Emotions, Conflict and Communal Recovery

By CHE Honorary Researcher, Emma Hutchison, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland

Why do divided communities continue to fight when their losses are already so great? Why is more conflict often seen as the only way to address feelings of injustice and bereavement?

How to break cycles of violence is an age-old question which has preoccupied thinkers for centuries, ranging from Plato to Levinas and from Arendt to Badiou. There is obviously no simple answer. Political and community leaders confront this time and again. Think of some of the world’s current and most prominent conflicts: the tension between Israel and Palestine, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir, the current confrontation with Islamic State. In many of these and other cases, violence is so entrenched that the respective conflict seems “intractable”.

With Mandela Day approaching on July 18 it is time to reflect on these vicious cycles of violence and conflict. It is time to visualize a way out.   In this short blog I highlight one issue that is particularly crucial but remains largely under-appreciated by academics and policy makers: the role that emotions play in both conflict and reconciliation.

Emotions and conflict

To say that violence and ensuing trauma are profoundly emotional is commonsensical. Yes, of course violence is emotional – both in its origins and its effects. Violence leaves complex emotional legacies that affect the every day practices of communities for long after the initial conflict has passed.

Even though the links between emotions and conflict seem self-apparent, the complex ways through which emotions can support violence are often glossed over or left out. When it comes to how communities can best recover and move on after conflict, some of the most prominent political approaches view emotions not as an integral part of conflict and reconciliation, but merely as a factor that can be easily isolated and dealt with strategically. The assumption is, that it is enough to simply “take some of the emotion out of the debate” and find a solution.[1]

Srebrenica massacre memorial, 2009.
Srebrenica massacre memorial, 2009.

But this is not so. We know from the emotions literature that individuals and communities experience the world and enact their attachments through the emotions and affects they feel every day. All emotions help to make us who we are – those that are experienced through conflict are no exception. Emotions help to situate us. This is why we cannot simply forget or ‘do away’ with emotions associated with conflict.

Still, this does leave us with a troubling predicament. If communities divided by violence and injustice exist at least in part through affective logics that supported such conflict, how can emotions be a part of the resolution of conflict? Is it possible for emotions to be part of the solution?

Working through emotions after violence and trauma

There is a need to engage seriously not only with how emotions and conflict are inevitably intertwined, but also with emotions that can be actively harnessed to transform conflict and seek reconciliation.

A useful place to start lies with recognizing how particular emotional practices have come to shape individuals and communities in the wake of conflict. To borrow from Daniel Goleman, we need to tap into our “emotional intelligence” in order to appreciate the emotions at stake in conflict.[2] How do divided, potentially traumatized communities think and feel? Why do they think the things they think and feel the things they feel?

Young people view images of survivors of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China on Dragon Boat Festival Holiday, 2013.
Young people view images of survivors of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China on Dragon Boat Festival Holiday, 2013.

The emotional and psychological history that accompanies conflict is complicated and in each circumstance unique, yet patterns are often observed. Some scholars write of how individuals and communities can be so traumatized they search to “forget” what they’ve been through, while all the while they become fixated on, and constituted by, the emotions associated with suffering and a sense of injustice.[3]   Discourses fueled with humiliation, shame, anger and continued insecurity can prevail.[4]   Recovery in this situation becomes more about an emotional “acting out” of such insecurity, which can lead to more violence, than about genuine healing.

Identifying the emotional history of conflict provides a crucial opportunity: it can prompt divided communities to stop, reflect upon and potentially work through affective dispositions that may have propelled – and importantly, may also perpetuate violence.

The possibility of grief

Key here is, I suggest, the notion of grief, for it can potentially pave a way to work through and overcome the emotions that drive conflict.

Grief is an essential part of healing and recovery after conflict and loss. It encompasses a range of bereavement and mourning practices that prompt traumatized individuals and communities to come to terms with what they have been through, to reckon with the sense of injury. Rather than neglecting or glossing over the affective dimensions of violence, it involves an active engagement with the traumatic past, its emotions and memories.[5] This is akin to the type of societal healing that Nelson Mandela foresaw for post-apartheid South Africa. As he put it prior to reconciliation:

Only by knowing the truth can we hope to heal the terrible wounds of the past that are the legacy of apartheid. Only the truth can put the past to rest.

While not a finite process and also culturally distinct, this type of grief work would provide divided communities with a space to express and potentially transform the emotional practices that may pull them back into the traumas of conflict and, in turn, further violence. Grief can, in this sense be a form of working through, that prompts a search to mourn and, in turn, emotionally accept a history of loss in such a way that individuals and communities can move forward.


Emma Hutchison is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and an Associate Investigator in CHE. Her book, Affective Communities in World Politics: Collective Emotions After Trauma, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.



[1] Australian Government, Law Reform Commission, “Are Sedition Laws Necessary and Effective?”, 20 March 2006. Available at http://www.alrc.gov.au/news-media/2006/are-sedition-laws-necessary-and-effective. Accessed 6 July 2015.

[2] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.

[3] Jenny Edkins, “Forget Trauma? Responses to September 11”, International Relations, 16(2), 2002, pp. 243-256.

[4] Some of my work has examined the politics of emotional discourses and practices in Australia after the 2002 Bali bombing, see Emma Hutchison, “Trauma and the Politics of Emotions: Constituting Identity, Security and Community after the Bali Bombing,” International Relations, 24(1), 2010, pp. 65-86.

[5] Emma Hutchison and Roland Bleiker, “Grief and the Transformation of Emotions After War”, in Linda Ahall and Thomas Gregory (eds.), Emotions, Politics and War. London: Routledge, 2015.


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