Emotions and Contentious Politics

Authors: Ron Aminzade and Doug McAdam

Introduction to the Special Issue

In recent years, scholars have come to recognize emotions and emotional processes as central to an understanding of contentious politics. The study of emotions was not absent from early analyses of collective behavior and social movements, but it was typically accompanied by a number of problematic assumptions that no longer inform most research on the subject. This earlier work typically equated emotions with irrationality and assumed that emotions and rationality are incompatible. This often led to a narrow focus on the emotional content of sudden outbursts of crowd behavior. The work represented in this collection rejects the false dichotomy of emotions and rationality and adopts a much broader perspective on the role of emotions. These articles address a wide range of issues, including the role of emotions in sustaining movements over time, the complex and often contradictory nature of emotion work within movements, and the activities that produce the emotional energy needed to forge and maintain collective political identities. They clearly document the centrality of emotions to the process by which people engage in contentious politics. Much of the recent research on emotions and political conflict has entailed micro-level analyses and ahistorical case studies, mainly in the United States and Western Europe. The articles collected here embrace a broader scope, moving across diverse cultures and incorporating attention to long-term and large-scale processes, such as the institutionalization of electoral practices in England, democratization in Mexico and Korea, the global spread of nationalism, and the revolutionary transformation of regimes in China.
These articles suggest that the historical study of emotions can lead us to question commonsense understandings, address silences in the existing literature, and rethink conventional categories of analysis. Close historical inspection of the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the secret ballot, for example, suggests that common explanations centering around reformist desires to combat corruption are problematic. Barbalet’s research reveals the importance of the role of emotions, especially fear on the part of ruling elites, in the adoption of this electoral practice. More importantly, his research also makes us aware of the social consequences of the spread of this institutionalized political practice, an implicit and rarely perceived set of embedded emotional dynamics that serve to individualize and isolate workers. The introduction of secrecy into voting altered emotional dynamics among working-class voters, thereby inhibiting the mobilization of those emotions that had helped to trigger the riots and violence that accompanied early elections. Gould’s study of ACT-UP sheds light on a number of neglected topics. In particular, Gould eschews the dominant focus on movement emergence and explores the critical role of emotion in helping to sustain contentious politics. Perry challenges conventional explanations of social change, including accounts of the triumph of Communist activists over their Guomindang rivals in China as due to structural conditions, especially organizational and political factors. An important piece of the explanation, in her account, is the emotional styles and emotion work of movement leaders and their ability to develop rituals, like “speaking bitterness” or “criticism-self-criticism,” that mobilize emotions among potential followers. Successful leaders deploy complex cultural knowledge in their quest to connect abstract cognitions of injustice to emotions of anger, fear, grief, and revenge and thereby harness emotional energy to their projects of political change.
Emotions can impede as well as stimulate collective political action and foster reformist as well as revolutionary strategies of collective action. As Deborah Gould’s research demonstrates, so long as grief was the dominant emotional response to the AIDS crisis, the gay community was unable to sustain a more confrontational approach to the issue. Emotions can also provide solid foundations for oppositional practices that challenge the major political developments of the modern world, such as the formation of nation-states. The research of Taylor and Rupp shows that alongside the bitter hatreds and violent conflicts accompanying this key process in the making of the modern world, there were less well documented trans-national gendered practices that created alternative bonds of solidarity and a loving community that challenged nationalist rivalries. These challenges were rooted in a distinctive trans-national emotion culture that built on the shared experiences and emotion work of women around the globe, encompassing expressive public rituals of reconciliation, intense affective cross-national ties, and an emotional template of mother love. The success of this emotion culture in building a transnational collective identity among women, they suggest, may help to explain why women peace activists had more success in sustaining their organizations than did their male counterparts.
Emotion cultures are a key dimension of any movement and rituals typically play a central role in a movement’s emotion culture. Rituals were central to the transnational womens’ movement against war and nationalism, as Taylor and Rupp clearly document. In Cadena-Roa’s account, the emotions aroused by rituals associated with the popular spectator sport of wrestling help to explain public responses to the framing efforts of urban social movements in Mexico. As the accounts of Perry, Taylor and Rupp, and Cadena-Roa make clear, emotionally laden rituals are a key means for dramatizing injustice, building solidarities and affirming identities, and generating the emotional energy necessary for high-risk activism and sustained commitment to the cause. Their analyses of movement rituals shed light on the emotional dimensions of the interpretative processes that underpin collective political action.
To argue for the central importance of emotion in political contention is not to suggest that its effects are always facilitative of collective action. On the contrary, these articles provide ample evidence of the ambivalent, contradictory, and unstable character of emotions. Efforts to manage the ambivalent emotions that lesbians and gays in the U.S. had toward their homosexuality and the larger society, argues Deborah Gould, shaped movement responses to AIDS. They help to explain the initial failure of a militant collective action frame and the adoption of non-confrontational politics dominated by lobbying and community service provision. The same emotion, she argues, can have strikingly different consequences. Articulations of gay pride, for example, can be linked to militant, confrontational activism or to efforts to resurrect respectability, suppress anger, and discourage militant activism. Hyojoung Kim’s research also highlights the potentially contradictory and unstable consequences of specific emotions, depending on the nature of their object. In his study of the process by which emotional experiences and expressions shape activist preferences among visitors to the tomb of a suicide protestor in South Korea, Kim argues that the same emotion, shame, can have very different preference effects. When the evaluative object of shame is an overall identity, he argues, it is likely to have a demobilizing effect, but when it is addressed to specific behavioral deficiencies, it is likely to strengthen further commitment to movement activism since there is considerable room for reparation of the identity involved. Elizabeth Perry’s analysis of the success of Chinese communist revolutionaries also captures the ambivalent character of emotions. She points to the Communists’ ability to appreciate and capitalize on the ambivalence and malleability of human emotions and argues that the plasticity and ambivalence of emotions can help make sense of some of the more shocking aspects of the Cultural Revolution.
This collection of articles testifies to the diversity of emotional rules and climates across movements and cultures and the play of different emotional processes and dynamics during the emergence and development of social movements. They suggest that environmental circumstances, including strong organizations and favorable opportunities, will not produce a movement in absence of heightened emotions; in other words, that widely acknowledged facilitators of mobilization operate in large part through the emotional dynamics they set in motion. We are not yet at a point in the study of emotions and contentious politics where we can clearly identify the typical emotional dynamics that characterize the different phases of movement emergence, growth, and decline. (Though in a chapter for a volume entitled Silence and Voice in Contentious Politics we have offered some detailed speculative hunches about the role of emotions over the life of a movement.) Any characterization of a typical movement life cycle is likely to be extremely problematic, given the tremendous emotional variation within movements and the ongoing conflicts among movement activists over emotion rules and repertoires. Further research is needed before we can make any strong generalizations concerning the relationship between appeals to particular emotions and particular types of movements, movement cultures, or collective action repertoires. But this diverse collection of articles helps to move us down the path toward a better understanding of the causal power of emotions and the emotional dynamics of collective political action.



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