sociology of emotions intends to overcome.

The workshop participants rejected the idea of a total rationalization/hiding of emotions in and by the state like Mestrovic suggests. His understanding of the postemotional society does not capture the complexities within (e.g. power relations based on gender, race, class, sexuality etc.). Much more are all states emotional with culture-bound emphasised and desired emotions and disguised, unwanted emotions. The workshop participants explored the idea of thinking about emotions in and of the state as a hierarchy, which can potentially capture the complexities within and is not blind to power relations. For further discussions around the emotional state, the workshop participants suggested to have a close look on how the state imagines itself, how the state states things, how the state talks and narrates stories of legitimacy.

The following questions guided the workshop and emerged in the discussions – food for thought:

  • Is there a typology of the emotional state?
  • What is the role of freedom in the emotional state?
  • How does nationalism fit within the emotional state?
  • How does globalization fit within the emotional state?
  • How can we reveal the emotionality of the state?
  • Why is there such a big interest in continuing the imagination of the state as a rational construct?
  • Is the ascription of rationality, despite emotional undertones, enough to legitimize a practice?
  • Who is in the position to use ‘rational arguments’ to give their emotional actions credibility and legitimacy?
  • What is the role of gender when we think about the authorship of the argument as the state as rational? / In which ways do feminist theories of the state discuss the ‘emotional state’?
  • How can we overcome the engrained duality of emotions and rationality that is so prevalent in the way we think and imagine the state?
  • How can we unlearn to think about and teach about the state as a rational construct in universities? / Do feelings of the state become legitimate when they are included in the school syllabus?

The workshop has been organized by Dr Jonathan G Heaney, School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work (Queen’s University Belfast), and was funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant.


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Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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