As I pack my bags for the upcoming climate change Summit in Paris, I am reminded how much emotion drives my actions everyday. My visions and intentions for my participation in the Summit run the gamut alongside my swinging emotional state, from hope, to despair, to fear for my safety, and back to hope again. In the midst of widely swinging reports on the projected outcomes of the meeting itself, the Summit takes place a mere weeks after one of a growing number of violent tragedies in that same city, in which 120 people were killed. And, to be mundane but honest, my participation will be strongly affected by whether I get some shut-eye on the plane.
With another pair of glasses on, I reflect upon the extensive reading I have done in the area of institutional analysis over the years, and I just can’t recall any conceptual frameworks of institutional process that acknowledge the role of emotions—and more potently, that semi- or un-conscious emotional baggage we all carry with us, the stuff of psychoanalysis—in those processes. Yet we each have extensive personal experience in that precise interaction. You know what I’m talking about: remember the last meeting you attended, in which you sat back in your chair and silently fingered those participants with control issues, those who are insecure, those who love to think out loud to everyone else’s chagrin, those who were pre-occupied by a conversation with their spouse earlier that morning, and in the midst of this pondering you very much wanted to bring the meeting to a close as soon as possible so you could grab a snack, since you skipped breakfast? Did the aggregation of those emotional states affect the outcome of that meeting? Of course it did. I know from personal experience how my emotion-driven actions can affect others, how those of others affect me, and indeed, how such emotions affect the outcomes of those collective events in which I participate. You know it too. Step away from the council meeting and pick up a newspaper, and we find blatant examples of the aggregate effect of emotions—namely fear, in the form of Islamophobia—on political decision-making. Fear has had profound impacts on politics throughout history. Individually, fear wakes up a part of our brain called the amygdala, which bypasses those parts of our brain that enable intellectual processing, and induces “fight or flight” responses to perceived threats—not exactly a state of mind conducive to diplomacy, much less collaborative problem-solving. Socially, fear establishes distance and distrust between groups, and spreads like wildfire with the smallest of sparks. While fear is a biological mechanism, many forms of fear are learned: fear of failure, fear of being disliked, fear of Muslims.
Well, I did some poking around (a luxury only sabbatical allows), and it turns out there actually has been some interesting work done on emotions, although it appears we still have a long way to go to bring emotions into the folds of mainstream institutional theory. But the work that has been done is certainly enticing. All in all, there is far more work focused on the impacts of organizational structures and processes on the emotional states of actors, rather than the reverse. Among my all-time favourite works in the social sciences is Edelman’s Symbolic Politics, which speaks extensively of the manipulation of emotions by nation-states in order to secure political support. Other work has been done, for example, on the use of shame by those in positions of power (e.g. employers) to assert control over the powerless (employees) (See for example Sennett, R. 1980, Authority), and organizational control over personal expressions of emotion generally (Stephen Fineman, in several works).
Ahmed (2004, Social Text 22:2) offers an insightful treatment, one of few I was able to locate that explores emotion not as an individualized response to social context, but as an entity that flows through that context, to significant affect. She postulates emotions as a form of capital in a sense, circulating through social systems, creating affect by means of its circulation, in the same way that Marx described surplus value not as being embodied in commodities, but rather as being generated by the circulation of those commodities. Cremin (2010, Organization 17:2) offers a strikingly complementary analysis, highlighting the extent to which capitalism is not a self-sustaining structure, but in effect is supported by the mad (emotional) desire for profit among capitalists. When not held in check, the aggregate outcome of the pursuit of those desires can lead to events like the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. On the other hand, as Ashforth and Humphrey (1995, Human Relations, 48:2) emphasize, although emotion is often wrongly treated as the antithesis of rationality and hence should be systematically eradicated, emotions are not only unavoidable but can have positive functional effects. Simpson et al. (2015, Organization, 22:1) provide a clear example, showing how passion induces entrepreneurialism. In short, as stated by Ahmed, “rather than seeing emotions as psychological dispositions, we need to consider how they work, in concrete and particular ways, to mediate the relationship between the psychic and the social, and between the individual and the collective” (p. 119).
How does all this pertain to environmental sociology? Environmental sociologists have been contemplating emotions for some time now, in our measurements of environmental concern, for example, or the factors that drive consumption. But we have spent relatively less of our intellectual energy exploring how emotional responses to environmental (and other) phenomena have organizational effects: how they affect environmental policy-making, for example. It stands to deductive reason that negotiators in the upcoming COP21 meetings who have no hope that the outcomes of the meeting will have an effect on the future climate will engage in ways notably different than those who retain such hope. The eventual outcomes of the meeting, in turn, will be affected by such emotional states; to what extent is a question for research. Consideration for emotions brings forth many other questions: under what emotional conditions does the prospect of apocalypse inspire action? Will current states of heightened fear on the international stage impinge on the levels of international aid after the next natural disaster? What are the long-term outcomes for social capital of experiences of collective trauma, as induced by the rising tide of climate-related extreme events? To what extent is climate skepticism an emotional response to the unraveling of worldviews?
Emotions are unquestionably messy, entangled in our biology, and call for interdisciplinary team work. This may well explain why they remain at the margins of sociology. But we environmental sociologists are quite accustomed to messy, biology, and interdisciplinarity, so let’s set aside our emotional baggage and get to work.