Emotion and the Researcher

In October 2017, news broke that multiple women had accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault and rape. Not long after, actor Alyssa Milano posted on social media: ‘If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet’.  The #MeToo movement was born. Milano’s original post has now been retweeted more than 24,000 times. Women have rallied round the hashtag, recognising and naming their experiences of sexual abuse, and gaining strength from this shared understanding.

The #MeToo movement was not an overnight success. The activist Tarana Burke first used the phrase in 2006 to promote ‘empowerment through empathy’ among women of colour who had experienced sexual abuse. Who knows why it finally took off in 2017? Perhaps it was the rising tide of accusations against men like Weinstein; maybe it was the promotion of the phrase by a famous actor; it’s likely that it spread more quickly once white women started to use it too.

It’s too soon to tell what the lasting effects of #MeToo might be. Already, many of those named and shamed for their mistreatment of women are slinking back into public life. But surely one result will be a new realisation of the power of telling stories and sharing experiences – of bringing what has never been told into the light, as a way not only to comfort each other but to work against the continuation of abuse.

It’s a big leap from a global movement to call out sexual abuse to an edited collection on emotion in academic research – or is it? When #MeToo first took off, I was in the final stages of co-editing Emotion and the Researcher: Sites, Subjectivities and Relationships with Dawn Mannay. Our contributors research varied topics from many different perspectives; they work in diverse environments including clinics, hospitals, museums and universities; and they are drawn from the UK, Europe and North America. But they are united in the claim that emotion matters, and it is important that we admit, understand and even celebrate the power of emotion. In the book, researchers share their different stories as a way of making this single point – and the force of that point gathers momentum as it is repeated in their different voices, through their different stories.

This act of admitting emotion and its role in the research process is important for lots of reasons. Academic researchers often pretend that emotion is not there. Admitting that a real person with real feelings carried out the research is somehow seen as undermining the scientific validity of the data – but describing this attitude out loud shows just how ridiculous that assumption is. Who else can carry out research but flesh and blood researchers? Yet calling a scholar ‘emotional’ or ‘subjective’ is still perceived as an insult – as a claim that their research is driven by impure motives, or that their findings are not applicable to other situations.

What’s important here, though, is that some people are more likely to be accused of being ‘emotional’ than others. The standard ideal of the ‘objective’ academic is still a white, middle-class, western male. Anyone who doesn’t fit that mould is more likely to be perceived as speaking from personal interest alone. This attitude reinforces the sense that female, working-class, LGBT and BAME scholars don’t quite ‘belong’. As a feminist historian, I’m quite used to suggestions that historians of women are ‘biased’ and unable to achieve an appropriate academic distance on their subject. There are two possible responses to this kind of accusation: make sure you never speak from a personal position and never show emotion; or shout twice as loud, twice as often, using your own voice, to make people listen and to show that you’re not going away.

Sharing emotion exposes us. It makes us vulnerable. But at the same time, it makes others stronger as they realise they are not alone. By sharing our stories, we create something bigger than ourselves. We realise what we have in common and that we can move forward together. This is important action whenever and wherever it happens, whether it is in an academic book, a small community or on a worldwide stage.

Article Details

Tracey Loughran,
Reader in History and Deputy Dean (Research) , Faculty of Humanities at the University of Essex, UK

Date Published:

October 17th, 2018

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