Emotional reflexivity in contexts of migration

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by Yvonne Albrecht

From a sociological perspective, how important is it to consider internal processes? I would argue: if we would like to understand and explain society (Weber) adequately, it is imperative that emotions be included in our sociological considerations. Sociality is inextricably interwoven with people’s feelings: emotions influence social structures, relations and interactions. Delegating the analysis of the social role of emotions to (social) psychology alone is simply not realistic. Why? Because emotions are part of society: people are bound to each other through emotion – in love or in hate, as one could already read in Simmel’s oeuvre. From this perspective, emotions are of course always social and, therefore, the consideration of emotions is no contradiction to Durkheim’s claim that the social can be explained with the social.

As such, emotions are also relevant in contexts of migration – always an important topic but never more so than today. Currently, clear demarcations and unwavering senses of belonging are often not possible “just like that” (Albrecht, 2016, p. 1). In today’s societies there are many frames of orientation which partly contradict each other. These contradictions can arise even within just one societal context and become even more prominent when moving between different societal contexts, as happens during migration processes. These contradictions can lead to feelings of ambivalence, which is why dealing with ambivalence is one of the main challenges facing migration processes (Amelina, 2013, p. 145). Cognitive or rational control – practiced, for example, by doing emotion work (Hochschild, 1983) – is a pertinent mechanism for dealing with these emotions, but it is not the only one. Emotions play an increasingly important role in navigating one’s own path through uncertain conditions (Holmes, 2015, p. 61). It is this “navigation” that the concept of emotional reflexivity – first developed by Mary Holmes and Ian Burkitt – deals with. My paper, which has recently been published in Natàlia Cantó Milà’s Digithum, discusses how emotional reflexivity processes are relevant for individuals in processes of migration. How do migrants navigate through their emotional paths in uncertain conditions? What special challenges are they confronted with? Those were the questions I was interested in.

In order to analyze these questions, Burkitt’s and Holmes’ prior definitions of emotional re-flexivity had to be modified slightly: I have defined emotional reflexivity as a process of in-ternal adjustment between emotional activity and emotional passivity. Emotional activity represents the (cognitive) influencing of emotions – practiced by doing emotion work (Hochschild, 1983), while emotional passivity consists in letting emotions evolve, not cogni-tively trying to modify them. The result of this process is made visible through a level of ac-tion, which in fact can consist in taking no action at all (Helfferich, 2012).

The cognitive influencing of emotions is particularly necessary in contexts of migration, in which individuals must deal with experiences of racism and meet demands to assimilate under efficiency imperatives in the context of arrival – which in my paper was Germany. In the article, I mention the example of Caven, who migrated from Ethiopia to Germany. In his interview, he speaks about a racist experience in the former: “That‘s why if I have to drive to F.-city or something, I go to the station, I stand in my little corner waiting for the train, then they always come to me and ask me for my identification card – again and again. Ah, this was totally boring, every time [laughing). ‘What is actually weird or how am I acting?’ And then: ‘Okay, maybe it is my fault, so I have to change my behavior with the people.’ I didn‘t realize it yet, but I tried […] I really tried to integrate.”

Caven shares a story of institutional discrimination: because he is a person of color, he is easily identifiable as a “foreigner”, and that is why he is a victim of control. He emphasizes that this was not a one-time situation but rather the norm. As he talks about his internal dialogues, it becomes obvious that these interactions with people in institutional settings have triggered his process of emotional reflexivity. He is aware of a problem; he states that social expectations and demands are apparently different to how he can portray himself or act. These racist discriminations (Terkessidis, 2004) have led him to think that it is he who must change. What this transformation could look like is very unclear since the discrimination is taking place precisely because Caven is a person of color. In his interpretation, the need for transformation is linked to the discourse of integration: he sees it as being up to him to become integrated, but he states that he has not been able to accomplish this yet.

Later on in the interview, Caven talks about his way of coping with these difficulties in the context of arrival. The result of his emotional reflexivity process is the cognitive influencing of his emotions. He gets himself under control, and says to himself: “Be strong!”

The outcome of Caven’s emotional reflexivity process provides a very strong example of the power of circumstances, which in his case provoke a cognitive influencing of his emotions. This can be seen in the context of Hochschild’s (1983) concept of emotion work. Hence, we can state: practicing emotion work becomes necessary for migrants dealing with racist interactions. That means that people must influence their emotions cognitively to be able to deal with racist experiences in the context of arrival.

One could say, “So, what? Where is the problem?” We all have to influence our emotions in order to deal with specific challenges in society. To a certain extent, the situation could almost be viewed as positive. Caven narrates himself as someone who can be strong and who is prepared. He presents himself as someone who can deal with racist experiences. In that way, emotion work seems to bring about a kind of empowerment, although it is important to keep in mind that Hochschild (1983) postulates that practicing emotion work in the long term can have negative outcomes: it can result in the estrangement of the self.

However, linking discrimination with the discourse of integration is problematic: Caven is discriminated in a racist way and thinks that he is the problem. Integration therefore seems to be linked with assimilation. Caven’s interpretation of this situation hints at the powerful influence that a virulent definition of assimilation in society, namely the one-sided claim that people who migrate should change themselves, can have. Caven could have been scandalized by this act of racist profiling, but instead he thinks about changing himself. And one could polemically ask: How? Clearly, the problem lies with the institutional workers. It is they who must change their behavior, not Caven, who is discriminated by them.

What is your opinion on processes of emotional reflexivity and migrated people who practice emotion work? Would you define it as a problem or not?

Read full paper:

Albrecht, Y., (2018). Emotional reflexivity in contexts of migration: How the consideration of internal processes is necessary to explain agency. Digithum. (21), pp.43–53. DOI:

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