The future of affect theory: An interview with Margaret Wetherell

Image: Margaret Wetherell

Image: Margaret Wetherell

Margaret Wetherell and David Beer

This interview reflects on Margaret Wetherell’s article ‘Trends in the Turn to Affect: A Social Psychological Critique’ which was recently published in Body & Society. The interview begins with the article but focuses upon broader questions about affect theory and its possible futures.

DB: The concept of affect is notoriously tricky and it seems to circulate in and out of fashion. Given your extensive work on the concept, perhaps we could begin with your thoughts on its trajectory. What, if any, is the future for affect theory? Are there particular directions it might go in? Does it still have any value or is it becoming too weighed down with baggage?

MW: I think versions of  ‘affect theory’ that posit affect as a pre-personal extra-discursive force hitting and shaping bodies prior to sense making are simply unsustainable. It is so obvious that semiosis and affect are inextricably intertwined, not just in the production of ‘atmospheres’, spaces and relations but in their effects and in subsequent patterns of engagement. It has been seriously unhelpful to posit a generic category of autonomous affect (applied to relations between all bodies human and non-human). Human affect and emotion are distinctive because of their immediate entanglement with very particular human capacities for making meaning. These entanglements organize the moment of embodied change and are crucial to the ways in which affect articulates and travels. They need to be centre stage in any social theory of affect and emotion.

‘Affect theory’ reflected an understandable desire for something different in social research – a desire to recognize the way the world moves us. It was exciting (and it was transgressive) to talk about bitterness, envy, joy and paranoia in the same breath as social and critical theory. But it led cultural studies researchers, human geographers and social theorists into becoming amateur psychologists and not doing it incredibly well. Seemingly unwilling to engage properly with psychology, the analysis of embodiment was often out of date, restricted and strange. Similarly, human meaning making became formulated as simply equivalent to ‘representation’ understood through the operation of epistemic regimes or discursive formations. As a result it came to seem that affect could be separated from discourse and the practical human activity of making sense could be sidelined.

Affect and emotion must have a future in social research. Affect is crucial! I think this field is just starting to get exciting again and beginning to live up to the promise of the early work such as Raymond Williams on ‘structures of feeling’, Larry Grossberg on ‘affective economies’, or Arlene Hochschild on ‘emotional labour’, and the promise that was so evident in feminist work which made the ‘personal’ and the process of ‘being affected’ a core social topic. We are coming back to these themes in a much stronger position with more elaborated accounts of embodiment, with a new kind of psychobiology which ends the old stalemate between universalist inherent emotions versus culturally constructed emotions, and with a generation of qualitative empirical research in social psychology and psychosocial studies to draw upon when analyzing the making of meaning.

DB: Your article provides a number of really sharp insights into the limits and analytical pitfalls of affect. One argument of your piece is that a focus on practice might enable us to navigate such difficulties. I wonder if you might elaborate a little on how a focus on practice might advance affect theory. In what ways might the concept of practice be allied with affect?

MW: It is intriguing that recently a number of people studying affect and emotion have remembered practice. My interest came from appreciating how productive concepts of practice were for guiding social psychological analyses of everyday meaning making. But, I note that historians (particularly at the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development) are beginning to articulate a practice approach to the questions that puzzle them such as the chronology of what they call ‘emotional styles’. While Ian Burkitt in his work on embodied practice was already, of course, making these connections, along with Bourdieu scholars, Valerie Walkerdine in her work on affective communities, and researchers in body studies (such as Shilling and Crossley) who were interested in embodied dispositions, body apprenticeships, and so on.

Certainly, some human affect and emotion is beyond the conceptual reach of practice but if one thinks of the social regularities and patterns around affect then many clearly conform to a practice account. It is illuminating to consider, for instance, the intertwining of vocabularies, bodies, contexts and actions in an emotion episode, the open-ended flexible application of ‘skills’ and the ‘routines, ruts and grooves’ in brains and bodies acquired developmentally, the ways in which the embodied dispositions of emotion are carried into new contexts, how these become canonical and conventional, the relation to reflexivity, and variable degrees of conscious and non-conscious enactment.

This leads me to think that there are particular affect-laden, social phenomena that can be usefully investigated through a practice lens. Take, for example, the ‘feeling bubbles’ making up the calendar of national life – institutionalized moments of celebration (New Year), grief (remembrance services), schadenfreude (party political conferences) etc. What are these other than a canon of affective practices – triggered in familiar ways, with familiar patterns, too, of resistance? Equally, it is a useful stretch to think of ‘communities of affect’, following the lead of historians, investigating the ways in which sub-groups and sites of social relations become defined through distinctive, recurring affective activities and performances. Then, so much of public affect is communicative and bound up with communicative practices such as narrative. Affective-discursive practices such as ‘doing righteous indignation’ or ‘doing being the victim’ are so salient and crucial in political life and yet are deeply methodical and mannered.

DB: An underlying theme in your article concerns the possibilities for social and cultural theory to be placed in a more productive dialogue with social psychology. A number of the issues you raise seem to concern the divide between these separate disciplines. The obstacles placed in front of this dialogue seem quite tricky. Is it just the concept of affect that might be improved by such a dialogue, or are there other possibilities and opportunities that it might present?

MW: Social psychology is a kind of liminal discipline between general psychology and sociology. In North America, social psychology is almost exclusively aligned with general psychology (to its detriment in my view). In the UK, there is more variety. For sure, there is a body of social psychology in the UK that is indistinguishable in many respects from general psychology – it is experimental, follows a natural science model and tends to be individual focused. There is also a body of social psychology, increasingly called psychosocial studies, that is theory driven, qualitative, and critical and this is where I have been located. Experimental social psychology resists easy engagement with the rest of the social sciences because it requires quite a lot of unfamiliar expertise. There are bridges to build with critical social psychology, however. Critical social psychologists can offer a useful guide to sifting the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the important new lines of work emerging on emotion in psychobiology and neuroscience (see the work of John Cromby), and offers highly sophisticated ways of thinking about how to re-populate abstracted accounts of spaces and social relations, ways that are attentive to social theory but with a fresh take (see the work of Paul Stenner and Steve Brown).

I was lucky to spend a large part of my academic life in the Social Sciences Faculty at the Open University and worked intensively on courses with the OU’s eminent sociologists (Stuart Hall, John Clarke) and geographers (Doreen Massey, John Allen) to name but a few. It was a massive learning curve and I was challenged to think about the kind of space social psychology could inhabit – the sorts of questions it should engage with, its potential problematic and critical trajectory, the historical relation between psychology and liberalism, and the territories that could open up if one thought about the psyche and the social in more creative, politically informed and less hidebound ways. That project is still in the making, of course, but for it to be realized it also needs social researchers to engage, to actually read psychology, and not just dismiss it with a hand wave as too complicated and beyond the brief for social theory. The outcome, I think, would be a more sophisticated exploration of domains marked as personal, a more concrete account of the human in the everyday, and forms of social theory that are better grounded.

DB: Extending this a little further, you talk about the complexity of various types of feedback loops. Here we see how your account of affect defies any ‘neat and easy dividing lines’. Then in the conclusion you note that your position is in line with recent neuroscience and psychobiology. It seems that one real difficulty with affect will be using it as a basis for examining and analysing such feedback loops. Do we need to draw on neuroscience to find ways of going beyond a notional understanding of feedback loops? Are there other ways of exploring and illuminating the complex flows that affect leads us towards?

MW: That is a very tricky set of questions, especially the last one. In a nutshell, that is the topic for the work to come. In part the issue seems to be – how much complexity, and what kind of complexities, can social researchers bracket off or black box at any point without vitiating their analyses? I wonder if for most purposes, and for most research questions, is it sufficient, for instance, to work with a basic conceptual understanding of brain/body/mind feedback loops, plasticity and distributed processing? It is enough perhaps to have a broad view on the figuring of body/brain/mind landscapes and their potentialities and limits. (As long as there are scholars in STS such as Felicity Callard and historians of science like Ruth Leys who can be relied upon to continue a more exacting critical dialogue with neuroscience.) Social research typically begins from the point where psychobiology now ends, with embodied semiosis, with social actions and performances emergent from the ‘lack of clear dividing lines’ between bodies, minds and meaning making. Social research takes up the histories, the politics, the institutions, the ‘engineering’ of spaces and relations as Nigel Thrift puts it, and tracks the narratives, the consequences and the contextual unfolding.

Social researchers are unlikely to want to put social actors in fMRI scanners or be particularly interested in the details of the psychobiological organization of affect in brains and bodies, but are likely to be interested in registrations of events within flows of social action. The challenge is to develop methods for exploring these along with more elaborated discursive accounts of feelings and impacts, with a strong enough chronological focus to follow flow and change. Intriguingly, the philosopher Alphonso Lingis argues that contrary to received wisdom much affect is very visible. He states we can tell that the office manager is enraged even if later we cannot remember the colour of their eyes and no words are exchanged. As ethnomethodologists point out, participants in interactions continually make visible in their subsequent actions and accounts how they have understood the preceding actions of others, and this kind of unfolding dialogical consequential flow of response and counter-response is a clear way into analysis beyond simply working with people’s retrospective narratives of their feelings and reactions. There are, in other words, some older approaches and methodological possibilities in microsociology that track the unfolding of emotion episodes and affect in relation. These might stimulate some new thought about how to conduct research on flows of affecting and being affected in social life, as well as how best to explore ‘emoscapes’ or more global structures of feeling and the ‘engineering’ of affect.

DB: We’ve discussed the future of affect theory in general terms, but what are your own plans. Are you planning to work further on affect?

MW: I have recently returned to New Zealand (my country of origin) and to the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland. Among other things, I am currently working with colleagues (Helen Moewaka Barnes, Tim McCreanor, Angela Moewaka Barnes, Alex McConville, Te Raina Gunn and Jade Le Grice) on a project based at Massey University on affect and national commemoration funded by a Marsden award from the Royal Society of New Zealand. This project further explores thinking about affective practice. We want to understand the conventional canons of emotions set up for national life in the context of decolonization In New Zealand, and the politics of inclusion and exclusion these facilitate. We are using various methods such as haerenga kitea – a kind of go-along interview developing visual records. It is exciting to think about the data and how best to make sense of it.

Our team is a bicultural one made up of Maori (indigenous) researchers and Pakeha researchers (Pakeha are other New Zealanders often of white European origin). My Maori colleagues are interested in Northern social theories of affect and in my work for sure but are also interested in retrieving and validating the lens of ‘wairua’ through which Maori society understands processes of being affected and affecting. In many respects this is a very different way of making meaning around memories, feelings, spaces, trajectories and relations. There is an interchange going on between indigenous framings and affect theory that we hope will be illuminating and reflects the kind of exchanges required in a decolonized bicultural society.

Further reading

Readers may also be interested in the Body & Society Special Issue on Affect (B&S 16.1, March 2010), edited by Lisa Blackman and Couze Venn, as well as the following articles on the theme of affect:

From Body & Society:

Lucian Chaffey’s ‘Affect, Excess and Cybernetic Modification in Science Fiction Fantasy TV Series Farscape‘  (B&S 20.1)

Phillip Vannini and Jonathan Taggart’s ‘Making Sense of Domestic Warmth: Affect, Involvement, and Thermoception in Off-grid Homes‘ (B&S 20.1)

Kristen A. Hardy’s ‘The Education of Affect: Anatomical Replicas and ‘Feeling Fat’’  (B&S 19.1)

From Theory, Culture & Society:

Joanna Latimer and Mara Miele’s ‘Naturecultures? Science, Affect and the Non-human‘ (TCS 30.7-8)

Robert Seyfert’s ‘Beyond Personal Feelings and Collective Emotions: Toward a Theory of Social Affect‘  (TCS 29.6)

James Ash’s ‘Attention, Videogames and the Retentional Economies of Affective Amplification’ (TCS 29.6)

Gregory J. Seigworth and Matthew Tiessen’s ‘Mobile Affects, Open Secrets, and Global Illiquidity: Pockets, Pools, and Plasma‘ (TCS 29.6)

Susan Ruddick’s ‘The Politics of Affect: Spinoza in the Work of Negri and Deleuze‘ (TCS 27.4)

David Cecchetto’s ‘Deconstructing Affect: Posthumanism and Mark Hansen’s Media Theory‘ (TCS 28.5)

Lisa Blackman’s ‘Affect, Relationality and the `Problem of Personality’‘ (TCS 25.1)

Margaret Wetherell is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and Emeritus Professor, Open University, UK.  From 2003 to 2009 she was Director of the ESRC Identities and Social Action Programme. She has held five ESRC grants and has authored or edited 18 books, the most recent being Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding (2012, Sage) and The Sage Handbook of Identities (with Chandra Talpade Mohanty, 2010). She is best known for her highly cited work on discourse theory and method, which has been translated into seven languages and reprinted on many occasions.

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology. He is also co-editor of the Theory, Culture & Society website. His most recent book is Punk Sociology (2014).


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