Understanding emotions An interdisciplinary workshop

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The proposed Workshop is intended to provide an innovative forum for interdisciplinary discussion of the study of human emotions, including the historical understanding of the nature of emotions in the pre-modern period. It will combine researchers from the areas of history, literature, philosophy and the arts with researchers in psychology, neuroscience and psychiatry. Our hope is that widely separate disciplines (sciences and the humanities), which otherwise rarely meet, can create new intellectual synergies in this burgeoning field of research.

Emotions, individual and communal, are often taken to be fundamental to human experience. Some neurological and psychiatric studies of emotions assume that universal (even genetic) factors produce emotions. Yet emotions are also subject to differing social and cultural understandings and formations, and in communal settings may function as major agents of social, political, and economic change.

In the last twenty years, in the words of Professor Ottmar Lipp (the opening speaker), there has been a “renaissance of emotion as a topic of psychological research and a changed view of emotion in the context of psychological functioning. Basically, what was regarded for a long time as a hindrance for optimal psychological functioning is now regarded as a prerequisite”. Amongst social scientists and humanities scholars, the study of emotions, historical and contemporary, has also been revitalized, with the establishment of many international university research centres. The long-running International Society for Research on Emotion (ISRE) has in 2009 established a refereed journal, Emotion Review, “to enhance debate about critical issues in emotion theory and research … across a wide interdisciplinary field”. Despite these developments, there has been little dialogue in the Australian university system between practitioners working on the subject from their widely different disciplinary backgrounds.

Although opening up such a dialogue will be challenging, the opportunities it offers for extending our conceptual and methodological approaches to the emotions are exciting and important. In the words of James A. Russell and Lisa Feldman Barrett in Emotion Review, “For humans to understand their place in the world, we need to understand the nature of emotion. Such understanding will occur only when scholars from different national and cultural backgrounds, different disciplines, and different points of view can communicate their ideas and scholarly investigations to one another and consider perspectives that are different from their own. We must work toward a common language and understanding.”

The main questions to be considered in the Workshop are:

  • To what extent are emotions, as they are understood or experienced, affected by distinct social and cultural contexts? Can distinctions be drawn, for instance, between modern and pre-modern forms of anger?
  • Do societies undergo changes in emotional regimes (for instance, the dominance of particular emotions, such as fear, or aggression)? If so, what drives these changes?
  • How can scholars in the social sciences and humanities benefit from the methodologies and findings of modern scientific research into the emotions? For instance, how might the historical understanding of past mentalities relate to modern neuroscience and physiology?

To open up debate, and to offer some common grounds for discussion, the Workshop will be based on Issue and Response sessions in which scholars from different disciplines, and at differing stages of their careers, briefly present a problem or issue relating to the study of the emotions which they perceive as important, illustrating it as necessary with accessible reference to their research (15 minutes; 25 minutes in the case of Professor Lipp’s opening paper on the bio-psychology of fear). Two scholars will respond from differing disciplinary viewpoints (10 minutes each), followed by a group discussion (35 minutes). Three other sessions allow general discussion of the major questions of the symposium.

All papers and responses will be circulated to Workshop participants in advance, to allow for informed and specific interaction within the various sessions.

We have also extended an invitation to the president of the ISRE, Professor W. Gerrod Parrott, to attend the Workshop, supported by funds from UWA’s Rutherford Memorial Centre for Advancement of Research on Emotions, directed by Professor Colin MacLeod, another participant. If Professor Parrott can take part, he will bring very valuable experience on the development of interdisciplinarity in emotions research.

Event Schedule

Contact Information

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

    ABN: 59 957 839 703
  • Location: 26 Balmain Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601
  • Postal: GPO Box 1956, Canberra, ACT 2601
  • +61 .2 62491788
  • +61 .2 62474335
  • secretariat@assa.edu.au

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