Emotion in Social Movements
Rational models can often do a poor job of capturing the more passionate aspects of the social movement experience.
To take one example from today’s headlines, how could rationality really explain young Iranians’ willingness to pour onto the streets and risk their lives in anti-regime protests? As the New York Times noted, “Iran’s women haven’t been this angry in a generation,” and it is this intensity of emotion that distinguishes today’s unrest from its predecessors.
Consider also the fevered emotions rocking Israel since late 2022. Although the country has repeatedly experienced emotionally intense political movements, there is something about the intensity surrounding this current wave of protest that distinguishes it from its predecessors.
For now, the wave of outrage appears to have peaked on March 26, 2023, when the country was brought to a near standstill. In response, the government suspended its efforts to rewrite the country’s legal system, tacitly acknowledging that public passions had reached uncharted territory.
What is an “emotion?” Is it a thought, a physical sensation, or both?
Although emotions always have cognitive elements, they are different from pure thought in that they also have powerful physical manifestations. They are “embodied,” to use social science jargon, appearing both in brains and in bodies, generating intensely physical sensations of pleasure, pain, anger, love, revenge, and more.
One leading theorist calls emotion “feeling-thinking” process, thereby rejecting the philosophical tradition that distinguishes between coldly calculating minds and hotly irrational bodies. Until recently, this theorist argues, social scientists were often “too ashamed of emotions to give them serious attention as causal elements.”
Many social movement scholars unconsciously mimicked “the tendency of modern sciences to denigrate emotions as the opposite of rationality,” and did not integrate emotional analysis into their writing. Today, however, that bias is long gone. Instead, social movement scholars are carefully attuned to the vital importance of emotions, as manifested in an increased rate of related scholarship.
To be sure, the relevance of emotions to movements should be clear to even the most casual observer. Witness the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, which regularly include expressions of outrage at racially discriminatory policing. As one BLM supporter told a New York Times journalist, she often feels “boiling passions” coursing through her body, and it is these intense “thinking-feeling” processes that motivate her own actions.
Outrage is not the only salient BLM emotion, of course. As one analysis of 34 million BLM-related tweets reported, BLM supporters routinely express positive emotions such as “pride, hope and optimism” alongside their outrage.
Indeed, studies show that social movements often promote a very wide range of passions, some of which contradict one another.
The emotional bundles accompanying movements rarely come in coherent, well-ordered layers with clearly defined boundaries stacked in logic hierarchies.
At times of mobilization, participants are not the only ones experiencing intense emotions. Other affected groups might include movement bystanders, counter-movement activists, law enforcement personnel, politicians, state officials, and many more.
Consider Minneapolis in the spring and summer of 2020, when bystanders were first deeply outraged at the police murder of George Floyd, but then just as equally terrified by the subsequent rioting. In a space of days, some bystanders went from decrying police force to demanding police action, an apparently contradictory set of emotions and demands.
Consider also the BLM critics who have described the movement in highly pejorative terms, including words such as “unjust,” “sickening,” “outlandish,” and “frightening.” Or, consider the Blue Lives Matter counter-activists, who have expressed intense pride in, and love for, law enforcement. And while some police have expressed intense dislike of BLM, others have expressed demoralizationand even admiration.
The range of emotions sparked by BLM have swept the country’s cultural and social landscape, leaving few groups emotionally unscathed. Importantly, it is always within this re-shaped, emotionally laden cultural and social landscape that the spiritual and political dynamics crucial to society’s future play out.
 Azadeh Moaveni (October 7, 2022). “‘It’s Like a War Out There.’ Iran’s Women Haven’t Been This Angry in a Generation.” New York Times.  Patrick Kingsley (March 26, 2023). “Israel Boils as Netanyahu Ousts Minister Who Bucked Court Overhaul.” New York Times.  James Jasper (2018). The Emotions of Protest, Chicago University Press, p. 7, and Lizardo et al. (2016). "What Are Dual Process Models? Implications for Cultural Analysis in Sociology." Sociological Theory 34/4:287–310.  James. Jasper (1997). The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements, Chicago University Press, p.109.  Our Google Scholar search for the years 1980-1989 revealed only 5,000 items containing both terms, “social movements” and “emotions.” In the years 2013-2022, that same search yielded over 19,000 individual items.  Jessica Bennett (June 26, 2020). “These Teen Girls Are Fighting for a More Just Future,” New York Times.  Field et al (August 23, 2022). “An Analysis of Emotions and the Prominence of Positivity in #BlackLivesMatter Tweets.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119/35.  Travis Feschun (n.d.) “Minneapolis Residents Defending Neighborhoods Against Looters, Fear No Help from Police.” Fox News.  For example, see South Dakota Senator John Thune’s July 16, 2021 comments on his website, “Demonizing and Defunding the Police Has Consequences,” or comments by the then Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnel, as reported by Brooke Slingman (n.d.), “McConnell Blasts 'Defund the Police' Movement as 'Outlandish' Amid George Floyd Anger,” Fox News.  Lauren Frias (February 24, 2021). “The 'Thin Blue Line': How a Simple Phrase Became a Controversial Symbol of the Police.” The Insider.  For negative police sentiments, see Michael Levenson (March 16, 2022). “Officers Said They Hoped Black Lives Matter Protesters Would Die, Suit Says.” New Yok Times. For demoralization, see Neil McFarquhar (June 24, 2021). “Why Police Have Been Quitting in Drove In the Last Year.” New York Times.  Emily Czachor (July 23, 2020). “Majority of Police Officers See Black Lives Matter Positively, Support Reforms: Poll.” Newsweek.