This entry is prompted by a 2019 article by Stephanie Paterson entitled: “Emotional Labour: Exploring emotional policy discourses of pregnancy and childbirth in Ontario, Canada”. The article offers an overview of shifting discourses around pregnancy and birth over time, from a “discourse of fear” to a “discourse of joy” and a more recent merging of these discourses in a “discourse of risk”. Paterson uses her study to suggest some modifications to the WPR approach. In her view,

“While the WPR reveals how policy discourse affects what we can think and say, little attention has been given to how it affects what we can feel” (Paterson 2019: 5).

To amend this tendency, she lists a number of supplementary WPR questions to target “emotional landscapes” and “emotional discourses” (see Paterson 2019: 6-7).

There is a good deal to reflect upon in this article, including the meaning of “subjectification” and consideration of the place of “feelings” in governmentality studies. I will return to these topics at the close of this entry.

The article also provides an opportunity to examine briefly some themes regarding WPR that have arisen in previous entries. I have chosen three:

  • First, is there a place for “emotions” in WPR given its grounding in Foucauldian anti-humanism (see Research Hub entries on “Conceptions of ‘the subject’”, 30 Sept. 2019, 31 Oct. 2019)?
  • Relatedly, is it possible, in a WPR analysis, to build an analysis that relies upon perspectives reflecting opposing epistemological and ontological premises – e.g., Orsini and Wiebe (2014) and Nicol (2011)?
  • Third, how are researchers to decide which WPR questions are relevant to their analysis? Paterson focuses on questions 1, 3 and 5, bypassing question 2 (see Bacchi WPR CHART). This omission is surprising given the focus in question 2 on discourses and given that Paterson offers a form of discourse analysis.

Turning to the first question, in a previous entry on “Conceptions of the subject” (31 Oct. 2019), I quote Foucault (1977: 87) concerning his commitment to place “within a process of development everything considered immortal to man (sic)”, including “feelings”, “instincts” and “the body”. As Tamboukou (2003) explains, neither Foucault nor Deleuze “have dealt directly with emotions … since they refuse any universal or primordial notion of the human essence as such – both being persistent anti-humanist thinkers”.

Recall that Foucault (1990: 23; Research Hub entry 30 Sept. 2019) insisted that “the subject” has a history, thereby challenging universalist conceptions of human nature. It follows that, instead of studying emotions, a Foucauldian analysis would pursue the reasons for the current upsurge of interest in “emotions” across a broad range of fields (Leys 2011: 434) and the corresponding production of “the emotional subject”. As Hacking (2002: 3) explains, conducting an “historical ontology of ourselves” means “shedding light on the ‘historical a-priori’ of a time and place; on the conditions of possibility of what we can say about ourselves and the world” (in Pellizzoni 2015: 48).

Clearly, how “emotions” are conceptualized is critical to this discussion, and it is impossible to broach this topic without briefly mentioning the (sometimes associated) category of “affect” (this concept receives more discussion in the next Research Hub entry). Many researchers talk about “emotion” and “affect” alongside one another, while others mark a sharp distinction between the two concepts. Most commonly, “affect” is used to refer to autonomic bodily responses, such as reflexes (more detail to come next time).

Robinson and Kutner (2019: 111-112) object to the tendency to conflate “affect” and “emotion”. They argue that what is at stake in such conflation is “the very notion of subjectivity”:

“After all, the term emotion implies the existence of a singular human subject who experiences feelings that can be located, isolated, reflected on, and measured. This emotion-experiencing subject is the Cartesian cogito—the I, the rational, essential self.”

They go on to explain that the Spinozan conception of affect subsumes emotions (Robinson and Kutner 2019: 112).

Many theorists have challenged the individualistic version of “emotions” just described. I can mention only a few. The critical psychologist, Margaret Wetherell (2014), insists that “human affect and emotion are distinctive because of their immediate entanglement with very particular human capacities for making meaning” (see also Wetherell 2012). Pribram and Harding (2002) offer a “cultural studies” approach to “emotions” that draws upon Foucault’s “technologies of self” and Raymond Williams’ (1975, 1979) “structure of feeling”. Delori (2018) makes a plea for a “discursive conception of emotions”, using Foucault. I leave it to you to judge the success of these various attempts to counter the everyday usage of “emotions” as personal “feelings”.

Paterson argues that she offers a discursive understanding of emotions. She (2019: 3) quotes Janet Newman (2012: 466) to the effect that discursive approaches offer a more “fine grained analysis of how emotional regimes of governance are enacted” (see also Newman 2017).  However, Paterson builds her analysis on concepts borrowed from authors who come from very different theoretical perspectives.  From Orsini and Wiebe (2014), she adopts the notion of “emotional landscapes”, which refers to “an environment that includes affect and emotions, sensory experiences, the conscious and the unconscious” (Orsini 2017: 7 in Paterson 2019: 5). Such a stance inscribes a kind of subject – one with “senses” and an “unconscious” – that sits uncomfortably alongside a Foucauldian perspective. This tension is not resolved by Paterson’s decision to substitute the term “subjects” for “actors” in Orsini and Wiebe’s account (Paterson 2019: 17 fn 6).

Paterson (2019: 6) also argues that Nicol’s three categories of affective, agential, and symbolic attunement can be added to Question 5 of WPR (see Bacchi WPR CHART) alongside discursive, subjectification and lived effects. However, “emotions” in Nicol (2001: 3, 6) sound very like common-sense understandings of the term. She describes them as “felt perceptions and embodied knowledge” and as “normative forces in their own right”. While claiming to move beyond the opposition between emotions as either biological and natural on the one hand, or social and constructed on the other, she is particularly critical of what she labels “discursive essentialism”. This positioning makes her a rather odd theoretical bedfellow given Paterson’s focus on discourses and a discursive view of “emotions”.

These tensions between competing paradigms in the Paterson article lead to questions about the kind of discourse analysis that is being deployed. I have already mentioned that Paterson (2019: 16) omits Question 2 of the WPR approach from her analysis, although she quotes it later in the paper (Paterson 2019: 16). Question 2 is pivotal to WPR. It is the place where we consider how a particular problematization or problem representation was possible. To this end we identify the meanings (presuppositions, assumptions, “unexamined ways of thinking”, knowledges/discourses) that needed to be in place for a particular problem representation to make sense or to be intelligible. These problem representations are located within specific governmental [broadly understood] texts and technologies, linking this analysis to modes of governing.

In Paterson, by contrast, the major discourses she identifies come from either the medical profession (“the discourse of fear”) or from contesting social movements (“the discourse of joy”). It would be worthwhile to compare and contrast these quite distinct approaches to discourse analysis.

Despite some qualms about aspects of Paterson’s analysis, I believe she has drawn attention to an issue that needs more reflection – how to describe subjectification effects (Question 5 in Bacchi WPR CHART). In the first Research Hub entry on “Conceptions of the subject” (30 Sept. 2019) I considered how, in Foucault, “governmental mechanisms of power” attempt to produce “subjects” who conduct themselves in ways deemed desirable for governing purposes. The objective is to “build subjects who are voluntarily subjugated” (Lorenzine 2016: 17; emphasis in original). The category “subjectification effects” encourages consideration of this dynamic.

However, when it comes time to describe subjectification effects, there is (perhaps inevitably) slippage into language that promotes the kind of pre-existent subject opposed in a Foucauldian analysis, a subject with an “interior” existence and one who displays “emotions”. I want to offer two examples.

In their analysis of how something called “public opinion” comes into existence, according to Osborne and Rose (1999: 392; emphasis added), one key aspect of the role of social science in creating phenomena pertains to “the subjective attributes of persons themselves: the kinds of persons they take themselves to be and the forms of life which they inhabit and construct”. The task becomes tracking how “the phenomena created by the knowledge practice [social science] are, so to speak, actually internalized within persons”. My comment in an earlier article noting this point reads: “We encounter here, in the term ‘internalized’, some of the limits imposed by available language. ‘Internalized” sounds very like the kind of psychological analysis Osborne and Rose would be intent on challenging. See Rose 1989” (Bacchi 2012: 145 fn 3). I put Osborne and Rose’s phrase “so to speak” in italics to indicate how they have tried to handle the difficult task of conveying the production or constitution of “subjects” without lapsing into “common-sense” ways of speaking about subjects and their “behaviours”.

My second example is Bigo’s (2010) study of the subjectification effects of “smart borders” (e-visas, etc.). A “governmentality of unease”, says Bigo (2010: 18), works “through everyday life and the dynamic of enlargement of life possibilities transforming reassurance into unease, angst, and even fear by evoking chaos, global insecurity, terror.”

Subjectification as a political dynamic concerns “who we are when we are governed in this way” (Bigo 2010: 19). Bigo argues that “we, the ‘normalised’ often agree that regulated mobility is the optimum of the regime of mobility controls”:

“Not only do large groups of those travelling accept new technologies of surveillance and strong intrusive techniques concerning their privacy, but so also are such groups happy, considering themselves more safe and more free now that they can move with ease and safety (my emphases).”

I would like to suggest that the terms “happy” and “fear” in Bigo’s account move us into a domain of “emotions” that sits uncomfortably alongside the kind of analysis Bigo offers. As with Osborne and Rose, I couldn’t help wanting to insert the words “so to speak” in front of them.

I am grateful to Paterson for drawing attention to the need to rethink how we talk about “who we are” when we are governed in certain ways. In the end, I remain wary of the concept of “emotions” due to the ease with which it is possible to lapse into treating them as assumed states of being. In the next entry, I will consider if I would be any “happier” (so to speak) to include attention to “affect” in WPR.


Bacchi, C. 2012. Strategic interventions and ontological politics: Research as political practice. In A. Bletsas and C. Beasley (Eds) Engaging with Carol Bacchi: Strategic Interventions and Exchanges. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. pp. 141-156.

Bigo, D. 2010. Freedom and Speed in Enlarged Borderzones. In V. Squire (Ed.) The Contested Politics of Mobility: Borderzones and Irregularity. NY: Routledge.

Delori, M. 2018. A Plea for a Discursive Approach to Emotions: The Example of the French Airmen’s Relation to Violence. In M. Clement and E. Sangar (Eds) Research Emotion in International Relations: Methodological Perspectives on the Emotional Turn. NY: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 129-149.

Foucault, M. 1977. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In D.F. Bouchard, (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews.Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Foucault, M. 1990. Critical theory/intellectual history. In L. Kritzman (Ed.), Michel Foucault: Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews & other writings 1977–1984, 1st edition 1988, Sheridan, A. (trans.). London: Routledge.

Hacking, I. 2002. Historical Ontology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Leys, R. 2011. The Turn to Affect: A Critique. Critical Inquiry, 37: 434-472.

Lorenzini, D. 2016. From Counter-Conduct to Critical Attitude: Michel Foucault and the Art of Not Being Governed Quite so Much. Foucault Studies, 21: 7-21.

Newman, J. 2012. Beyond the deliberative subject? Problems of theory, method and critique in the turn to emotion and affect. Critical Policy Studies, 6: 465–479.

Newman, J. 2017. Rationality, responsibility and rage: The contested politics of emotion governance. In E. Jupp, J. Pykett and F. M. Smith (Eds) Emotional States: Sites and spaces of affective governance, Kindle edition. UK: Taylor and Francis, pp. 21–35.

Nicol, V. 2011. Social Economies of Fear and Desire: Emotional Regulation, Emotion Management, and Embodied Autonomy. Berlin: Springer.

Osborne, T. and Rose, N. 1999. Do the Social Sciences Create Phenomena? The example of public opinion research. British Journal of Sociology, 50(3): 367-396.

Orsini M (2017) On emotional entanglements: Narrating the affective politics of fatness and obesity in Canada. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Canadian political science association, Toronto, 27 May – 3 June 2017.

Orsini, M. and Wiebe, S. 2014. Between hope and fear: Comparing the emotional landscapes of the autism movement in Canada and the United States. In L. Turgeon, M. Papillon, S. White et al. (Eds) Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadian Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 147–167.

Paterson, S. 2019. Emotional labour: Exploring emotional policy discourses of pregnancy and childbirth in Ontario, Canada. Public Policy and Administration, 1-21.

Pellizzoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature. Surrey, England: Ashgate.

Pribram, E. D. and Harding, J. 2002. The power of feeling: Locating emotions in culture. Faculty Works: Communications. 8.

Robinson, B. and Kutner, M. 2019. Spinoza and the Affective Turn: A Return to the Philosophical Origins of Affect. Qualitative Inquiry, 25(2): 111-117.

Rose, N. 1989. Governing the Soul: The shaping of the private self. NY: Routledge.

Tamboukou, M. 2003. Interrogating the “emotional turn”: Making connections with Foucault and Deleuze.’ Eur. J. of Psychotherapy, Counselling & Health, 6(3): 209-223.

Wetherell, M. 2012. Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding. London: Sage.

Wetherell, M. and Beer, D. 2014. The future of affect theory: An interview with Margaret Wetherell. Theory, Culture & Society, October 15.

Williams, R. 1975. The Long Revolution. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Williams, R. 1979. Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review. London: NLB.