Is our thinking about emotions wrong? Dr Frederic Kiernan, University of Melbourne

Heads. Image by Stewart Cutler. Flickr/ Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Heads. Image by Stewart Cutler. Flickr/ Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Thinking about "doing" emotions, rather than just "feeling" them, offers a new perspective on the mechanisms of social change.

By Catriona May

Emotions shape the fleeting moments of our daily lives, and its more enduring themes, too; our loves, fears and frustrations mould who we are and who we will become.

But what if emotions are not only shaping who we are as individuals, but also who we are as societies?

Have emotions played a role in the revolutions and innovations that shaped today’s world? And if they have, can historians ever understand how?

Dr Frederic Kiernan wrestled with these questions when he was writing his prize-winning PhD thesis on the Dresden-based Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne.

He was drawn to the mystery of why such a talented composer, now considered one of the “best of the Baroque”, had remained largely unknown until the second half of the 20th century. And he questioned why people (including scholars) kept describing Zelenka as a sad, miserable person, when there was no contemporary evidence to support this.

The answers, he found, lay partly in emotions. But not emotions as we typically understand them. Rather, emotions as collective experiences that arise from, and help shape, our relationship with the world around us.

Kiernan found that, during the 19th century, some Germans invented the romantic notion that Zelenka was an “isolated and lonely” artist, citing dubious oral histories to support the idea. Not long after, Czechs adapted this by painting Zelenka as an exiled, sorrowful national hero, pointing to the "sorrow" in his music as evidence.

Both were false narratives. For the Czechs especially, finding sorrow in Zelenka’s personality and music became a way of defining what being Czech really meant. And, after hundreds of years under Austro-German rule (which was finally overthrown in 1918), this was one of their most urgent cultural and political priorities. The concept of “Czechness” didn’t work without the sorrow.

Once communism, the recording industry and some flawed scholarship became involved, the story of Zelenka changed again: he became a truly miserable hypochondriac and a bitter recluse, still without evidence.

“I realised that the emotion words being used in reference to Zelenka and his music weren’t just describing reactions to things, but signalling strategic actions which often had clearly defined political objectives,” Kiernan says.

In his thesis, Kiernan drew on the works of historical anthropologist Monique Scheer to make sense of these historical emotions. More recently, he combined Scheer’s ideas with those of sociologist Janet Chan to propose a new framework for understanding emotions as creative practices, which was published last year.

Kiernan’s framework provides a new way of examining the role of emotion in generating social change. And by considering emotions as a collective rather than an individual experience, it also has implications for how we think about our mental health and wellbeing.

Rethinking emotion

The way we understand emotions today isn’t as concrete as it may seem.

For starters, we’ve only considered emotions to be fundamentally internal states for the last 200 years or so. In 17th-century French and English, the word “emotion” could refer to the rustling of leaves in the trees.

And the concept has remained somewhat shaky since. Despite two centuries of scientific and psychological research, scholars still don’t agree on how to define "emotion".

Could it be, then, that our contemporary understanding of “emotion” is at best, incomplete or, at worst, plain wrong? Kiernan certainly thinks so.

“If we think about emotion as something that exists in the relationship between people and their environment, rather than as something that is entirely inside the body, then that changes how we tackle all kinds of problems,” he says.

“I agree with Scheer that emotions are not something that happen to us, but rather something we do.”

Scheer called this doing “emotional practices”. But Kiernan uses Janet Chan’s sociology of creativity to extend this idea to “creative practices”, which generate different kinds of social change.

In his 2020 paper outlining the framework, one example Kiernan used to build his case was Gay Pride. Rather than seeing “pride” as an individual response spontaneously experienced by people who identify as gay, it can instead be viewed as a collective action.

“‘Pride’ becomes an action that is related in a dynamic way with, but is not identical to, physical and psychological states. This is why ‘pride’ can drive social change by doing creative work,” he explains, pointing to mainstream acceptance of many aspects of gay culture that used to be viewed as “alternative”.

“The idea is that, by acting together, people can create heightened physical experiences that can work as pivot points for change to happen.

“Important ideas are often named and shared in emotion. And this means that emotions aren’t just reactions, but they can be taught and learned, and used strategically – they can lead to tangible outcomes,” he says.

Emotions as collective experiences

Kiernan’s work is part of a broader movement challenging traditional evolutionary understandings of emotion.

“The historical psychological perspective is influenced by evolutionary Darwinism, which says that emotions are reactions or responses to situations to aid survival,” he explains.

“So, for example, we feel fear because our evolutionary instinct is to try to avoid death.”

Kiernan’s framework puts more emphasis on the fact that we learn how to “do” emotions, and provides new explanations for why we do them, beyond survival.

One example is grief, and the ways different societies teach us to enact it.

“The very experience of grief is transformed by what we’re allowed to do; what we’re meant to wear, how we’re expected to act, and when,” he says.

“That’s why we can talk about emotions having a history. The physiological and psychological experience of an emotion is deeply tied to how you’re allowed to use your body and what you can do with the feeling. And those things change with time – just look at how people grieved in Victorian times compared with today. Their grief was ‘allowed’ to be public; but when my father died, I did most of my grieving in the car.”

It follows that, if we can learn certain ways to perform emotions, we can also unlearn these actions and relearn different, perhaps healthier, ways to practise them. Rather than allowing emotion to happen to us, we can create emotional experiences for ourselves.

“It emphasises our agency and our responsibility in emotion, which I like, and I think is really hopeful for a lot of people,” says Kiernan.

So next time you feel a strong emotion, ask yourself: what are you trying to do?

Dr Frederic Kiernan won the University of Melbourne Chancellor’s Prize for Excellence in the PhD thesis in 2020.