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Capturing the Impalpable: The Contribution of Artistic Approaches to the Ethnography of Emotion

Text by Beatriz Cerqueira Krieger (Freie University Berlin)

© Lea Rebecca Minow

In his article “Anthropology and emotion” (2014), anthropologist Andrew Beatty argues that only a narrative approach allows for accurate and thorough grasping and representation of emotion in ethnography. This is due to the double particularity of emotions – their egocentric and biographical dimensions – which cannot be captured through classic interpretive and cognitive methods. In this essay, I will summarize Beatty’s train of thought and pose my critique to some aspects of his text before moving on to my work-in-progress suggestion that, rather than a strictly narrative approach, a multigenre collage could be the most adequate form to capture and convey emotion ethnographically.

Offering an enlightening overview of the approach to emotion throughout the history of Anthropology, Beatty identifies that two problems haunt this issue: all too often, ethnographers have underrated or completely neglected emotions in ethnography, believing them to belong to the realm of psychology; nevertheless, when ethnographers did take emotions into consideration, they tended to fail in their textual accounts of it (2014: 546). Drawing on Averill (1994: 145), Beatty states that by trying to fit emotions into any theoretical system one necessarily misses “the interplay between contexts – cultural, social, and biographical – that gives emotions their resonance, their practical significance” (2014: 550). In other words, the very nature of emotions lies in the intersectionality of the external and the internal, the historical and the immediate, the collective and the individual, the cultural and the universal, even if we don’t know where exactly these lines lie. Hence, only an approach that comprises all these dimensions can grasp what emotions are and do in a certain context.

Further, Beatty examines the two kinds of particularity that constitute emotion. The first, its egocentric aspect, relates to the fact that emotion has the individual as primary reference. Indeed, “[e]motions might be third-person constructions, a collective product, but they are first-person experiences” (Beatty 2014: 551). More specifically, he states that one feels an emotion, such as anger or sadness, because something happened directly to them (an insult or a loss, for instance), while others can only identify the situation but not experience that emotion themselves (Beatty 2014: 551). However, I wonder where and how the notion of empathy fits this conceptualization of Beatty. While I understand the argument that one piece of emotion is only felt in/by one person – despite the on-going debate on shared emotions (Salmela 2012; Gilbert 2002; Schmid 2009; Krueger 2015) –, Beatty’s phrasing suggests that another person can’t even feel the same kind of emotion as the person directly affected by an incident. I find it almost impossible not to disagree with this notion, since it seems clear to me that a person that, for instance, witnesses someone else being insulted can for sure get very angry, almost as if they had been insulted themselves. In fact, not too rarely a person who was not the aim of the insult actually gets angrier than the one insulted, who for some reason might have chosen and been able to ignore the incident. In that sense, I would agree with the argument that emotions are anchored and felt in the self, but not that this self is only and necessarily the person that is directly affected by a situation. To ignore the possibility and the role of collectiveness in emotional experience seems oversimplifying and just as insufficient as the other approaches Beatty criticizes.

The second particularity of emotions is their biographical aspect: they may be framed by culture but gain relevance and further meaning through personal history. It is the individual experiences throughout life that inscribe a conceptualization of an emotion in one’s memory, so that every time a similar situation takes place that emotion is evoked and, in turn, that connection is either reinforced or gradually reshaped. This biographical account has an anthropological importance because the apparently individual story is strongly embedded in the living context, thus revealing at once the “commonly human” (Beatty 2014: 557), the idiosyncratic and the social and cultural constructs (Nussbaum 2001: 177).

Indeed, Beatty insists in the clear division of these three “different kinds of inquiry: the commonly human in developmental psychology, the socially constructed in anthropology, and the idiosyncratic in fiction” (2014: 557). While he does point out that all three should be included in ethnography, he overstates their current separation, which in my view isn’t possible, even when unrecognized. In other words, a considerable part of psychology is already dealing with more than just human universals, anthropology inquires more than only the cultural and has been offering biographical narratives for a while now and good fiction has always included much of social and cultural structures.

Moreover, I ask myself if the factors that Beatty puts as commonly human can indeed be assumed to be universals. He talks of “thwarted ambition, sibling (or, rather, cousin) rivalry, personal offence, loss, and survival” (Beatty 2014: 557), also called “core relational themes” by psychologist Richard Lazarus (1994). Considering that Beatty is talking of more than just appraisals or affects, but of situations and the emotions they evoke, to what extent is it really possible to talk about “pan-human” (Beatty 2014: 557) factors? While one should not exaggerate on cultural relativism, Beatty on the other hand seems to underestimate it too much, insisting on the notion of basic human conditions (ibid.) without providing ethnographic or even neuroscientific evidence for it. This hint of possible eurocentrism is only reinforced by some problematic uses of language in his text that do not appear to be ironic or critical, but rather anachronist, such as “exotic setting” (Beatty 2014: 547), when talking about fieldwork in the non-West, and “Eskimo” (Beatty 2014: 546), when referring to the Inuit.

Furthermore, as he proposes the narrative approach as the one capable of grasping and representing emotions, he does not explain how this account would take shape more concretely, thus not posing questions (nor answering them) such as: Who tells the narrative? How do the interlocutors come to speak or take part in constructing this narrative? I will come back to these questions when I discuss my proposal of a multigenre approach.

Before that, however, I need to pose one more, broader question. Beatty argues for the narrative method because it is the only one capable of capturing the temporal dimension of emotions, their biographical background, their context and possibilities for action. For him, “neither a phenomenological account nor a psychoanalytic one tells the whole story” (Beatty 2014: 557). Yet I ask myself to what extent does our struggle, as anthropologists, to fully grasp emotions make sense, if the very nature of emotions is subjective and impalpable. Why do we need to tell “the whole story” (ibid.), if the experience of emotions – and their beauty – lies precisely in its partial secrecy? Besides being difficult (not to say impossible), couldn’t it maybe also be undesirable to completely capture and verbalize these experiences?

Nevertheless, if we do insist in grasping and conveying the most we can of our interlocutors’ (besides our own) emotions, I believe Beatty’s very text offers many hints to an approach better than just the narrative. Referring to Gregory Bateson (1936), he mentions the use of impressionistic techniques in literature to “lin[k] up the structure and pragmatic working of the culture with its emotional tone or ethos” (Bateson 1958 [1936]: 2). Further, he mentions the Aristotelian importance of plot to evoke emotion, as well as the need for a balance between internal consistency (to create plausibility) and some incongruence (to create verisimilitude), since “[r]eal human beings surprise us not just because we are fallible observers but because we don’t have access to all the facts: the secret histories and evolutions of motive that underlie behavior” (Beatty 2014: 554). Although criticizing it as limited, the author also refers to the work of the linguist Anna Wierzbicka (1999), who reveals the differences underlying alleged synonyms. This approach has also been taken in artistic and literary endeavors as early as in 1718 in Gabriel Girard’s book La justesse de la langue ou les différentes significations des mots qui passent pour synonymes (2008 [1718]).

Beatty’s multiple references to different artistic accounts on emotion remind us of the fact that human beings have been resorting to art to try to understand, express and convey emotions for centuries, which hints at the difficulty to grasp them otherwise. Not surprisingly, ethnographic films have often been more successful in representing emotions than written text, both because films comprise a temporal dimension and because they open up the space for more experimentation.

Nevertheless, I do believe that this experimentation can find space in written ethnography as well. A combination of different genres, such as poetry, narratives, pictures, vocabulary comparisons, and the classic methods could cover more aspects of the emotional experience and allow for a better understanding by the reader. Moreover, this collage allows for multiple authors, including the interlocutors, who can both write parts of the accounts themselves and select others’ texts that they find representative to be included in the dossier. Such a collage would come closer to representing the various layers of emotional experience, while keeping the subjective, sensitive and impalpable aspects of it. With regard to emotion, capturing “the whole story” means precisely allowing for its non-graspable dimension and mystery.


Averill, James 1994: It’s a small world, but a large stage. In: Ekman, Paul and Richard J. Davidson (eds.): The nature of emotion: fundamental questions (eds). Oxford: University Press, 143-145.

Bateson, Gregory 1958 [1936]: Naven. Stanford: University Press.

Beatty, Andrew 2014: Anthropology and emotion. In: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20, 545-563.

Gilbert, Margaret 2002: Collective guilt and collective guilt feelings. In: Journal of Ethics 6, 115–143.

Girard, Gabriel 2008 [1718]: La justesse de la langue ou les différentes significations des mots qui passent pour synonymes. Paris: Manucius.

Krueger, Joel 2015: The Affective "We": Self-regulation and Shared Emotions. In: Szanto, Thomand and Dermot Moran (eds.): Phenomenology of Sociality: Discovering the We, 263-277.

Lazarus, Richard 1994: Universal antecedents of the emotions. In: Ekman, Paul and Richard J. Davidson (eds.): The nature of emotion: fundamental questions (eds). Oxford: University Press, 163-171.

Nussbaum, Martha 2001: Upheavals of thought: the intelligence of emotions. Cambridge: University Press.

Salmela, Mikko 2012: Shared emotions. In: Philosophical Explorations: An International Journal for the Philosophy of Mind and Action 15 (1), 33-46.

Schmid, Hans B. 2009: Plural Action: Essays in Philosophy and Social Science. Dordrecht: Springer.

Wierzbicka, Anna 1999: Emotions across languages and cultures: diversity and universals. Cambridge: University Press.

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