Masterclass Review

How do emotions relate to the self?

From 16 to 17 January 2019, 17 early career researchers convened at the University of Sussex for a British Academy Rising Stars Masterclass to discuss Subjectivity, Self-Narratives and the History of Emotions. Organised by Laura Kounine, the event brought emerging scholars in touch with experts in the history of emotions, to explore the complexity of entering the ‘mood worlds’ of historical subjects.

Over two days and four workshops led by Claire Langhamer, Penny Summerfield, Lyndal Roper, and Thomas Dixon, we discussed theories of emotions and methodological approaches, centred on the experiential narratives used in our own research.

The themed workshops started with a keynote: Claire Langhamer’s introductory session centred on mass observation diaries and questionnaires; Penny Summerfield considered life-narratives and forms of fashioning and shaping the self; we discussed approaches to early modern subjectivity with Lyndal Roper, in particular the application of modern concepts, such as psychoanalysis, to earlier periods, and finally, with Thomas Dixon we reviewed the intersection of visual expression and verbal articulation of emotions.

Each participant presented their sources and identified key questions for the group to consider. Despite the temporal and geographical diversity of our material, we retained our core theme of scholarly notions and constructions of selfhood. This could have easily boiled down to the question of how to approach, work around, or retrieve original experiences, thus implicitly subscribing to the idealist distinction, even disjunction, between the inner and the outer person or the original and the performed self. We avoided this pitfall by being made aware of its artificiality: we understood emotions as embedded in almost all cultural forms as reflected in our source material: self-portrayals, protest songs, diaries, essays, ‘therapeutic’ poetry, letters, agony aunt correspondence, translated and original language autobiographical narratives, and oral interviews. Each genre raised distinct questions about the processes surrounding their production.

Emotions are embedded in the physical, material and social practices of everyday life, spanning the habitual and the exceptional. The terminology surrounding the history of emotions reflects this complexity. Theories of emotions draw upon sociology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and neuroscience. When individual historians speak variously of emotional regimes or economies, mood or life worlds, to refer to the normative values and practices of a particular period, this is reflective both of their chosen theoretical framework and perhaps their discomfort, or outright disagreement, with some of the alternatives. The psychological category of emotions, as Ute Frevert observes, flattens out the ambiguities that the earlier states of passions, affects, sentiments and feelings allowed for. Terminology can act as a tool to open up alternative ways of thinking about emotions; Ben Highmore champions the term feeling to ‘unlock’ emotions from the biological and personal. Such decisions highlight the essential ‘messiness’ underpinning history’s ‘emotional turn’ and have helped to drive a vigorous intellectual and methodological engagement with source material that has far-reaching relevance to social and cultural historians.

We see the dividends of this most fully, when historians meticulously investigate the processes behind the narrative’s production and the activities it describes, whilst ensuring that such analyses remain tethered to the original material. Reading against the grain of self narratives takes us beyond the study of emotion words and metaphors, to explore silences, omissions or slips. Focusing on process opens up a consideration of the effect of particular genres, the act of production, an appreciation of the audience across time, and the materiality of the object.

It also moves us beyond the text and into the economic, social and personal lives of our subjects. Whilst some accounts describe the ‘ordinariness’ or everyday practices of a particular life, we often encounter our subjects during extraordinary moments such as going to war or prison, during a family rift, remembering a sexual assault, or living with a terminal disease. In both cases, we benefit from unwrapping the details of these specific situations, to understand individual’s actions and reactions, their responses to themselves and others, and the emotional tenor of their relationships.

Time and space infiltrates our reading of source material. Our task is to understand its temporal context from our perspective as readers in the present. Through the examples brought along to the masterclass, which spanned the early modern period through to the 1980s, we considered the specificity of emotions across time periods. For example, how does the unemotional language of a mercenary fighting in the Thirty Year’s War equate to the stoicism of a twentieth-century soldier. What commonality of experience can we see in their writings of combat, killing, and loss? This tension between the universality and specificity of emotions across time and cultures provides a fruitful way of sidestepping the emotional stereotyping of historical subjects.

Repeatedly, we asked ourselves if we were making generalising assumptions thereby, albeit implicitly, subscribing to a universalistic approach. Can we approach century-old sources with twentieth-century methods and theories? How to tackle non-western sources, especially in their original language? The ever-present risk in a linguistic-focused analysis of ego-documents to mine emotional experience, is that too much attention is paid to vocabulary rather than the individual’s system of values. How does anger, shame, joy, grief, excitement manifest when they are not named? Instead of circumventing these questions by drawing on external sources to reconstruct contemporary normative frameworks, we remained with the original sources and tackled these difficulties head on.

Working with subjectivity means being critical of notions of authenticity as well as of pronounced individualism. Rather than understanding it as a separation of the self and society, we increasingly drew on subjectivity to understand the self in society, and the bearing subjectivity had on social formation and group building. Subjectivity as a condition and diagnosis must be complemented by an exploration of the various ways it is communicated (or not). It became apparent time and again in our discussions that rather than applying pre-formulated methods, formulas, and terminology, we should be attentive to what our subjects deemed relevant and not be blinkered by what we had been seeking to find.

‘Subjectivity’, even when not used explicitly, thus becomes a way of thinking about or engaging with source material, which permits a nuanced, multi-dimensional appreciation of the emotional lives of people living in the past.

There are few spaces where early career historians can discuss the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of their research at an early stage, before hypothesises and approaches become set in stone. This masterclass provides a template for meeting that gap. All the participants benefited from the close reading of and engagement with their research material within a supportive and intellectually challenging environment.


Linda Maynard                                    Kerstin Maria Pahl
Independent researcher                    Centre for the History of Emotions             Max Planck Institute for Human Development