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Our Research Center

The long-term vision for the Centre for the Politics of Feelings is to become a world-leading research hub at the intersection of politics and emotions, co-hosting a range of disciplines, from life and social sciences to digital humanities and media.

In the current socio-political context of democratic crises and rising populism, our visceral states, feelings and emotions have come to the forefront of the political behaviour of citizens and policy makers alike. Emotions are now seen as both drivers and targets of politics. Yet an empirically driven, critical analysis of the assumed emotional climate in politics is lacking. The socio-political conditions of the last decade as well as epistemological developments across sciences and humanities point to the need to go beyond long-standing, but simplistic, dichotomies between reason and social passions to explain political behaviour.

Why this Centre now?

Not for the first time in modern history, there is a growing consensus among politicians, citizens and academics that liberal democracies are in crisis. The narrative of the current crisis in politics is often dominated by the role that emotions have come to play in the public sphere and the political arena. Whether one calls our era the time of anxiety, of fear  or of anger   – visceral states, feelings and emotions have come to the forefront of the political behavior of citizens and policy makers alike, viewed as drivers as well as targets of politics. The socio-political conditions of the last decade as well as epistemological developments across sciences and humanities point to the need to go beyond a long-standing dichotomy between reason and social passions to explain political behaviour.  What can explain the existence and pervasiveness of such nervous states amongst citizens and their elected politicians, and what is their influence on our political behaviour? Conversely, how does politics impact our embodied affective states?  And more importantly, what are the underlying mechanisms of such phenomena? These are pressing questions in relation to the challenges that many democracies are facing today, but they will also be relevant for forthcoming challenges such as climate change, digital welfare and artificial intelligence.

 

Why interdisciplinary ?

Our attempt to account for the visceral politics of our times is emboldened by the concurrence of three important parallel epistemological changes that have been developing over the last few years in history, political sciences, psychology and neuroscience.

 

  • History has witnessed a new focus on the historical study of emotions whereby emotions are not merely viewed as the effects of historical circumstances, expressed in the aftermath of events, but are instead seen as active causes of events that can richly enhance historiographical theories of causation of socio-political events. “Emotions not only have a history, but make history” as Rob Boddice writes, because they are at the centre of the history of embodied human beings; emotions are at the centre of the history of culture and of morality in human societies.

  • Political sciences have exited a period of inattention to emotion and since the 90s have witnessed an increasing interest in how emotions may influence political behaviour. However, the primary focus  has been on a rather simplistic and, by current standards, incomplete “outside in” approach that infers the constitution and causes of emotions from verbal reports of experiences and observations of behaviour. More recently, and largely thanks to advances in psychophysiology and affective neuroscience, a different “inside out” approach has emerged that allows direct investigation of the physiological and neural processes that engage affect. Thus, political sciences have recently expanded their research scope towards the inclusion of emotions and affective states as explanatory tools in the analysis of socio-political behaviour, albeit often in a correlational manner and with limited understanding of the underlying neurophysiological mechanisms.

  • Psychology  has moved on from the traditional view whereby there are dual systems of emotion and reason   to a view that focuses on their inter-dependent and reciprocal relationship. And neuroscience has witnessed the proliferation of new methods that have enabled us to study the brain’s social cognition, its affective and embodied underpinnings and their expression in decision-making and eventually behaviour. However, these advances in social-affective neuroscience often seem a-historical and de-contextualized because of disciplinary boundaries that prevent neuroscientists from appreciating the subtle yet foundational ways in which history and culture, at a slower pace, influence, in their turn, the same brain mechanisms that we study in the lab.

Having identified these parallel turns towards physiology, affect and emotions and the new space that they delineate between disciplines, the Centre will occupy precisely that new space. And it will set out to explore suspected but hitherto understudied connections between disciplines, but also make new ones at the intersection between politics and feelings. This expanded understanding of political behaviour and attitudes, including emotional, neural and physiological responses, and how to measure them, will shed new light on how feelings and emotions drive political behaviour. Building on such epistemological synergies, the Centre puts forward an approach that spans across life sciences, social sciences and humanities as it draws on methods and theories from cognitive neuroscience and psychology, political science, data science and media. And we will use this approach to provide new insights into the contextual factors and the often-unconscious neuro-physiological and emotional processes that shape political attitudes, identities and decision behaviours but also into how the same processes are exploited by cultural, social and political practices.

The Centre will house a core research team of early career researchers who will be incentivised to cross disciplinary boundaries, grow in independence, and attract additional funding. At the same time, the Centre will host visiting internationally-leading established scientists and scholars to complement our existing projects or bring new ones. The Centre’s Advisory Board will have a marked intellectual presence that will facilitate the Centre's multidisciplinary expansion and international visibility.