In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anthropology of Emotion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Political Emotions
  • Emotion and Ritual
  • The Case of Grief
  • The Domain of Emotions

Anthropology Anthropology of Emotion
Olivier Allard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0161


Emotions have always appeared in anthropological monographs—in the study of kinship or ritual, for example—but for a long time they were either taken for granted or judged to be beyond the scope of the discipline. They became an object of study in their own right only in the second half of the twentieth century, with the development of various branches of psychological anthropology. Many debates have focused on the possibility of studying the inner states of others, and even of endorsing the Western definition of emotion as an inner state. The 1980s were marked by reflections on native concepts of emotion, and by the radical decision made by some anthropologists to locate emotion in discourse and to repudiate psychological concerns. This period was also marked by major developments in linguistic anthropology, which threw light on the embedding of affect in language, beyond the gloss of emotion words. In a way, the label “anthropology of emotion” refers to a specific moment in the history of the discipline, although anthropologists are still as interested as ever in the topic. Later research in the field has faced two main challenges, which are still relevant today. On the one hand, how is it possible to avoid reducing emotion to emotion talk while also taking seriously the methodological and epistemological critique that led to the discursive turn? On the other hand, how can we grasp variations in affective intensity, which can be a property of things or situations, while not dismissing earlier research on specific emotions such as anger or grief, nor the definition of emotions as discrete events in the flow of affective life?

General Overviews

The anthropology of emotion has been marked by several influential review essays over the past decades. Lutz and White 1986 organizes the authors’ synthesis around the tension between universalist and relativist approaches, as well as a plea for more studies of cultural understandings of emotion. A similar opposition, that between bodily feeling and cultural meaning, is foregrounded in Leavitt 1996. Beatty 2013 synthesizes recent anthropological research for an audience of psychologists and emotion scientists, focusing on conceptual and methodological issues. Beatty 2019 offers the only book-length overview of the anthropology of emotion and argues in favor of a “narrative” approach grounded in ethnography. From the perspective of linguistic anthropology, Besnier 1990 shows that research conducted on “affect” is relevant for sociocultural anthropologists who often rely essentially on its overt and explicit expressions. Wilce 2009 offers a comprehensive account of language and emotion; James Wilce stresses that it is necessary to move away from the idea that the former is merely “encoding” the latter in order to analyze much complex relations. The history of the field has also been marked by some landmark edited collections. Levy 1983 is primarily concerned with shame and tries to show how concepts used by earlier psychological and cultural anthropologists can be reworked. Shweder and LeVine 1984 presents various papers on the relevance of the concept of “culture” to understanding emotions. Abu-Lughod and Lutz 1990 marks the “discursive turn” in the anthropology of emotion.

  • Abu-Lughod, Lila, and Catherine Lutz, eds. 1990. Language and the politics of emotion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A landmark collection of eight highly original essays, this volume constitutes a turning point (or a summit) in the anthropology of emotion, offering the most accomplished presentation and exemplification of the discursive approach.

  • Beatty, Andrew. 2013. Current emotion research in anthropology: Reporting the field. Emotion Review 5.4: 414–422.

    DOI: 10.1177/1754073913490045

    A synthetic and accessible review essay, intended for non-anthropologists. Beatty focuses on methodological and conceptual issues in the anthropology of emotion. He calls for a narrative ethnography that provides enough biographical and social information to understand emotion episodes.

  • Beatty, Andrew. 2019. Emotional worlds: Beyond an anthropology of emotion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781139108096

    A comprehensive synthesis of the anthropology of emotion, but much more than a textbook. Beatty critically reviews the major works of the field and discusses at length the relevance of philosophical and psychological findings. Drawing on his dual fieldwork in the Indonesian islands of Nias and Java, he argues that emotion is similar to narrative in structure and must be understood narratively through the detailed ethnographic description of both emotional episodes and long-term interpersonal relations.

  • Besnier, Niko. 1990. Language and affect. Annual Review of Anthropology 19:419–451.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    A comprehensive review essay in linguistic anthropology. Besnier refers to “affect,” which is more encompassing but also more indeterminate that “emotion.” He shows that anthropologists should be attentive to the various covert means of embedding affect in languages.

  • Leavitt, John. 1996. Meaning and feeling in the anthropology of emotions. American Ethnologist 23.3: 514–539.

    DOI: 10.1525/ae.1996.23.3.02a00040

    In an influential and still relevant review essay, Leavitt offers some suggestions to overcome the duality of feeling and meaning: an appraisal of Western conceptual legacy, a focus on the collective emotions of ritual, and a self-critical reworking on the idea of translating emotions.

  • Levy, Robert I. 1983. Introduction: Self and emotion. Ethos 11.3: 128–134.

    DOI: 10.1525/eth.1983.11.3.02a00020

    Introduction to an important special issue of Ethos. Mostly focused on shame (and meant to rework concepts used by previous generations), it presents the perspective of scholars from various traditions on questions of psychological anthropology.

  • Lutz, Catherine, and Geoffrey M. White. 1986. The anthropology of emotions. Annual Review of Anthropology 15:405–436.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    The first comprehensive review essay to appear on the anthropology of emotion in the midst of research done in the 1980s.

  • Shweder, Richard A., and Robert A. LeVine, eds. 1984. Culture theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Influential edited volume, bringing together predominantly theoretical reflections on “culture” and the study of emotion.

  • Wilce, James M. 2009. Language and emotion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511626692

    Clearly written and well-exemplified, reflexive volume about the history of the topic, it constitutes a good introduction to the study of emotion in linguistic anthropology.

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