Emotional Liberty: Politics and History in the Anthropology of Emotions

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

To speak of the relations among political power, history, and the anthropology of emotion is to speak of a gap that theory and methodology have been unable to bridge. Anthropologists working on emotions have continued to depend heavily on the use of the ethnographic present and on sweeping generalizations about their informants' communities which do not come to grips with variation, resistance, or change. This is a surprising anomaly in a discipline that has, by and large, moved beyond such methodological crutches and in a subfield that has, in other respects, been a pace setter in bringing new perspectives to bear on the problem of human difference. This anomaly derives from a theoretical insufficiency of broad significance. If the old idea of the Western subject has been dismantled and discarded, its replacements-notions of discourse, discipline, practice, agency-represent so many fragments from which it is difficult to recover any defense of political liberty. Yet people continue to cling to the idea of liberty-and to its corollary, the belief that dissidence and resistance can produce beneficial change-often without being able to say why. In what follows, I offer a concept of "emotional liberty" that does not depend on the unity or rationality of the"subject."This concept, I try to show, makes possible an approach to emotions that is at once ethnographic, historical, and politically engaged.  (Reddy, 256) 

About the Author

Reddy is a Laprade Professor at Duke University. 

"I received all my degrees (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) from the University of Chicago, finishing there in 1974; after a year at the School of Social Science of the Institute for Advanced Study, and a post-doc in the Department of Psychology and Social Relations at Harvard, I came to Duke in 1977. I have been awarded, among others, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships, brief visiting fellowships at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and fellowship years at the National Humanities Center and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California.

Research and teaching interests: My teaching responsibilities include European history, French history from the eighteenth century to the present, cultural theory (especially the joint methodological interests of historians and anthropologists). My research in the past has dealt with such issues as the social history of industrialization, comparative social history of the modern era, the history of emotions and gender identities in France since 1750, theories of culture, and theories of emotions.

In 2001 I completed a book with the title, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 2001). This study examines current theories of emotions in use in cognitive psychology and ethnography, probing their strengths and weaknesses, and proposes a new theory of emotions that makes it possible to conceive of and examine historical change in emotional experience. The book also provides an account of the history of emotions in France between 1700 and 1850, including the era of the Revolution, as an example of the application of the proposed theory. The article "Against Constructionism" is a preliminary statement of the thesis; and the articles "Emotional Liberty," and "Sentimentalism and Its Erasure" explore aspects of the study. In the near future, I will be working on a number of related essays, showing the links between cognition, cultural theory, and historical interpretation. I am also continuing research in judicial archives and other sources on the history of emotions in France.

Current research project: I have now undertaken research on the comparative history of a specific emotion of great importance in Western traditions: romantic love. Despite claims that romantic love is a human universal, the ways in which emotional attachments between sexual partners are understood and practiced varies enormously across time and space. What Westerners currently understand by "romantic love" had its earliest recognizable origins in the twelfth century, with the conception of love attributed to the "troubadours." The importance of romantic love has been increasing dramatically in recent decades, since this emotion has supplanted all other motivations as a legitimate grounds for the founding of families."

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