Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Emotions in the Field: What Are We Talking About?

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Emotions in the Field: What Are We Talking About?

Article excerpt

Picture the situation, common enough in the field: two parties face each other in argument. One seems to appeal to the emotions of the other, or refers to a feeling or to the suffering of her own side to press an advantage; but the words have no equivalent in English, and there is no corresponding show of emotion. The verbal formulas suggest something 'emotional'; but neither context nor human sympathy can supply us with an interpretation. So what do we do?

Another snapshot from the field: a mother is correcting her small son in front of others, saying he has done wrong and should be 'ashamed'. He is sent out to the sound of laughter. Or, again, a child is made to stand up in a show of 'respect' to a stranger, or told to express 'gratitude'. What is going on? Having learned the local language, we know roughly what the vocabulary of emotion means among adults (we know how to use it); but what is its function here: descriptive, performative, educative, or what? What is the relation between word and feeling? And how does the child understand the word?

Such questions lead quickly to general problems of methodology and epistemology: problems of cultural relativism, translation, empathy, and the sharing or otherwise of experience. But their challenge to the ethnographer in the field should not be brushed aside. For if we cannot reliably recognize emotion away from home--or if we naively assume that we know what counts as such--our theoretical generalizations are unfounded and will, in turn, lead us to misconstrue particular cases. For the anthropologist, the problem of what constitutes emotion begins and ends in the field.

In the 'anthropology of emotions' (the framing of a subfield rather begging the question) a number of quite different approaches have been tried. Emotions have been seen as culturally packaged universals, as a form of discourse reflecting the play of power in intimate social life, as a window onto indigenous theories of the self, and as a moral idiom mediating between subjective experience and social structure. The literature is vast--one heroic survey lists 450 items (Besnier 1990; see also Leavitt 1996; Lutz & White 1986; Wilce 2004)--and as the topic of emotion moves centre-stage in the human sciences, the links with studies from sister disciplines grow ever more complex. But for a nagging feeling that theory has yet to catch up with ethnographic practice--a sense that 'out there it isn't really like that'--and the fact that our observations continue to elude theoretical formulation, the fieldworker could be forgiven for losing heart. Yet somehow we manage; and, fieldwork aside, our naive but expert negotiation of daily reality in our own societies shows time and again that, when it comes to emotion, we know a good deal more than we think. By implication, a heightened attention to what happens in the field will remain the anthropologist's best recourse.

But attentive or otherwise, the ethnographer must start from a certain perspective, and in taking that perspective much depends on his or her working definition of emotion and its relation to cognition, feeling, and bodily processes. No doubt because of their shared formation in fieldwork, anthropologists with rival agendas generally have more in common than do theorists of emotion from other disciplines. Compare these definitions, at opposite ends of the spectrum, from a prominent psychologist of constructionist bent and an equally prominent neuroscientist: (1)

  [E]motions are transitory social roles--that is, institutionalized
  ways of interpreting and responding to particular classes of
  situations (Averill 1986: 100).

  [E]motions are about the life of an organism, its body to be precise,
  and their role is to assist the organism in maintaining life (Damasio
  2000: 51).

As professional students of the native point of view, it would be convenient to declare that we are less concerned with what emotions ultimately are than with how people ordinarily understand their expression. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.