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Theorizing Emotion and Affect in International Relations

Academic Discipline: International Relations
Course Name: IR Theory
Assignment Subject: Theorizing Emotion and Affect in International Relations
Academic Level: Graduate
Referencing Style: MLA
Word Count: 1,567

A productive assumption informing much of international relations theory and foreign policy analysis since the 1950s has been the pursuit of rationality by utility maximizing actors. While rationalism has provided a ‘policy-relevant’ means of not only interpreting the endless complexity of international politics, but also predicting likely future behaviour – it is increasingly questionable whether such assumptions are adequate. Academics interested in the foreign-policy psychology have questioned the presumed rationality of policy actors while interrogating the intersections of various levels of analysis – for example, the individual, the state and the system writ large. This paper examines one aspect of this interrogation: the study of emotion. In conducting this analysis, this paper will argue that the discipline requires a greater appreciation of the links between mind and body, and between emotion and rationality. Indeed, the discipline of international relations is arguably well-situated to question whether reason and emotion truly exist in opposition at all.

The relationship between affect (embodied impetus to act) and emotion has a long history in sociology and neuroscience, and while this paper cannot hope to do justice to the nuances and breadth of these analyses, it can touch on some central arguments that might be engaged productively in the study of international relations and foreign policy. The affective systems in the brain are functionally linked to the cognitive processes often framed as the solitary seat of reason; these functional links are intrinsic to our capacity to manifest rationality. This insight undermines rationalist approaches that not only presume a non-emotive rationality, but also assume that such a rationality is desirable. Emotion from this standpoint does not stand in opposition to rationality, but is actually a condition of its existence (see Mercer 2005). Given the willingness of individuals – consider suicide bombing – to kill themselves for an ideal (whatever that ideal may be), a central question of international relations should be whether rationalism and utility maximization can adequately capture the psychological and social motives behind such forms of political agency. By treating emotion as a functionally necessary component of rationality, it may be possible to better analyze emotional dynamics that are inherent in human commitments to socially constructed structures such as the state, or political parties. If our ability to act rationally is linked to emotion, then rationality itself must be linked to identities and the social structures they often embody. Therefore, by taking emotion seriously as a productive and necessary part of our capacity to understand and act in the world, we gain potential insight into identity formation, and how differing social dynamics at different levels of analysis may lead to different claims about what is normal and rational in the study and practice of international politics.

Treating reason and emotion in opposition to one another has a history in Western thought stretching back to Plato and Aristotle (Damasio 1994: 170-171). This conflictual relation between the two phenomena is reflected in contemporary scholarship in the presupposition that reason’s role is to tame, or eliminate emotion from influencing rational deliberation; non-emotive reasoning is therefore considered essential to rational assessment (2000: 222-223; see also Marcus 2003: 183; Elster 1999: 55-76). More specifically, this assumption regarding reason’s primacy over emotion is reflected in international relations and foreign policy analysis via the assumption that it is a pre-condition to optimal political judgement in decision-making contexts; severing emotion from reason in decision-making rationality is considered necessary to efficiently linking means to ends (Marcus 2003: 185).

It is evident therefore that any definition of emotion will fail to be satisfying to every scholar. Epistemic commitments, disciplinary considerations, and specific methodologies will undermine the appeal of emotion for certain bodies of scholarship (see Crawford 2000; Fineman 2004). Rose McDermott defines emotion as the following: “Emotion is one of a large set of differentiated biologically based complex conditions that are about something” (2004a, 692).

This definition has the advantage offering multiple possible means of deploying the concept of emotion to the study of politics. Academics can assert emotion’s physiological dynamics, its aspects that are socially constructed, or some combination of both. Biologically, emotions are generated by changes in relevant body systems – the musculo-skeletal, the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the neurotransmitter and neuroactive peptide systems – whose interaction mobilizes and disposes humans to act in particular ways (see McDermott 2004a; Turner 2007: 2). Here, emotions are complex physiological responses to stimuli (external or internal). Emotions are activated via affective systems in the brain processing information and recognizing significance; this recognition produces an automatic behavioural response that contextualizes and informs subsequent cognitive processing.

Emotions can also be understood as socially constructed. In this approach, emotions are produced, defined and re-iterated via socialization. Emotions here are shaped by cultural context (Crawford 2000: 128; Fattah & Fierke 2009: 69-70). A key argument from this perspective is that the because the beliefs, judgments and desires characteristic of emotion are ultimately contingent, they will vary depending upon social context. Furthermore, cultural contextualization of emotion acts to restrain certain behaviours, while endorsing other cultural values. Therefore, when speaking of a specific emotion such as shame, the substance or meaning of the emotion will have differing understandings depending upon time and place (Cohen & Kitayama 2007: 847-850). Moreover, even if one makes the assumption that emotions are universal and unvarying, the subjects and objects to which these emotions are related will be contingent. As Khaled Fattah and K.M. Fierke argue: “… emotions [are] socially meaningful expressions, which depend on shared customs, uses and institutions … The central question is how experiences are given emotional meaning and how this meaning legitimizes certain forms of action, and thereby shapes future interactions” (2009: 70).

A final take on the study of emotion in international relations can be utilized that subdivides emotion into emotions and feelings. Here emotion represents the physiologically derived capacity to emote, and feelings the socially constructed aspect of the concept (Damasio 1994). The value in adopting this method is that emotion is viewed as a biologically innate and universal aspect of human thought, and that its arousal is context specific depending upon the subjectivity of the individual and the contexts and experiences that shaped that subjectivity (see Bechara, A.; Damasio, H.; Tranel, D. & Damasio, A. R. 1997). Regarding the relation between affect and cognition, Andrew Ross argues:

This work lends itself to more open-ended applications and is attentive to the complex mixing of biological and social processes. These sources thus offer constructivists not irrefutable evidence but contestable insights into biological dimensions of social processes. These insights might be used to formulate non-deterministic, historically informed inferences about the role of affect in political life (2006: 204).

Emotion is therefore a potentially productive means of linking the material and the social, and in so-doing provides a novel means of better understanding the identity-based dispositions of decisionmakers. Where emotions were once understood as “unimportant outcomes of ‘cold’ cognitive processes, lacking adaptive value at best or constituting maladaptive functioning at worst … it is now clear that emotions are useful as organizational constructs, lending clarity to the relationship between various aspects of situations and … an organism’s responses to those situations” (1984: 256). The ontogenetic process of identity formation in all humans is therefore linked to this emotional/cognitive evolution; as we pass through life context and bodily response form mental shortcuts for later assessments of what feels positive or negative about a given context or phenomena (McDermott 2004b: 163). Emotions are therefore central elements in human’s adaptation to social contexts – they are functionally vital to any capacity for rationality in decision-making.

In neuroscientific studies, the affective components of emotion have been found to precede cognitive deliberation. In this way emotions have been found to autonomically simplify cognitively complex situations to produce a more manageable array of choices for decisionmakers. Yet these conscious and unconscious emotional dynamics are also necessary for our social functioning. Jonathan Mercer notes that “People without emotion may know they should be ethical, and may know they should be influenced by norms, and may know that they should not make disastrous financial decisions, but this knowledge is abstract and inert and does not weigh on their decisions (Mercer 2005: 93). Mercer’s argument is that emotion is vital for an actor to relate to social structures; lacking emotionality, actors find themselves socially incapable of functioning appropriately.

The study of foreign policy has stressed the failure policymakers to achieve optimal rationality; rationality here being understood as contextualized by “simplified subjective representations of reality” (Tetlock & McGuire 2005: 485). The beliefs and expectations that are evident in decision-making have been found to be significantly shaped by a priori assumptions; that is, as Robert Jervis argues, “… actors tend to perceive what they expect” (2005: 463). Thus, cognitivists argue that familiarity a given social context shapes how a given agent is likely to perceive others (Jervis 2005: 471).

In conclusion, it is obvious that the above approaches fixate upon errors in judgement, with emotionality contributing solely to these errors. It is also evident that treating emotion as potentially productive and invariably unavoidable to the study of politics and international relations can provide new interpretations and expectations regarding the human capacity for change, how we are enculturated to feel intensely about abstract concepts, and ultimately why social constructs such as the state or ‘nation’ are capable of motivating individuals to obscene acts of violence including a willingness to sacrifice one’s own life in their name.

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