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School of History

Can you say how you feel? Exploring the history of emotions

A doctor with five nurses. Photograph by Lafayatte (credit: Wellcome Collection)
Professor Tom Dixon

Thomas Dixon

Professor of History

In collaboration with

What is the perfect recipe for emotional health? Who decides which emotions we should feel, and when, in order to be healthy? As we live through the Covid-19 pandemic we have all had to consider what emotional wellbeing means, and how we can achieve it in the contexts of schooling, work, and healthcare.

Since 2015, researchers at Queen Mary have been exploring human emotions through a Wellcome Trust-funded project: ‘Living With Feeling: Emotional Health in History, Philosophy, and Experience’ (LWF). 

The project has gained mainstream media coverage on BBC radio and has featured in a major exhibition at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). The researchers have also developed a pioneering programme of lessons for primary-age children, called ‘Developing Emotions’. 

All of these initiatives are aimed at helping people to develop historical understanding, ideas and the vocabulary needed to recognise and discuss emotions. These tools can better equip adults and children to work on their own and others’ emotional wellbeing.

It teaches us that our feelings are not determined by deep psychology or biology but are instead historical constructions borne out of an accident of our language, relationships and material circumstances.
— Rhodri Hayward, former Director (2018-2020), Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions

Defining emotion ‒ can we look to history?

Dixon and his colleagues set out to challenge the reductive idea that all human beings have the same, fixed ‘basic emotions’. In doing this, they aimed to enrich discussions of emotions and mental health. Queen Mary’s interdisciplinary Centre for the History of the Emotions has shown how the humanities can complement and extend medical and scientific theories.  

Thomas Dixon was the Centre’s Director from 2008 to 2017 and provided research leadership in wide-ranging studies.

In 2010-11, Dixon explored historical debates about the place of emotions in 19th-century elementary education, as part of the AHRC-funded project ‘Embodied Emotions’. The resulting publication showed that it had long been recognised that feelings are as important as intellect when it comes to educating young children.

Living With Feeling

In 2015, Dixon and his colleagues won a £1.7m Collaborative Award from the Wellcome Trust to develop the Living With Feeling project (2015-2021). The LWF project has allowed Dixon, his colleague Dr Sarah Chaney and others to extend the centre’s research further into the history of our emotional language. There are two major research strands.

Changes in emotional vocabularies

If we examine historical texts, we realise that there are other ways of understanding and experiencing our feelings. Dixon has focused on the histories behind our contemporary attitudes towards feelings and emotions.

Dixon has examined the historical development of the emotions as a psychological category. He has found, for instance, that ‘altruism’ is not the same as ‘love’ or ‘charity’.

The word ‘emotion’ has a relatively recent history: originating as a translation of the French émotion, it only became a psychological concept and category of feeling in the 19th century. In earlier periods, philosophers, physicians, moralists and theologians commonly categorised feelings as ‘passions’ and ‘affections’. 

Can you define anger?

Is anger a universal emotion? Do we feel the same anger as the Tudors or the Romans? 

Dixon has written extensively about the history and meaning of ‘anger’. He explores the conceptual and cultural history of rage, revenge, and wrath. His work shows how ancient philosophers, medieval moralists, and modern psychologists all used different words and concepts, which, despite some semantic similarities, suggest enormous emotional differences.

The history of compassion

Dr Sarah Chaney, who specialises in the history of medicine and the emotions, has explored the history of the language of compassion within the world of healthcare and nursing. With our contemporary perspective we might imagine that in the context of medical care, ‘compassion’ is a basic human aptitude, and has always been so. Chaney’s research shows that ‘compassion’ is in fact a recent preoccupation.

Chaney’s research also examines how traits perceived as ‘feminine’, such as sympathy, selflessness and moral purity, were expected of nurses in the 20th century. Her research has gone on to consider how assumptions such as these can reinforce or challenge gender stereotypes.

We learn that what we feel now, how we feel it, and what we think our feelings reveal and express, is historically contingent and far from universal.
— Thomas Dixon

How has Dixon and Chaney’s research had a practical influence?

The Living With Feeling (LWF) project found ways to draw people of influence into conversation about the wider social and cultural issues surrounding the history of emotions. 

In Dixon’s case, he engaged with stakeholders in broadcasting, mental health, and education. Specifically, the LWF team developed a groundbreaking project, working with school children to help them develop a wider emotional vocabulary. Chaney worked closely with the nursing profession, developing a major exhibition.

Reaching out through broadcast media

Dixon has appeared on high-profile programmes including the Today programme, Free Thinking, All in the Mind, Front Row and R5 Live Breakfast to discuss attitudes to emotions in public life. He has also written and presented for radio, including Five Hundred Years of Friendship, a 15-part series broadcast on Radio 4. The Sound of Anger, the podcast series was released in September 2019. The podcast won two gold awards – for ‘Smartest’ and ‘Wellbeing’ at the 2020 British Podcast Awards.

Emotions and Nursing − a public exhibition

From 2018 to 2020, the LWF project partnered with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to develop a major exhibition at their London headquarters and online: Who Cares? A History of Emotions in Nursing.

Chaney’s research into the history of compassion in nursing, along with Dixon’s examination of the ‘stiff upper lip’ of WW1 nurse, Edith Cavell, informed initial ideas for the exhibition

  • The exhibition opened in January 2020 and has been very successful, despite the Covid-19 lockdown
  • As a result of Who Cares? new relationships have formed between the RCN, nursing Chief Executives, and care home managers. These new alliances are now reflecting on working practices
  • The Jewish Care Foundation reached out to the RCN to explore how a focus on the emotions associated with care could be translated into practical change
  • Inspired by the exhibition, the Chief Executive of the Cavell Nurses Trust wrote that he intended to explore the importance of emotions for nurses. He hopes to use this knowledge to help nurses access the support that the trust offers

Enhancing the emotional vocabulary of primary schoolchildren

In 2019-2020, the LWF team collaborated with The Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT), a large multi-academy trust in the South of England, to create and trial the Developing Emotions programme. Developing Emotions is a series of lessons (18 each for Year 3 and Year 5 children) which helps children to discuss and represent emotions using historical sources and ideas. The lessons were developed by a team led by Dixon with contributions from several members of the LWF project, especially Ollie Brown and Emma Sutton.

The programme helps the students to develop a wider vocabulary of emotional words and shows them how these have changed over time.

From February-March 2020, 490 students in eight TKAT schools (370 Y5 students, 120 Y3 students) went through the first iteration of the Developing Emotions programme. More than 320 students in five TKAT schools completed the second Developing Emotions programme in October-November 2020.

Participation in the Developing Emotions programme significantly enhanced students’ emotional vocabularies. At the end of the programme, the number of emotion synonyms correctly identified by students increased by 75%.

  • Teachers reported that students’ emotional vocabularies were enriched and this had a direct effect on their work, behaviour and participation in class discussions
  • TKAT staff found that this vocabulary also helped them to address behavioural issues. For example, a Y6 teacher described how students at their school were able to “express easier how they’re feeling using the words they’ve learned in lessons”
  • As a result, staff could address emotional and behavioural problems better, reducing the time students were out of lessons
  • Students were also able to discuss their feelings more openly, and recognise that their classmates might express their emotions in different ways

Conclusion

Dixon and Chaney’s research shows us that emotions are neither basic nor hard-wired.  We can use history to inform our discourse on emotions, and look beyond medical definitions which can pathologise some emotions.   

The LWF grant enabled Dixon and Chaney to apply this approach to particular emotions and emotional states – including tears, rage, love, and compassion – and demonstrate how these have shaped, and continued to influence, contemporary gender stereotypes, political and policy debates, medical practice, and schooling.

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