Emotions and Reflexivity

Archer’s account has recently been subject to criticism for allegedly marginalising the role of emotion in reflexivity (Burkitt 2012, Holmes 2010). Though largely stemming from reading her recent work in isolation, such that the elaborate account of the emotions given in Archer (2000) is ignored, the form the critique takes raises some pertinent issues. Burkitt wishes to avoid an approach which “sees emotion as just another factor to be drawn into the reflexive process, where it can be effectively monitored and managed”. Instead emotion should be construed as a “motivating factor to reflexivity, colouring and infusing reflexivity itself” and as “woven into the fabric of the interactions we are engaged in and it is therefore also central to the way we relate to ourselves as well as to others” (Burkitt 2012: 459). Though he recognises, unlike others such as Atkinson (2010), the profound differences between Archer’s account and that of Giddens et al, he nonetheless holds that the former has a ‘rationalist’ and ‘individualistic’ hue resulting, it is argued, from understanding emotions as a “subjective commentary on our own concerns”.

Burkitt’s objection seems to be that grounding emotions in the ontology of the person, such that our emotional reactions are shaped by what has come to matter to us over time, obliterates the relational dimensions to our emotional lives. He writes that “How others judge and value us seems to play no role at all in emotional responses, or if it does it would only be because someone else’s judgements of us chimes with our own subjective one” (Burkitt 2012: 463). The former claim is simply disingenuous, even assuming that Burkitt’s critique of an approach articulated across a number of volumes proceeds solely from a (seemingly far from thorough) reading of one of them. The latter claim though is more interesting. The obvious retort is this: we will only respond emotionally to the judgements of others if we care about what they think of us and/or we care about not being judged to be X.

In its own terms, this claim seems innocuous, even tautological i.e. we only care about things if we care about them. The real basis of the objection seems to be what this affirmation of the ontologically subjective dimension to emotional response seems to imply about the source of our concerns. Burkitt (2012) accuses Archer of rationalism, asking “surely, how we develop our concerns is not disconnected from our emotional connection, identification and dis-identification with caregivers, friends, teachers, the wide generation and society?”. His assumption seems to be that if our concern are relatively autonomous from the webs of relationships within which we are entwined, such as is necessary for the former to shape our emotional reactions to the latter, then our concerns must be those of a “reflexive agent that floats free of all commitments, except for those that are self-chosen” (Burkitt 2012: 463). Ironically given his accusation of rationalism, Burkitt’s own critique reveals an oddly rationalistic premise he himself would explicitly reject i.e. unless commitments result from social influence they must arise from the free choices of a rational subject.

This seemingly unlikely assumption arises from a failure to conceptualise emotional life in properly temporal terms. It ignores the temporal sequencing of our concerns, the situations we confront and our emotional responses to these situations in terms of our concerns. Our concerns predate, even if minutely, any particular situation we encounter: while we always have concerns and are always situated, it is nonetheless the case that we bring a set of concerns, shaped by past experience, to each new situation we encounter which retains some prior existence vis-a-vis that situation. Similarly our emotional responses to that situation, in light of those concerns, is not immediate: even in what seem to be situations that are transparant in the meaning they hold, we must still respond to them. Unless we recognise on an analytical level that this process has multiple stages, even if they may be empirically super-imposed, it becomes difficult to make sense of the emotional experiences of actual subjects. These always occur temporally and it is the cycles of emotional morphogenesis and morphostasis this temporality entails which renders the sharp dichotomies implicit in Burkitt’s critique effectively irrelevant. Things that happen matter to us because of what we have come to care about and what we have come to care about is shaped by how we have coped, more or less effectively, with the things that have happened to us. Burkitt (2012: 458) is in a sense correct that “emotion colours reflexivity and infuses our perception of others, the world around us and our own selves”. But this recognition does not entail that we collapse our account of such processes into one undifferentiated mass with the concomitant claim that those who object to this are closet Cartesians.

[Emotional Reflexivity: Feeling, Emotion and Imagination in Reflexive Dialogues. Sociology June 2012 vol. 46 no. 3 458-472]

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