Emotion and Policy Analysis

By Farhad Mukhtarov. It is not clear how to reconcile emotion and policy analysis which seem to encompass different worlds. The first is enveloped in subjectivity, whereas the second claims to be objective; the first occurs mostly in private sphere, whereas the second is mandated and takes place in public arena. The challenge is great: we know that emotion is important in policy making and often key to politics, but we do not have a faintest idea how to account for emotion in political analysis. The one who gets this problem solved deserves a Nobel Prize..

Antonio Damasio is not a policy scientist, but he may well receive a Nobel Prize for his work on emotion. A few months ago I read a book by Damasio called “Descartes’ Error”. In a fluent prose with many interesting and compelling case studies, one of the finest neurobiologists of our time explains the role of emotion in human life. How fascinating it was to read that emotion has historically been relegated to negligible role of an inevitable disturbance in rational thinking of a man. Emotion was something to suppress, to control and in no way to release when an important decision had to be made. Damasio completely demolishes this view and makes a strong argument for the inseparability of reason and emotion. He argues that one needs to experience emotion in order to be rational, in order to have a guide in the process of decision-making, in choosing one of several options at hand. And the more the capacity of a person for emotion, the more is the likelihood that that person lives a full life with happiness, joy and gratitude. Those interested in Damasio’s work can watch a TED podcast where he explains his work with a focus on consciousness.

Interestingly, emotion has recently claimed attention of researchers in political science, environmental research and social sciences more broadly. A seminal review paper by Marcus on “Emotion in Politics” provides the basis for discussion of emotion in political science, whereas much more research is done on the role of emotion for environmental and climate change communication as well as in environmental education. Interesting research is being done in that regard by a colleague of mine at Delft University of Technology, Susanne Sleenhoff, who studies the role of emotions in how public engages with the subject of bio-based economy and initiatives such as synthetic biology and GMOs. Janet Newman’s recent policy paper provides perhaps the first model to incorporate emotion in policy studies – through the ‘emotional registers of discourse” in which emotion is not attributed to feelings, but rather is used as manifestation of how various actors relate to certain framings in a discourse. Having used a biographical and anthropological method, Newman came to realize that emotion can be meaningfully studied in policy.

More work is required to link emotion to policy and political change. Such work would be necessarily through analysing people – the centrepiece of policy. Thus, once again we point to the importance of agency in policy research, with all due respect to institutionalists. Studying policy means studying people, and therefore their emotions.


A curious mind traveling the world and reflecting on everything.

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