Featured Sociology Publication: Bourdieu and Affect

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Inequality is typically understood through an economic and material lens: those that have more money and stuff are privileged, those that have less are disadvantaged.

Bordieu and affect book cover

But what if we add another layer to considering inequality, emphasising that how we feel in social situations is also unequal? And what if those feelings and emotions are not necessarily an indication of an individual’s weaknesses, failings, or character, but reflect broader cultural norms and traditions that are set up to favour some individuals and groups over others?

Steven Threadgold’s new book, Bourdieu and Affect: Towards a Theory of Affective Affinities, develops sociological concepts to consider how our emotions are not always our own, but are socially produced through the affinities we develop from an early age.

“The everyday moments where we feel comfortable or not, where we feel valued or not, or where we feel understood or not, have a profound influence on how we interact with each other in a particular social setting and the possibility of being able to fit in or succeed in that situation,” Threadgold says.

The book draws on the influential sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose research and theories examined the ways cultural and symbolic relations produce and reinforce class inequalities, and recent conceptual work that examines relations of affect, that is, how interactions between people, things, situations, histories, norms, morals and values produce feelings or emotional states.

Steve says “conceptually the book is particularly indebted to Jennifer Mason’s work on affinitiesSara Ahmed on the cultural politics of emotion and affective economiesBeverley Skeggs on class, affect and value, and Margaret Wetherell’s take on affect theory.”

“Affect is a concept that is understood in lots of different ways across and within a lot of different disciplines. I use a relatively simple definition of affect that incorporates a theory of practice: we are ‘affected’ in that we all are open to being influenced by a whole range of stimuli, but we are also ‘affecting’ in that we have an influence on situations and those around us. Importantly though, the different ways we affect and are affected will relate to our position and status in the social world.”

The relationship between these forces is central to how societies function: “we don’t participate in all of society all at once and we perform different versions of ourselves in different social situations.”

Sociology has traditionally shown how people learn the rules of our social roles to fit into a certain situation. “We behave differently when we are playing different roles such as student or teacher, or parent or teenager, or boss and worker and we can switch roles throughout the day. One minute I’m a social researcher, the next I’m a café customer, and the next I might be on the phone to my parents.”

“I developed the concept of affective affinity to examine how the socialisation processes we all go through result in us developing certain dispositions that are sparked between different social situations through affinities, that is, whether we feel comfortable and confident with the elements of that social situation, or, feel uncomfortable and hesitant,” Steve says.

An example might be not knowing what all the knives and forks are for at a fancy dinner. “This can result in a person making self-depreciating jokes or talking the piss out of the silly traditions. But it may also result in the person self-excluding themselves from situation like that in the future because they do not want to feel embarrassed.”

These emotional inequalities are most serious in educational and institutional situations that can make a huge difference in the way people feel about themselves and, importantly, the way people in powerful positions judge others.

“Those in social positions that tend to be exposed to feeling out of place, marginalised or excluded will struggle more in education systems or when they have to deal with government institutions. These spaces are generally set up to reward the white, already educated, middle classes and are usually managed and staffed by them as well. If you don’t possess a taken for granted affinity with the norms and expectations of a social space, you may feel discomfort, shame or clumsy, and it is more likely that you will draw attention to yourself by acting in a way deemed unacceptable or offensive.”

Importantly though, affinities are not just for understanding the disadvantaged, but shine a light on how privilege works in everyday situations beyond the possession of money. “Men learn from an early age that they can and should take up space, and therefore have a more comfortable affinity with public space. Men often sit with their legs spread, known as ‘man-spreading’, to the discomfort of the person trying to occupy the seat next to them on public transport or in a meeting. Women tend to be socialised to feel less safe and comfortable in public space and are more likely to learn to sit with their legs crossed taking up less space. This is an embodied and emotional inequality”

These types of relations of affinity mean, for instance, that students with well-educated parents are more likely to do well at school because they have a closer affinity to what is required in the education spaces and will therefore feel more comfortable. “There is so much research that shows how kids from different backgrounds are treated very differently by teachers, where kids that are more like the teacher, that is, they have a closer affinity with each other, get treated better.”

What this means is that the higher educational success of the middle classes does not mean that they are more intelligent than disadvantaged kids or that they work harder, but are emotionally advantaged by the norms, values and traditions of the institution itself.

“Privileged people tend to hate their privilege being pointed out to them, and will often respond along the lines of ‘I work hard’ or ‘nothing was handed to me’. They may very well work hard, most people do. But just by being born in the right family or having the right skin colour or performing the right gender will result in a social magic of having more opportunities come your way or being in social situations that favour your taken for granted preferences and practices.”

Bourdieu and Affect: Towards a Theory of Affective Affinities, is published by Bristol University Press and is available at https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/bourdieu-and-affect.

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