Doing Emotions History.
In recent decades, historians working in a wide variety of subfields have become interested in questions about emotions. Numerous studies have investigated the history of particular sentiments, the general affective standards of a particular society or community, and the feelings that produced or were marshaled by historical events. Although there were earlier precedents in the work of Norbert Elias and members of the Annales school, the rise of social and cultural history has led to a distinct uptick in the practice of emotions history since the 1980s. Recognizing that history is going through a particularly emotional moment, the editors of this volume have produced a work that surveys the state of the field, suggests new avenues for research, and provides examples of how emotions history can be done.
The nine chapters of this book, most of which take a historiographical approach, are organized into four sections. The first presents essays on major issues in the field: Peter Steams calls for a renewed attention to the vexed question of the transition from pre-modern to modern emotional codes and states, while Susan Matt provides an exceptionally clear discussion of methodology. The next section aims to extend the geographical reach of emotions history beyond Western Europe and North America with an essay by Norman Kutcher on China and Mark Steinberg on Eastern Europe. Section three presents case studies of particular emotions. Darrin McMahon argues that historians should pay more attention to positive emotions, and joy in particular, and Pamela Epstein discusses the search for love in nineteenth-century America. The last section, titled "Emotions in Society," presents an essay on the approaches to emotions in religious history by John Corrigan, a discussion of the connection between emotions and political change in the Atlantic World by Nicole Eustace, and one by Brenton Malin on media history and the emotions.
Taken together, these essays show the variety of ways to approach questions about the emotions. Matt, Kutcher, and Corrigan show the range of sources that have been used to examine emotional norms and experiences, including sermons, conduct books, philosophical texts, rituals and burial practices, and architecture. Epstein's fascinating study of how men and women used the market to find potential spouses shows how drawing on one source--matrimonial advertisements in the New York Herald--can illuminate attitudes toward love and money in the anonymous and socially restrictive urban landscape of the nineteenth century. Malin takes the category of emotions themselves as an object of study and examines how psychologists and cultural theorists understood the relationship between media, technology, and the emotions. In doing so, he reveals a twentieth century construction of emotions as discrete, manipulable, and divorced from any social or cultural context. While many of these essays, such as those by McMahon and Corrigan, discuss how historians can draw on the insights of psychologists to study the emotions, Malin's essay argues that psychologists need to pay attention to what historians have said about the socially and culturally embedded nature of emotions.
The works in this volume also highlight how emotions history can shed new light on old problems and paradigms. Kutcher, Steinberg, and Eustace discuss emotions as a tool of power, as states used love for the nation to motivate populations to work harder, go to war, or commit genocide. Eustace adeptly critiques Jurgen Habermas's efforts to connect the rise of democracy with the growth of a rational public sphere in the eighteenth century. In contrast, she posits that sentiment and ideas about the workings of the emotions were central to the origins of the American Revolution. Emotions could also be a means of dissent, as Steinberg reveals that feelings of disenchantment and the use of bitter humour were ways of showing that neither Soviet communism nor post-Soviet rule had lived up to their utopian promises to bring happiness.
Despite the many strengths of this slim volume, it does have lacunae. Notably, there is little on pre-modern emotions. There is, for instance, surprisingly little on the work done on emotions in the classical world. Indeed, most of the essays centre on the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. As many of the authors note, too, emotions historians have primarily focused on the norms and experiences of elites; for the most part, the essays in this volume replicate this bias. Nevertheless, this book will serve as an essential reference for those in emotions history and for anyone who wants to understand the contours and promises of this emerging field.
Washington and Lee University
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2014|
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