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Collective emotions and the European crisis

By Mikko Salmela and Christian von Scheve


Nationalist, conservative, and anti-immigration parties as well as political movements have risen or become stronger all over Europe in the aftermath of EU’s financial crisis and its alleged solution, the politics of austerity. This development has been similar in countries like Greece, Portugal, and Spain where radical cuts to public services such as social security and health care have been implemented as a precondition for the bail out loans arranged by the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, and in countries such as Finland, France, and the Netherlands that have contributed to the bailout while struggling with the crisis themselves. Together, the downturn that was initiated by the crisis and its management with austerity politics have created an enormous potential of discontent, despair, and anger among Europeans. These collective emotions have fueled protests against governments held responsible for unpopular decisions.

Protests in Greece after recent austerity cuts
Protests in Greece after austerity cuts in 2008

However, the financial crisis alone cannot fully explain these developments, since they have also gained momentum in countries like Britain, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden that do not belong to the Eurozone and have not directly participated in the bailout programs. Another unresolved question is why protests channel (once again) through the political right, rather than the left that has benefited from dissatisfaction for the last decades? And how is it that political debate across Europe makes increasing use of stereotypes and populist arguments, fueling nationalist resentments?

A protester with Occupy Wall Street
A protester with Occupy Wall Street

One way to look at these issues is through the complex affective processes intertwining with personal and collective identities as well as with fundamental social change. A particularly obvious building block consists of fear and insecurity regarding environmental, economic, cultural, or social changes. At the collective level, both are constructed and shaped in discourse with political parties and various interest groups strategically stirring the emotions of millions of citizens. At the individual level, insecurities manifest themselves as fear of not being able to live up to salient social identities and their inherent values, many of which originate from more secure and affluent times, and as shame about this anticipated or actual inability, especially in competitive market societies where responsibility for success and failure is attributed primarily to the individual. Under these conditions, many tend to emotionally distance themselves from the social identities that inflict shame and other negative feelings, instead seeking meaning and self-esteem from those aspects of identity perceived to be stable and immune to transformation, such as nationality, ethnicity, religion, language, and traditional gender roles – many of which are emphasized by populist and nationalist parties.

The urgent need to better understand the various kinds of collective emotions and their psychological and social repercussions is not only evident by looking at the European crisis and the re-emergence of nationalist movements throughout Europe. Across the globe, collective emotions have been at the center of major social movements and political transformations, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring just being two further vivid examples. Unfortunately, our knowledge of the collective emotional processes underlying these developments is yet sparse. This is in part so because the social and behavioral sciences have only recently begun to systematically address collective emotions in both individual and social terms. The relevance of collective emotions in recent political developments both in Europe and around the globe suggests that it is time to expand the “emotional turn” of sciences to these affective phenomena as well.

Christian von Scheve is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Freie Universität Berlin, where he heads the Research Area Sociology of Emotion at the Institute of Sociology. Mikko Salmela is an Academy Research Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and a member of Finnish Center of Excellence in the Philosophy of Social Sciences. Together they are the authors of Collective Emotions published by Oxford University Press.

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Image credits: (1) Protests in Greece after austerity cuts in 2008. Photo by Joanna. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) A protester with Occupy Wall Street. Photo by David Shankbone. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

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