Worrying about the Field of the History of Emotions in Ireland – A report

Sara Honarmand Ebrahimi

Back in November, when the world was still in a relatively ‘normal’ state, I asked Dr Hannah Parker about the possibly of writing a report for the new History website concerning a series of events I was organising under the title, “Worrying about the Field of the History of Emotions in Ireland”. The series took place at University College Dublin (UCD) between October 2019 and January 2020, with the help of an Irish Research Council (IRC) New Foundations Award.

With Coronavirus having engulfed the world by March 2020, I was somehow reluctant to write this report. What eventually compelled me to sit down and write it, however, was the memory I had of an elderly man next to whom I sat one day in Dun Laoghaire, and to whom I told my news of receiving the New Foundations Award, simply because I was so excited! One year later, as the safety of elderly people in our community is at the forefront of our minds, I write this report hoping he is well!

As stated above, my proposal was for the organisation of a series of events concerning the field of the history of emotions. Attempts had already been made to integrate emotion history into humanities teaching and scholarship in Ireland. For example, a two-day conference, Happiness in nineteenth-century Ireland, was organised at Trinity College Dublin in June 2018, and the School of History at Maynooth University runs a module offering an “Introduction to the History of the Emotions”. However, counter to the concentrated efforts that had been made in Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France – through the establishment of research centres resulting in many seminars, workshops, and conferences – the focus in Ireland had not yet been central or comprehensive. To take a step towards fostering a research and teaching environment in Ireland where the multiple layers of emotions and their role in the making of history could be debated, I organised two seminars and a one-day conference. Here, I will summarise the course of discussion during these events, and touch upon the importance of looking ‘beyond Europe’, to provide a brief sense of the proceedings.

The seminars were delivered by Dr. Michael Brown and Prof. Monique Scheer on 10 October and 15 November respectively. Dr. Brown’s seminar was in partnership with the Centre for History of Medicine in Ireland at UCD School of History, and Prof. Scheer’s seminar was in partnership with Architecture and Narrative: The Built Environment in Modern Culture. The focus of Dr. Brown’s seminar was on part of the Wellcome Trust funded project, Surgery & Emotion, titled, “The Patient’s Voice: Emotion and Agency in the Cultures of Romantic Surgery.” Examining an “entirely untapped manuscript archive of patient letters,” the paper explored “the emotional dimensions of patient experience in early nineteenth-century surgery,” showing how emotions shaped the relationships between patient and surgeon and “functioned as a form of agency, both in private and in hospital practice”. Prof. Scheer’s paper was titled, “Emotions as Culture Practices: A Challenging Perspective”. Since her introduction of this ground-breaking theoretical framework for the history of emotions in 2012, researchers have drawn extensively on this theory in their scholarship on religion, conversion, architecture, and war, to name a few.[1] So, after demonstrating how this concept has been received, Prof. Scheer discussed where we might go from here. Her highly stimulating seminar is available as a podcast here.

Figure 1. Poster for the conference, kindly provided by Sara Honarmand Ebrahimi.

Followed the seminars, the conference was held on 18 January and was in partnership with the UCD Humanities Institute, the UCD School of English, Drama and Film, and the UCD School of History. It included two keynotes and 8 panels, featuring 40 speakers all together.

The conference’s keynote speakers included Dr. Rob Boddice and Dr. Tiffaney Watt-Smith. Dr. Boddice’s keynote entitled, “The Cultural Brain as Historical Artifact: Emotions and Interdisciplinary Criticism,” discussed how understanding ‘culture’ as “situated, disrupted, and historicised” should (and can) change the kind of questions asked by those who study the brain. Dr. Watt-Smith’s talk, “Schadenfreude and Drag Queens: Improvising Emotional Styles,” reflected on the history of schadenfreude, seeing it, instead of an ‘ugly’ feeling, as a ‘defiant emotion’ through the case study of the ‘bitchy Drag Queen’ in Britain between 1910-1930. Both keynotes are available as podcasts here.

Panels ranged across time periods from the middle ages to the twentieth century. While some of the speakers historicised and/or discussed the causes and effects of emotions such as happiness and anger, others focused on context, including home, conflict, exile, violence, and digital environment. One of the panels focused particularly on discussing methodology: “Inner Space: the Psychosocial Approach to the History of Emotions”. Going beyond cultural representations of emotions by assuming the existence of historical ‘psychosocial’ domains, each of the papers in this panel provided a different theoretical suggestion for tracing past emotions that did not leave ‘cultural representations’. Perhaps the most well received panel was that entitled “Gendered Emotions”, which highlighted the significance of social relationships and socio-political capital(s) in the history of gendered emotions. I was particularly interested in the topic of the history of the relationship between space and emotions. Four papers addressed this topic explicitly, discussing single domestic feelings in American fiction and the emotional navigation of urban modernity in Post-war Turkey.  

The various topics discussed during these events show that the field of the history of emotions is, to use William Reddy’s words, “a way of doing” history,[ii] illustrating what Piroska Nagy observed in 2008, that emotions “have defended their right to a place.” However, I want to finish this report by asking whether or not the field of the history of emotions has indeed become a way of doing history?

As someone whose research focus is on architectural history in an extra-European context, I have had to defend my approach constantly, explaining emotion history and its promise to my field. In fact, it is worth asking, has the discipline been labouring under a ‘Eurocentric’ bias? There has been scholarship on the history of emotions in China, India, and Iran, but I would argue that, compared with the amount of work on Europe and the ‘West’, these attempts can only be seen as add-ons.[iii] To include the agency of women in transnational history, feminist historians such as Arunima Datta, Claire Midgely, Alison Twells, and Julie Carlier have developed new methodologies, redefining the meaning of ‘agency’ and challenging the tension between the local and the global.[iv] Similarly, to discuss the way in which the world was changed in the twentieth century – socially, politically, and economically – historians have introduced the concept of ‘multiple modernities’. This is all to say, to continue carving out a space for itself, should the field of the history of emotions revise its methodologies (or develop new ones entirely), in order to engage with emotions beyond Europe?

Acknowledgement: I wish to thank the Irish Research Council for funding the event series. Thanks also to the many people who supported me along the way: particularly, Ricki Scheon, Dr. Katherine Fama, Dr. Cartherine Cox, and my friends, James Grannell, Mengzhen Yue, and Jaclyn Allen.

Sara Honarmand Ebrahimi was the receipt of an Irish Research Council New Foundations award for the project, “Worrying about the Field of the History of Emotions in Ireland”, and, until recently, was a Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Before starting this fellowship, she was an Irish Research Council (IRC) funded doctoral scholar at University College Dublin.


[1] Monique Scheer, “Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (And is that What Makes them Have a History)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion,” History and Theory 51, no. 2 (May 2012): 193-220; ate Davison, Marja Jalava, Giulia Morosini, Monique Scheer, Kristine Steenbergh, Iris van der Zande, and Lisa Fetheringill Zwicker, “Emotions as a kind of Practice: Six Case Studies Utilizing Monique Scheer’s Practice-Based Approach to Emotions in History” Cultural History 7, no. 2, (2018): 226-38.

[ii] Jan Plamper, “The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,” History and Theory 49, no. 2, (May 2010): 249.

[iii] For example, see Margrit Pernau, Emotions and Modernity in Colonial India, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020); Imke Rajamani, Margrit Pernau, and Katherine Butler Schofield, “Monsoon Feelings: A History of Emotions in the Rain, (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2018); Norman Kutcher, “The Skein of Chinese Emotions History,” in Doing Emotions History, eds. Susan J. Matt and Peter N. Stearns, (University of Illinois Press, 2014): 57-73; Mana Kia, “Moral Refinement and Manhood in Persian,” in Civilizing Emotions: Concepts in Nineteenth Century Asia and Europe, eds. Margrit Pernau, Helge Jordheim, etc., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015): 146-71.

[iv] Arunima Datta, “’Immorality’, Nationalism and the Colonial State in British Malaya: Indian ‘coolie’ Women’s intimate lives in ideological battleground,” Women’s History Review, 25, no. 4, (2016): 587-8; Clare Midgley, Alison Twells, and Julie Carlier, eds., Women in Transnational History: Connecting the Local and the Global, (London and New York: Routledge, 2016).


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