Mood Studies with Professor Stephen Coleman

Feeling It/Not Feeling It: Mood Stories as Accounts of Political Intuition

As political scholars move beyond overwhelmingly cognitivist and rationalist accounts of political behaviour and attend to the affective conditions that frame it, there remains a conspicuous lack of consensus about how to describe distinctive affective phenomena.

Stephen Coleman, Ph.D.
Jul 4, 2022
4 min read

Feeling It/Not Feeling It: Mood Stories as Accounts of Political Intuition

I have been listening to people in focus groups since the late 1980s and I cannot recall a time when the national mood was more despairing. (Deborah Mattinson, Britain Thinks, Guardian, 15.6.2019).
The result of December’s general election had a noticeable effect on the national mood. Election week saw the proportion of Brits feeling sad spike to 33%, hav-ing been at 25% the week before. Likewise, there was a spike in the number of people feeling scared, up to 17% from 11% the week before. (Matthew Smith, YouGov briefing, 2.7.20).

The above extracts are characteristic of a contemporary tendency amongst politi-cal commentators to refer to mood as an empirically observable political phenom-enon that can be identified, measured and tracked over time. Where politics was once imagined to be dominated by opinions and ideologies, it is now commonly interpreted in terms of affective qualities that are projected on to social objects. To speak of the anger of the ‘left behind’; the factious nervousness of divided commu-nities; the shame experienced by groups treated with persistent disrespect and the collective exhaustion of workforces in the face of relentless demands for deforming flexibility is to recognise that the political world is infused by pervasive mood-states that are barely registered and opaquely articulated.

As political scholars move beyond overwhelmingly cognitivist and rationalist accounts of political behaviour and attend to the affective conditions that frame it, there remains a conspicuous lack of consensus about how to describe distinctive affective phenomena. This has at times resulted in a tendency to employ concepts such as emotion and affect or mood and atmosphere with a degree of promiscuity that would be quite unacceptable in a cognitivist context. For example, few politi-cal scholars would regard terms such as opinion, attitude and interest to be trans-posable, whereas ‘many emotion theorists seem to find no special purpose for the term “mood”, using it interchangeably with other terms such as affect or emotion …’ (Morris, 1989: 12).

Long before mood was ever used to describe socio-political contexts, it was employed by psychologists to characterise internal, subjective states. The modern concept of mood emerged as a scientific expression of what pre-moderns had referred to as ‘spirit’ or ‘humours’. As mood came to be recognised as a distinctive notion, twentieth-century psychologists expressed some frustration at their discipline’s failure to distinguish this concept from other affective states (Nowlis, 1965; Ruckmick, 1936; Schachter, 1964; Wessman & Ricks, 1966). It was not until the 1970s that theoretically developed accounts of how moods operate at complexly intertwined emotional, cogni-tive and physiological levels began to emerge. Parkinson etal., (1996:9–10) definition  of mood as ‘an undirected evaluative mental state which temporarily predisposes a person to act towards a wide variety of events in ways according to its affective con-tent’ captures the key elements of current psychological thinking about the con-cept. Unlike emotions, which tend to be ‘caused by specific events localised in time’  (Parkinson etal., 1996:6), moods emanate from more diffuse, enigmatic sources. More like background feelings that persists over time (Thayer, 1996), moods frame not only immediate situational experience but scope for future thought and action.

This agentic connotation of mood relates psychological characterisations to ear-lier humanist accounts of feelings as material forces and sources of subjective intui-tion, such as William James’s notion of ‘total reaction’ whereby people are moved to feel and act by a ‘sense of the world’s presence’; Heidegger’s conception of Stim-mung as a permanent state of dispositional attunement and Raymond Williams’ ‘structure of feeling’ as a ‘felt sense of the quality of life at a particular place and time’. Whereas psychological studies have focused mainly upon the consequences of mood-states for individual agency, humanistic scholars have alluded to socialised moods which ‘make certain attachments available’ (Zhang, 2018:123), while ren-dering their sources unfathomable and ineffable.

Any attempt to develop an analytic sensibility towards the relationship between environmental forces and relations and subjective sensibilities and intuitions depends upon answers to a series of political questions about how mood energies circulate (some more freely than others); who gets to name them; the agentic options facing people who are ‘in a mood’ and who possesses the symbolic power to gener-ate counter-moods. As Ben Highmore (2017:11) rightly states, ‘Moods … are not innocent and unmotivated: registering moods of fear and trepidation, of elation and expectation, nearly always takes us into the realm of the political’. If we are to think of citizens (and even governments) as being not only enmeshed in material systems, but immersed in mood-states which they must learn to recognise, interpret and act upon in specific ways, we shall require more sensitive modes of appreciation of the dynamics of political affect.

This article focuses upon one way of making sense of political moods through the critical interrogation of what I call mood stories. These are mood-inflected accounts of political reality that are narratively structured and framed by tropes that reflect distinctive ways of feeling. Mood stories focus less upon the descriptive force of narrative than its affective shaping of political intuition and agency. In the next part of the article, I aim to establish a working meaning of the term ‘mood’, paying par-ticular attention to its political significance. I then turn to the relationship between mood and narrative, arguing that the latter is an ideal form for the expression of feel-ings that are inherently inchoate, impressionistic and indeterminate. Then, drawing upon interviews that I conducted shortly after the UK Brexit referendum of 2016, I work through some examples of mood stories, showing how they reveal the ways in which political situations, dilemmas and impasses are framed by affective sensi-bilities to historical mood. This leads me to a concluding section in which I seek to suggest that political analysts should take mood seriously as a framing impetus for intuitive agency.

Subscribe to our Newsletter and stay up to date!

Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest news and work updates straight to your inbox.

Oops! There was an error sending the email, please try again.

Awesome! Now check your inbox and click the link to confirm your subscription.