Understanding Emotions in World Politics: Reflections on Method

Author/s (editor/s):

Roland Bleiker, Emma Hutchison

Publication year:


Publication type:

Working paper

Find this publication at:
IR Working Paper 2007/5 (PDF, 184KB)

Roland Bleiker and Emma Hutchison, ‘Understanding Emotions in World Politics: Reflections on Method’, IR Working Paper 2007/5, Canberra: Department of International Relations, Research School of Pacific and Asian Affairs, The Australian National University, December 2007.

Although emotions play a significant role in world politics they have so far received surprisingly little attention by international relations scholars. Numerous authors have emphasised this shortcoming for several years now, but strangely there are still no systematic inquiries into emotions nor even serious methodological discussions about how one would go about doing so. This article explains this gap by the fact that much of international relations scholarship is conducted in the social sciences. Such inquiries can assess emotions up to a certain point, as illustrated by empirical studies on psychology and foreign policy and constructivist engagements with identity and community. But conventional social science methods cannot understand all aspects of phenomena as ephemeral as those of emotions. Doing so would involve conceptualising the influence of emotions even when and where it is not immediately apparent. The ensuing challenges are daunting, but at least some of them could be met by supplementing social scientific methods with modes of inquiry emanating from the humanities. We advance three propositions that would facilitate such cross-disciplinary inquiries: 1) the need to accept that research can be insightful and valid even if it engages unobservable phenomena, and even if the results of such inquiries can neither be measured nor validated empirically; 2) the importance of examining processes of representation and communication, such as visual depictions of emotions and the manner in which they shape political perceptions and dynamics; and 3) a willingness to consider alternative forms of insight, most notably those stemming from aesthetic sources, which, we argue, are particularly suited to capture emotions. Taken together, these propositions highlight the need for a more open-minded and sustained communication across different fields of knowledge.

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