Emotions and Work: an interview with Agnes Arnold-Forster and Alison moulds

In November 2019, Agnes Arnold-Forster and Alison Moulds held ‘Emotions and Work’, a day-long conference funded by the Royal Historical Society and the Wellcome Trust via the Living with Feeling Project at QMUL, exploring the troubled relationship between emotions and labour, and considering how frameworks and methodologies of the history of emotions can be critically applied to the study of work and labour. Hannah Parker, who attended the conference, caught up with Alison and Agnes to reflect on the day.

History: First of all, thanks for having me at the conference in November! I thought it was a great day: a really warm environment and some really thought-provoking papers. To start with the basics: how did the idea for the conference develop?

A&A: Both of us had been working on the historical relationship between work and feelings, albeit in quite different ways.

As part of her postdoctoral research with the European Research Council-funded ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ project at the University of Oxford, Alison had been examining debates around ‘living in’ – whereby retail workers received board and lodging from their employers (in lieu of part of their salaries) – in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Drawing on a range of texts, she explored the extent to which these debates broached questions concerning the emotional health of shop assistants.

Figure 1. ‘So you think your job is monotonous!’, c.1942,
artist unknown.
US Office for Emergency Management, War Production
Board.

Agnes is currently a postdoctoral research and engagement fellow on the Wellcome Trust Investigator Award, Surgery & Emotion, based at the University of Roehampton. She has been researching the emotions associated with surgical labour in contemporary Britain, and prior to the workshop was developing a new project on the ideals, experiences, and emotions of work in the National Health Service.

Both of us had read the scholarship of Professor Claire Langhamer (University of Sussex) and felt that her work on the intersections between work and feeling in England in the last 100 years encapsulated an emerging theme within the history of emotions – that emotion provides a particularly illuminating frame of analysis for the history of labour. We thought an interdisciplinary workshop that brought together scholars working on different aspects of the subject would be both timely and theoretically useful.

History: Generally speaking conference programming is a pretty tense mixture of timetabling and curating whatever topics arrive in your inbox – but how far did the abstracts you received shape the day overall? Were there any surprising themes in the papers, or directions you didn’t expect to take?

A&A: We received an overwhelming number of abstracts! Both of us had organised conferences before, but neither had ever had to reject so many incredibly strong abstracts. While it was a real delight to issue a call for papers that received such an enthusiastic response – and it was a real testament to the vibrancy of the field – it was also quite stressful. Decisions about who to accept and reject had to be based on how we thought the different papers would fit together. We tried to get a good balance of time periods, places, and occupational settings.

As we anticipated, we got a lot of (excellent) abstracts that dealt with emotional labour, gender, and particularly motherhood. We were more surprised by the diversity of workplaces covered in the abstracts – scientific laboratories, for example – and by the rich theoretical contributions to questions of emotional labour from theatre studies (a field that neither of us was familiar with). We also got some great papers on unusual subjects – dogs and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to name but a few!

History: What kinds of insights were you hoping to get from the conference? What kinds of insights did you get on the day?

A&A: We were hoping for some theoretical insights from a range of disciplines and we think we were pretty successful! We managed to curate a programme with contributions from economists, theatre studies scholars, historians, literary scholars, and legal academics. We were both pleased and surprised to find that despite these disciplinary differences, conversation flowed really well. We think we managed to reach a shared understanding of the different practical and theoretical issues at play, including the relationship between research and activism, and how the field is both indebted to but moving beyond and re-evaluating definitions of ‘emotional labour’.

History: Why do you think that was? Is a heavily interdisciplinary approach needed to tackle the subject adequately, or was this a reflection of the personal priorities of those involved?

A&A: The interdisciplinarity was both invited and surprising; the subject clearly appeals to those working in different areas, perhaps because it yokes together two concepts which to many seem so interrelated but which have not always been paired in public, political, or academic discourse. We wanted the theme to be broad – the call for papers was theoretically driven but also very open-ended.

House Painter, from Trebnik Troikh, V. Tatlin, 1913

History: I was particularly struck by how encouraging and thought-provoking the discussions following the panels were. Did you find there were any particularly interesting lines of dialogue in the discussions following the panels?

A&A: Thank you! I think one of the things we were not really anticipating was the politically-engaged nature of the discussions. As we mentioned, it was a pretty multi-disciplinary group and I think we managed to bridge some of the differences in terminology, source material, and approach partly because we all shared similar perspectives on the conditions of labour in twenty-first-century Britain (where we all lived and worked), and particularly on the nature of work in academia today. This shared understanding was partly cultivated by Professor Claire Langhamer’s excellent, inspiring, and timely keynote which opened the workshop: ‘Mass Observing feelings at work from 1947 to 2010’.

This also reflects the concerns of the organisers. Alison’s research on living-in partly stemmed from her own experiences as a doctoral and postdoctoral researcher, where there was often scant office space and an expectation to work from home. She was very attuned to how such labour practices blurred the temporal and spatial boundaries between work and leisure.

Agnes has written elsewhere about how her attention to emotions and work is in part a product of precarious employment and that she sees healthcare (the subject of her research) as having much in common with higher education (the place she works). They are both beset by entrenched hierarchies, by increasingly vexed discussions about the emotional health of their workers, and by the fervent belief that their working cultures and demands are unique and unparalleled. While we can’t speak for all of our delegates, we would not be surprised if the same might be true for at least some of them. The personal is political after all – or at least historical!

History: Since the present pandemic crisis has unfolded, so many of us are working from home, perhaps more than ever before, and the occupation and emotional health of our healthcare professionals in all positions is at the forefront of public concern. It seems that – while their continued relevance has been unquestionable – both of your research focuses are more pressing than ever.

Though I wonder if the nature of things at the moment might not allow much pause for personal reflection, has it been helpful for you both to have an academic awareness of what is happening in this respect?

Alison: What drew me to the subject originally has become very pertinent again. When I devised my project on ‘living-in’ and retail workers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I was working from home in academia and very alert to the issue of work-life balance and how the boundaries between home and work could be blurred. Around the time of the conference I’d moved to a new policy job and was working in an office. Since the pandemic however, I’ve resumed working from home and am once again alert (both personally and politically) to how that reshapes one’s work and leisure practices.

In public discourse, the attention to ‘key workers’ has also ignited lots of (very critical) debates about how we value, or more often fail to value, retail workers who are so fundamental to our daily life. The physical and emotional dangers of working in a shop are on the agenda again. The Victorian medical press was very interested in the sanitary risks of shop life, and I think those discussions really resonate today, when so many retail workers are on the frontline and exposed to possible contamination.  

Angstliche (Anxious Ones), El Lissitsky, 1923

Agnes: While of course, there is now so much to say about emotions and healthcare work. But the pandemic has also prompted me to reflect on what it is I value about my own work and what it is I enjoy about the job that I have. I don’t think I quite realised how much I value in-person interactions, even as an academic on a research-only contract. Working from home day-in-day-out has also made it very clear that I thrive off variety – one of the things I love about my job is the ability ordinarily to determine my place of work, and that that place can be different every day. I don’t have an office even in non-pandemic times, so move between my flat, cafes, and public libraries. These aren’t particularly profound observations, but they do emphasise that ‘wellbeing’ at work is going to be different for different people – for everyone who needs firm and physical boundaries between work and leisure, there’s going to be others who enjoy the flexibility of home-working.

However, COVID-19 has also reinforced the idea that debates around care, labour, and flexible work are political and bound up with questions about gender, race, and socio-economic status. So while for me, homeworking offers the luxury of choice and flexibility – for others, it’s a restrictive and emotionally deleterious system.

History: What has come out of the conference, for you? Have the day’s discussions influenced your academic (or personal) approaches to ‘work’? What are your plans for the collection of papers (and are there any particular directions you’d like to take)?

A&A: If nothing else, the conference has galvanised us. We are both continuing to work on emotions and work, albeit in more similar ways than before! While Agnes is still researching the emotions of healthcare work (the critical nature of which has only been highlighted by the current COVID-19 pandemic and the UK government’s response), Alison is now working outside academia in healthcare policy with a particular focus on clinical workforce issues. The emotional wellbeing of the workforce is very pertinent in policy debates today.

Drawing together some of the papers from the conference, we have proposed an edited volume to Bloomsbury’s History of Emotions series. We issued a further call for papers to expand the geographical scope of the chapters (most of the abstracts we initially received dealt with Britain – and we had nothing on the Global South), received a great response, and hope to submit the full manuscript to the publishers at the end of this year.

Dr Agnes Arnold-Forster is a Postdoctoral Research and Engagement Fellow on the Wellcome Trust Investigator Award, Surgery & Emotion, based at the University of Roehampton. She is a medical and cultural historian of modern Britain with expertise in the history of healthcare, labour, and the emotions. Her first book, The Cancer Problem, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

Dr Alison Moulds is Workforce Policy Manager at a healthcare organisation and is a medical and cultural historian. She was Engagement Fellow on the Surgery & Emotion project (University of Roehampton) and Postdoctoral Researcher on the Diseases of Modern Life project (University of Oxford). Her first book, Medical Identities and Print Culture, c.1830s-1910s, is under contract with Palgrave.

Figure 1. ‘So you think your job is monotonous!’ Poster by the US Office for Emergency Management, War Production Board, c. 1942, author unknown. The poster is held at the National Archives and Records Administration, and understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 2. House Painter, from Trebnik Troikh, V. Tatlin, 1913. The image is understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 3. and cover image. Angstliche (Anxious Ones), El Lissitsky, 1923. The image is understood to be in the public domain, with permission to modify.


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