Emotion as creative practice

By Frederic Kiernan (The University of Melbourne)

Monique Scheer’s (2012) framework for understanding emotion as a kind of ‘practice’ as meant by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has been influential in the field of the history of emotion. This is partly because it associates the physical experiences of the body with the world and the various ways the world shapes, and indeed becomes part of our thoughts, actions and interactions. For Scheer, emotions are not fundamentally internal physiological or psychological states, but a kind of thinking that we learn how to use our bodies and our environment to do. And, because emotions are done, they can not only change over time, but they leave behind observable traces in the artefacts (e.g., writings, objects) of the past, which historians can examine.

Image: Rachael Ren, A sculpture at The MET (2020), Unsplash

But how does change in these ‘emotional practices’ occur? One explanation is that collisions between practices create points of friction (e.g., misunderstandings) can lead to change (Scheer, 2012). Another is that the dependency of practices on iteration allows for gradual shifts in the ways practices get done (Davison et al., 2018). That is to say, the gaps between iterations of a practice can allow for change to creep in. These are both reasonable explanations for how emotions generate change (for others, see Barclay, 2017). However, I think the sociology of creativity as organised and presented by Janet Chan (2016) can also help with this. And, it can also help clarify an often-misunderstood aspect of Bourdieu’s theory: that habits and routines are unchanging, and that practice theory is therefore better at describing the behaviours of robots than humans. I recently wrote an article about this for the International Journal of Wellbeing, which argues that emotions can be viewed as creative practices, and that this new concept can act as a link between creativity and wellbeing. Since I draw heavily on Scheer’s ideas, I thought it would also be useful to summarise the main argument of the article for this blog, since it is not only relevant to scholars of creativity and wellbeing, but also historians of emotion.

Until about two decades ago, creativity research was dominated by psychological and philosophical approaches that usually treated creativity as the production of relevant and effective novelty, as something that specific people, processes or products have (e.g., see Runco & Jaeger, 2012). Even in sociology, creativity has been treated until relatively recently as a special kind of action different from routine or habitual action (Joas, 1996). Chan’s (2016) framework for understanding creativity takes a different approach by linking Bourdieu’s theory of practice with the work of Dalton (2004) and Lippens (2012). Chan  argues that our tendency to act the same way in similar situations (what Bourdieu calls habitus) is never perfectly prescriptive, since the world as we encounter it (see Bourdieu’s concept of field) has its own rules and practical difficulties which are often beyond our control. This means there is a germ of spontaneity in all social action and is partly why sociologists agree people are not robots. Even if we have strong tendencies to act in a particular way as a result of our past experiences, these don’t have to dictate how we will act.

Image: Nsey Benajah, Untitled (2020), Unsplash

Chan (2016) sees the eternal misalignment between an imperfectly prescriptive habitus and the demands of a field as the seed of creativity and she builds her framework for creativity around it. Chan proposes that when people are comfortable and have the chance to settle into routines, creativity can take the form of institutionalised cultural practice, where habits and routines can actually provide the basis for good creative work (e.g., writing a great novel or making a beautiful piece of art). These habits and routines are still partly improvised and are gradually refined and perfected over time. Thus, they can also generate meaningful change and can therefore be considered creative. When our environment is more tumultuous and we don’t have the chance to settle into routines or habits, creativity can take the form of institutionalised cultural revolt, which has three sub-categories. The first of these is cultural edgework, which involves practices at the boundaries between fields and which renegotiate those boundaries. The second is cultural transcendence, which involves practices that facilitate such deep reflection that we end up with a new perspective on things, even if we haven’t actually changed anything. The third of these is cultural transformation, where we actually grasp the materials of a field and manipulate them to generate change. Chan’s framework for creativity therefore emphasises that domain-specific criteria for creativity exist, and that local critical communities must deem new social products as creative. In other words, it’s not enough for something just to be different; whether social action has produced something ‘creative’ depends on how it is evaluated by others, and what criteria they are using.

If emotions can be viewed as a kind of practice, as Scheer has proposed, then it follows that those practices can be further categorised using Chan’s framework. Happiness can, for example, become an institutionalised cultural practice, which in turn opens up important ethical questions about the emotion itself and its function in society. But happiness can also take other forms, and can be creative in other ways, as Chan’s framework allows us to see. I discuss some of these other ways in more detail in the article. My hope is that this new concept — emotion as creative practice — which arises from a theoretical synthesis of Scheer’s and Chan’s frameworks, proves useful for understanding the role of emotion in generating change and stimulates fruitful discussions in this fascinating area of study.

The article is available at:

Kiernan, F. ‘Emotion as creative practice: Linking creativity and wellbeing through the history and sociology of emotion’. International Journal of Wellbeing, 10.5 (2020): 43–63. https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v10i4.1517.


Barclay, K. ‘Introduction: Emotions and change’. Emotions: History, Culture, Society 1.2 (2017): 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1163/2208522X-00102002.

Chan, J. ‘Creativity and Culture: A Sociological Perspective’. In The Palgrave Handbook of Creativity and Culture Research, edited by V. P. Glăveanu, pp. 639–60. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-46344-9_31.

Dalton, B. ‘Creativity, Habit, and the Social Products of Creative Action: Revising Joas, Incorporating Bourdieu’. Sociological Theory 22.4 (2004): 603–22. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0735-2751.2004.00236.x.

Davison, K., M. Jalava, G. Morosini, M. Scheer, K. Steenbergh, I. van der Zande and L. Fetheringill Zwicker. ‘Emotions as a Kind of Practice: Six Case Studies Utilizing Monique Scheer’s Practice-based Approach to Emotions in History’. Cultural History 7.2 (2018): 226–38. https://doi.org/10.3366/cult.2018.0175.

Joas, H. The Creativity of Action (trans. J. Gaines and P. Keast). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Runco, M. and G. J. Jaeger. ‘The Standard Definition of Creativity’. Creativity Research Journal 24.1 (2012): 92–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/10400419.2012.650092.

Lippens, R. ‘Control Over Emergence: Images of Radical Sovereignty in Pollock, Rothko, and Rebeyrolle’. Human Studies 35.3 (2012): 351–64. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10746-012-9237-x.

Scheer, M. ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and is That What Makes Them Have a History)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion’. History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History 51.2 [2012]: 193–220 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2303.2012.00621.x.

Frederic Kiernan completed a PhD in 2019 at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (The University of Melbourne), with a thesis titled ‘The Figure of Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) in the History of Emotions.’ His thesis was awarded the Chancellor’s Prize for Excellence in the PhD Thesis for 2020.

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