From Facebook to Fatherhood: Emotional Economies Then and Now

Senior Lecturer in History Mark Rothery writes on emotional economies: 

Emojis – tiny pictures representing emotions. Picture via British Library

As we leave Christmas and a very divisive general election behind ‘Emotional Economies’ seems an appropriate choice for this blog – it’s the subject of a paper I’ll be giving on the subject at the bi-annual European Social Science History Conference this year in Leiden, Netherlands.

‘Emotional economies’ is a term used by both economists and historians. Let’s start with the economists.

Classical economics assumes that consumers and, indeed, all agents in the market, behave rationally. Under certain conditions, in terms of price and levels of supply, their behaviour (particularly in relation to demand) should be predictable. Repeated historic collapses of financial markets (most recently in 2007-8) have illustrated the folly of this idea as investors and consumers continually fail to behave ‘rationally’ when faced with choice.

Emotional economics is a new frontier in marketing and economics. It attempts to engage with some of these problems and achieve better access to and persuasion of consumers. Rather than assuming that consumers behave ‘rationally’ emotional economics recognises that people often make choices based on how they ‘feel’ about a product, the company that produces the product, the state of the world, Brexit and a host of other contexts for feeling. So consumers need to ‘feel’ positive about a product, need to feel emotionally uplifted by it in some way or feel that it is aligned to their emotional as well as cognitive well being, rather than be persuaded that it is in their best interests as rational agents to purchase it.

This all sounds quite acceptable – people sell things in a market economy so why not find out how we feel about their products? But what if our feelings about things were being measured and recorded on a grand scale? What is our feelings were being manipulated?

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook recently appeared at a congressional hearing to answer questions about the use of data harvested from Facebook. He was also invited to appear in front of a parliamentary committee but refused the request.

He faced questions regarding the data on 87 million Facebook users used by Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 Trump Presidency campaign, amid claims of Russian interference and wider concerns surrounding political processes in western democracies (many of which relate to various British Elections and the Leave campaign during Brexit). Recent analysis has shown just how widespread the Cambridge Analytica scandal is.

A protest following the Cambridge Analytics and Facebook data scandal with Christopher Wylie and Shahmir Sanni. Available under Creative Commons licence.

Seen from a certain perspective, Facebook is a listening device for people’s emotions, on a very large scale. The ‘like-dislike’ function of the platform allows users express their emotional responses to stimuli on a regular and (perhaps) increasingly predictable basis. The sheer scale of commercial and personal interactions on the site and the shadows these leave behind are the bigger picture. There has been a certain amount of ‘bond villainism’ about the way Zuckerberg has been perceived but there’s no doubt that there are questions to be answered, particularly if we can’t trust the results of major democratic processes anymore.

The picture is more complex than all this may suggest and histories and theories of emotions are useful here in a number of ways. The distinction between ‘emotional’ and ‘rational’ that underlies emotional economies has been proven to be a construct and a conceit of post-enlightenment Europe.

One challenge that economists and businessmen such as Zuckerberg face in a global economy is the global cultural variance found to exist in emotions and experiences of emotions. For instance, love is a melancholic emotion in the Chinese culture, but is experienced as a more positive and exhilarating emotion in western culture – how might this be accounted for in global marketing?

Historians grapple with just these types of questions with a much clearer view of social and cultural constructions of concepts such as ‘emotions’, indeed with these constructions as their targets. If emotions vary across cultures in the contemporary world then, by definition, there was cultural variance across time, this gives historians an advantage. But reading the emotions of people in the past is just as complex as it is for economists today.

Historians, too, have adopted the term ‘emotional economies’ in an attempt to resolve some of these issues and whilst they generally mean something quite different from economists there is some overlap. ‘Emotional economies’ refers to the way that emotions did things, did work, in the material world. It is a method that historians use to study emotions as material reality and get beyond the purely cognitive nature of them.

Emotions could be expressed and used by people to manipulate others, to persuade others of a person’s virtue, to encourage emotional or material support, to foster or maintain familial or romantic relationships, and a range of other human needs. In my research I use family correspondence to trace and analyse these efforts. We are increasingly finding that emotions did lots of work in the past and were a very important medium for historical change.

One of the aims of my research, which I will discuss in my conference paper, is to more closely examine the way that emotions and emotional agents in the past can be mapped onto the way an ‘economy’ works. Like many other historians I am keen to better link thoughts, feelings and mentalities to material conditions and interactions.

early modern letter.png
An early modern letter. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection, L.a.67.

The family correspondence I’m using has thrown up some interesting early results. Credit was very important in terms of earning social and gender status as we know – the history of emotions shows how people expressed emotions in a way that earned them credit. There were middlemen – people who reported on the emotional states of others (often guardians or senior family members). Emotions were used in family transactions to shape and guide those processes. The value of people and relationships was influenced by the emotional currency attached to them.

Like other historians of emotions, and indeed most other historians at any point in history, I am working in a field that seems to be part of a much broader cultural movement at the moment and that makes my research all the more fascinating to me and, hopefully, others.


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