Emotional Cultures and the Politics of Peace

Seoul, South Korea, June 1987: protest movement against the authoritarian regime of General Chun Doo-Hwan. © Roland Bleiker
Seoul, South Korea, June 1987: protest movement against the authoritarian regime of General Chun Doo-Hwan. © Roland Bleiker.

By Emma Hutchison and Roland Bleiker, The University of Queensland

How can societies torn apart by war and trauma become peaceful? This question has for long preoccupied politicians and scholars. But despite endless debates and scholarly contributions there is no consensus about how to deal with entrenched conflicts. Or, perhaps, there is a consensus that each conflict situation is so difficult and unique that there is no approach to peace that fits all cases. Some highlight peacekeeping missions to stop violence; others focus on negotiation strategies between parties in conflict; others again stress the importance of democracy or state building or social justice or truth telling or amnesty. The solutions offered are as varied and complex as the conflicts they seek to address.

Marking International Peace Day we highlight a crucial but often neglected link: that between emotions and peace. We focus on how emotions are essential to the task of moving societies from conflict-prone practices towards cultures that promote peace.

We introduce and discuss the idea of ‘emotional cultures.’ We show how they are central not only to fueling practices of violence but also to shifting communities away from antagonism towards conciliation. We suggest that the concept of ‘emotional cultures’ offers important insight into how emotions can be actively used in strategies that seek to promote peaceful communal transformations.

Nicosia, Cyprus, July 2014: peace graffiti in Green Zone. © Roland Bleiker.
Nicosia, Cyprus, July 2014: peace graffiti in Green Zone. © Roland Bleiker.

Emotional Cultures

What are ‘emotional cultures’? What does it mean to say there are prevailing ‘emotional cultures’ in a community or society? How do we know what types of emotional cultures exist – are they something we can see or touch or feel, and where do they emerge from?

To speak of ‘emotional cultures’ is to highlight how broad sets of emotions emerge and become dominant in a society at a particular time in history. Feelings, concrete emotions as well as general moods and sentiments and subconscious dispositions – some call them affects – circulate in a society and, in doing so, become intertwined with the prevailing values, principles, behavioral norms and moral standards.

While only a few scholars specifically examine emotional cultures, the notion draws upon well-known research. The emphasis here lies on how seemingly individual emotions are always intertwined with larger collective emotions that shape how we feel and interact with each other. Arlie Russell Hochschild, for instance, writes of ‘feeling rules:’ the customs and rituals that engender and regulate not only the meaning and display of particular emotions but also our social and political attitudes.’ [1] William Reddy refers to ‘emotional liberties’ and ‘emotional regimes’.[2] Others speak of the emotional ‘habitus’ of communities and reveal how the ebbs and flows of emotions are culturally, socially and historically situated.[3] Others again stress that ‘feelings are not substances to be discovered in our blood but social practices organized by stories we both enact and tell.’[4]

Established through tradition and time, cultures of emotion can therefore profoundly influence how individuals and communities interpret the social and political world. Emotional cultures frame how groups embroiled in conflict perceive of each other and the issues that divide them. They are, as a result, fundamental to understanding both the nature of antagonism and violence and the possibility of peace.

From Cultures of Conflict Towards Cultures of Peace

Recognizing the emotional cultures that prevail within communities helps to better appreciate how particular dominant perceptions, mindsets and political practices come to be.

Consider how community attachments based on fear and anger almost inevitably lead to volatile political environments. If is often a matter of time until resentment spills over into an open conflict. In the worst case the result is a cycle of violence from which it becomes almost impossible to escape. From the Middle East to Afghanistan, Kashmir to Somalia, years and often decades of conflict and antagonistic emotional cultures have left societies deeply divided and traumatized. New forms of violence constantly emerge, generating yet more hatred. Some speak of so-called intractable conflicts: situations where antagonisms have persisted for so long that they have created vicious cycles of violence.[5]

How is it possible to deal with and perhaps even overcome such entrenched conflicts? There are no easy answers, nor is there a general theory that can offer a way out. Each conflict is rooted in particular historical circumstances. Understanding and dealing with these circumstances is essential if conflict is to give way to a more peaceful environment.

This is why scholars, politicians and peacebuilders should pay more attention to emotional cultures. Solving conflict is often thought to be about finding rational solutions and building institutional stability. But equally important is dealing with the emotional legacies of conflict and violence. Fear, anger, mistrust and betrayal can bind a society together but they often generate emotional cultures that revolve around anxiety, humiliation and resentment.[6]   Rather than initiating a much needed process of healing, such emotional cultures provide the basis for new cycles of violence and hatred.

Prevailing approaches to peacekeeping and peacebuilding are not well equipped to deal with emotional cultures. Their purpose is often to deal with immanent and seemingly more important challenges: providing security, building institutions, creating democratic accountability and generating economic progress. All these aspects are undoubtedly crucial but they cannot alone lead to a genuinely stable and peaceful society unless they also address, in an active and political way, the deep emotional wounds that inevitably exist after protracted conflicts.

An obvious starting point is simply to recognize how emotional cultures are intertwined with practices of violence. The task of politicians, diplomats and mediators here is – or at least ought to be – to create a space where grievances can be freely expressed, and corresponding emotions can be collectively and empathetically worked through. At stake here is not simply the suspension or cessation of violence, but also, and crucially, that adversaries are encouraged to come together in the hope that their relations can be realized anew. The aim would be to draw out and work through the collective, politicized forms of emotion that may unknowingly constitute animosity and divisive political relations. Being able to stop and critically reflect upon what has led events to be as they are is therefore fundamental.

Political leaders and the media should become more aware of the implications involved in the proliferation of collective fear, anger, humiliation and suspicion. Rather than building community and formulating policy around emotional cultures of distrust, they have the responsibility to initiate and promote emotional cultures that open up possibilities for the transformation and peace. Doing so will inevitably take time. Emotional cultures are deeply entrenched and move only slowly. But move they do. We all, from national leaders to everyday citizens, have a responsibility to transform them in ways that promote tolerance, social justice and peace.


Emma Hutchison and Roland Bleiker both hold positions in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. The former is a postdoctoral fellow and honorary researcher with CHE, and the latter a professor of International Relations. They have conducted single-authored and collaborative work on emotions, most recently a Forum on ‘Emotion and World Politics’ in International Theory (Vol. 6, No. 3, 2014). Emma’s book, Affective Communities in World Politics: Collective Emotions After Trauma, will be published by Cambridge University Press in early 2016.


[1] Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012 [1983]), p. 57.

[2] William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 129; William M. Reddy, ‘Emotional Liberty: Politics and History in the Anthropology of Emotions’, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1999, pp. 256-288, at pp. 271-275.

[3] Monique Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice?’, History and Theory, Vol. 51, May 2012, pp. 193-220.

[4] Michelle Rosaldo, ‘Toward an Anthropology of Self and Feeling’, in Richard A. Shweder and Robert A. LeVine (eds.), Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 143.

[5] Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (London: Picador. 2005).

[6] See Thomas J. Scheff and Suzanne M. Retzinger, Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts.

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