March 6, 2017, by admin

Feeling hopeful in times of despair: The role of emotion in political engagement

2016 was a politically tumultuous and often troubling year. As we begin 2017,  we are entering a future with an American President who rose to fame as a reality TV businessman (who, in reality, has failed as a businessman multiple times) who, more worryingly, ran a political campaign stoked by the fires of division and who despite making sexist violent remarks, racist assertions, and denouncing the key threat to the life of the planet – climate change­ – managed to win the American election on a promise to ‘make America great again’. In the UK, we are navigating the uncertain waters of ‘Brexit’ in the aftermath of a referendum in which over 50 percent of votes cast were to leave the EU, based on campaigns of mistruths and an underlying nationalism which has been linked to a rise in hostility against immigrants and the creation of an increasingly unwelcoming, antagonistic atmosphere.

The key question that echoes in the homes, workplaces, and minds of many individuals is why? And how? Why were such campaigns so popular and how did they manage to succeed? It has been suggested that both Trump’s victory and the Brexit result are rooted in a deeper distrust and disillusionment with traditional political institutions and processes. Put simply, the majority of people no longer trust or believe in ‘the system’ and are tired of not having their voices heard. While, arguably, the consequences of such rebellion may turn out to be a case of people ‘cutting their noses off to spite their face’, the fact remains that this turn of events reflects deeply unhappy masses and is something which Sociologists must attempt to understand.

Such political campaigns were surrounded in hostility and a construction of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, but, critically, they tapped into people’s emotions and imaginations, mobilising one emotion in particular – hope. Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’ speaks to a nostalgia for a golden past and hope that the future can be made better. Likewise, Brexit harnesses people’s desire for change, control over their future, and to return to a ‘Great’ Britain from days past.

My research makes sense of what motivates individuals to participate politically by highlighting the central role of emotion in inciting and sustaining alternative political engagement. Individuals are motivated by emotions such as anger and hope which combine with the desire to spread moral ideals about how society should be. Emotion has long been dismissed in the realm of the political as being irrational and therefore anti-political, with politics being perceived to be built on reason. My research, and recent political events, demonstrate that this is clearly a mistake. Firstly, emotion and reason have a history of being constructed in opposition to one another which is a binary that we need to deconstruct to better understand the processes of thinking and feeling and how they are interlinked. Secondly, while many theories about what motivates individuals to act politically hinge on rational action, it becomes clear that emotion in all its depth and guises plays a central role in politics. Political discussions are often described as becoming ‘heated’; were politics merely a cool, calm, and rational exercise as it is often portrayed to be, such explosive discussions that occur between individuals in their daily lives as well as in Parliament, make little sense. It is emotion that stokes such ‘heated’ debates, providing the core of political sentiments (and my use of the word ‘sentiment’ is deliberate).

So, politics is concerned with emotions, moral ideals, and the desire to spread these. While we have seen that such emotions and ideals can be divisive, hostile, and even dangerous, my research illuminates the other more positive side and perhaps provides a little hope to those of us who have been asking the questions ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ in response to the political events of 2016. By paying attention to the quiet, everyday experiences and meanings of alternative political engagement within the context of anti-austerity activism in the UK, I have demonstrated how, in the face of an increasingly hostile and selfish society, there are individuals who respond by building solidarity, emphasising caring for others (particularly those who are disadvantaged), and building collectives that seek to make a concrete difference within local contexts to improve the lives of individuals. Thus, while there are those who are lighting and feeding the fires of hatred and division, there are others who are quietly and determinedly filling their buckets with water to dampen such hostility, pouring caring and empathy onto division and fear. Though the fire burns bright, capturing centre stage, our and the media’s attention, if we turn our gaze to the side-lines, we will see the efforts and intentions of many individuals who have, and give us, that all important emotion – hope.

My PhD thesis, which explores these ideas in more detail is titled ‘Emotion and Gender in Local Anti-Austerity Activist Cultures’. It was funded by the ESRC (Award No. ES/J500100/1). I intend to build upon these debates in future articles. For a discussion of the gendered nature of local anti-austerity activist responses and how such activism can be perceived as a form of care, see:

Craddock, E. (2016)Caring about and for the cuts: A case study of the gendered dimension of austerity and anti-austerity activism’, Gender, Work and Organization, 21 (1): 69-82.

For a discussion of how such movements harness hope for a better future and represent ideas of what it means to be human see:

Craddock, E. (2015) ‘Dreaming the Future’, in Collier, J.H. (ed.), The Future of Social Epistemology: A Collective Vision, London: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 219-226.

Craddock, E. (2014) ‘Seeing the Human in Protest’, Laguna, Feb. 24. 2014. Web.


Image courtesy of congerdesign

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