Affects in Anthropology, By Mason Lorch

ln this post, I will briefly outline a key theoretical concept that I used extensively in my research: the concept of affect. It is a concept that is difficult to define or describe, but I will do my best to explain it here. 

As Kathleen Stewart writes in her book Ordinary Affects, affects are often experienced as surges and abatements in the motion of everyday life (Stewart 2008, 2). She defines affects as changes in the capacity “to affect and to be affected that [gives one’s] everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies, and emergences” (Stewart 2008, 1-2). Affects can also be thought of as moments when the many lines of force that run through the social body, shaping our behaviour in complex and sometimes unpredictable ways, converge to push the present moment in one direction or another. They can be experienced as the sensed possibilities of a moment, as potentialities (Stewart 2008, 2-3).

Emotion is closely related to affect, and likely a more familiar concept to most people. Emotions influence behaviour in non-cognitive ways like affects do, and indeed affects are often experienced as shifts in emotions—for example, the ‘vibe’ when you walk into a room, or the ‘atmosphere’ of excitement at a concert. However, there are a few key differences that distinguish affects from emotions. 

Affects are different from emotions in that they are not subjective states. As anthropologist Mateusz Laszczkowski writes, “‘emotion’ refers to named, identifiable categories of feeling … In contrast, [the term] ’affect’ can be reserved for visceral intensities that are felt but are not yet semiotically mediated” (Laszczkowski 2019, 496). Affects, unlike emotions, cannot be described or named, only experienced. They are complex, context specific, unbounded, and constantly in motion. Emotions are singular states in which one can be, whereas affects are always moving, and always oriented towards changes in state. Affects are also different than emotions in that they are not internal physiological or psychological responses, but rather take place among and between bodies. Affects move through populations like waves. 

The concept of affect is useful anthropologically because it provides a means of understanding the way social behaviour is shaped not only by ideological frameworks and conscious choices, but by visceral reactions and sentiments. It helps anthropologists interpret what people say and do through a lens that sees beyond cultural programming. Cultural programming should lead to conformity and uniformity, the only exceptions being counter-cultures and organized resistance movements. Instead, affect conceptualizes the body itself as a source of energy and agency, a source of constant innate resistance to conformity, which the dominant order constantly has to control. This has particular importance in the study of emergent and marginal cultural forms as Raymond Williams (1977) noted, and also, as Laszczkowski (2019) has noted, in the study of activism and resistance.

Laszczkowski, Mateusz. 2019. “Rethinking Resistance through and as Affect.” Anthropological Theory 19 (4): 489–509. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499618793078.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2008. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780822390404.

Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature Oxford [England: Oxford University Press.