• emotion;
  • participation;
  • politics;
  • El Salvador;
  • young people


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Power and Emotions in Participatory Approaches to Empowerment and Change
  4. The Research Context
  5. The Role of Emotions in Confirming and Challenging the Culture of Violence in El Salvador
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

In this article I reflect on the role of critical analysis and emotions in participatory approaches to empowerment and change. I argue that, in participatory research and practice, certain cognitive and analytical knowledges are prioritized as principal catalysts of empowerment and transformation at the cost of recognizing, and making full use of, the empowering potential of emotional and embodied knowledges. This argument is developed based on 2 years of fieldwork in a local youth participation project in Mejicanos, a poor and violent neighborhood in El Salvador, aiming at empowering young people by involving them in participatory action research (PAR).1 As part of my research, I looked critically at the young people's PAR process, asking whether and how they felt empowered by it and whether and how social change came about. Originally, the research did not focus on emotions, yet, in an inductive fashion, emotions and embodied knowledges evolved from fieldwork as crucial elements in understanding participation, empowerment and social transformation.

Power and Emotions in Participatory Approaches to Empowerment and Change

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Power and Emotions in Participatory Approaches to Empowerment and Change
  4. The Research Context
  5. The Role of Emotions in Confirming and Challenging the Culture of Violence in El Salvador
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Over the past 30 years participation has become one of the shibboleths of contemporary development theory and practice, directly linked to claims of empowerment and social transformation (Cornwall and Brock 2005; Dill 2009). It is now broadly assumed that community-based participation is an essential component of efforts to alleviate poverty and to facilitate democratic social change (Dill 2009). Nevertheless, participatory approaches have also been the subject of heavy criticism. Critical authors, often influenced by poststructuralism, contend that there is no empirical evidence of the long-term changes and the real differences that participatory processes of change make for disadvantaged peoples. They argue that, though claiming to empower the poor and to challenge unequal power relations, participation is often just another form of tyranny and subjugation (Cooke and Kothari 2001). Participatory approaches, they claim, are based on a simplistic understanding of how power operates (Kothari 2001) and focus too much on “the local” and on local knowledge at the cost of analyzing broader social structures (Mosse 2001).

Responding to this critique, participatory researchers (eg Cameron and Gibson 2005; Hickey and Mohan 2004; Kesby 2005, 2007) have explicitly relocated the concept of participation within a radical politics and within a radicalized understanding of citizenship (Hickey and Mohan 2005). Participation, they argue, must be understood as a human right and as a process of critically questioning and challenging unequal power relations. As such, participation needs to be considered at different scales encompassing both the individual and the local, the institutional and the structural (Pain et al., 2007). They agree that participation is a form of power that has to be looked at very critically and that has to be exercised very carefully (Cahill 2007b). However, they also conclude that participation's failure to escape from power and its association with governance does not prevent it from being an empowering discourse for marginalized people in the pursuit of a transformative political praxis (Kesby 2005). Clearly then, over the years, participatory researchers and practitioners have developed an ever more critical and complete understanding of the concepts of power and participation. Yet, despite this evolution, the role of emotions and embodied knowledges in reproducing and challenging existing power relations at different local and global scales has continued to be largely overlooked.

This article contributes to filling this gap by demonstrating and reflecting on the empowering (and political) role of emotional and embodied knowledges in the participatory action research (PAR) process with young people within the particular context of Mejicanos, El Salvador. I thereby both build on and criticize recent work in participatory research and practice influenced by poststructuralist thinking on subjectivity, power and empowerment. I criticize a poststructuralist and participatory approach to empowerment for its unilateral focus on (critical) reflection and (critical) discourse as the main catalyst for individual and social change. To make my argument clear, I briefly resume poststructural contributions to critical thinking about the possibilities of individual empowerment and social change. Poststructuralist theory rejects the notion of a unified, essential true self that exists separately from social and cultural processes. They argue that subjectivity is fragmented, multiple and produced, negotiated and reshaped via discourse and that different social practices and discourses construct the self in different ways (Cameron and Gibson 2005; Lupton 1998; Raby 2005). Foucault (1988) uses the concept of ‘technologies of the self’ (as complementary to the “technologies of power”) to reflect upon how individuals not only reproduce but also come to challenge dominant discourses. Technologies of the self, according to Foucault (1988:17), “permit individuals to effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct and way of being and so to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality”. “Technologies of self” concern “those forms of understanding which the subject creates about himself” (Foucault and Blasius, 1993 as cited in Atkins 2005:208) and allow individuals to effect changes to their bodies, thoughts and conduct, and in doing so, transform themselves (Atkins 2005). Similarly, poststructuralist feminists emphasize the dynamic and performative nature of subjectivity (Atkins 2005; Lupton 1998). They understand subjectivity as unstable, contradictory and always in process; as continuously being shaped in discourse and other material social practices as we interpret and act upon the world (Cahill 2007a). Discourses and social practices are constantly shifting and changing and competing with each other for competence and there are always alternative positions and locations from which different subjectivities can be taken up, interpreted and understood. People may choose from the discourses available to them or seek to resist dominant discourses, albeit within certain constraints (Lupton 1998).

In poststructuralist terms, then, empowerment is understood as a process of cultivating new forms of subjectivity (Cameron and Gibson 2005), thereby recognizing the micro-politics of self-transformation as an important part of larger social change and of the macro-political agenda (Connolly 2002 cited in 2005). Influenced by such a poststructural approach, participatory researchers no longer focus upon participation as “revealing” subjugated knowledges and accessing silenced voices, but have come to argue that participatory technologies actually create new forms of knowledge and new ways of knowing (Kesby 2005). Participation, they claim, is not about the return to authentic identities, but about the constitution of new subjectivities (Cahill 2007a; Cameron and Gibson 2005; Kesby 2005, 2007) within particular socio-cultural contexts in which specific dominant discourses prevail. In this line of thinking, I understand the young people's PAR process as a process of cultivating new subjectivities aiming at empowerment and change.

Yet, through the concrete example of the young people's PAR process in El Salvador, I also criticize a poststructuralist and participatory approach to empowerment and change for its unilateral focus on (critical) reflection and (critical) discourse as the main “technique” for cultivating new subjectivities. Both in poststructuralist thinking and in participatory theory and practice, the focus is on (critical) discourse, analysis and understanding as the propelling force for personal and social transformation. In participatory approaches critical reflection and critical discourse are the main “techniques of the self” for facilitating processes of personal and social change. Freire (2003 [1970]:88), for example, already wrote that “it is in speaking … that people, by naming the world, transform it …” Similarly, Chambers writes about participation as a way to “enable local people to express, enhance, share and analyze their knowledge of life and conditions, to plan and to act” (Chambers 1994:1253, my emphasis). More contemporary participatory researchers continue this trend. For Mike Kesby (2007), for example, the constitution of new subjectivities is only possible by introducing alternative discourses (such as the discourse of participation and non-violence) that can replace the old and familiar ones. He argues that in PAR the meta-narrative resources of equity and participation are deployed to encourage participants to reconstitute themselves as equal and as self-reflexive agents capable of critical analysis (Kesby 2007). Similarly, Caitlin Cahill (2007a) argued for PAR's potential for producing new subjectivities, considering it a site for consciously negotiating multiply situated positionalities. Conscientization, as described by Cahill, is an iterative long-term, shifting process of learning, making sense of one's subjectivity and reworking it through collective dialogue, ongoing reflection and analysis. It is about “the conscious negotiation of particular cultural narratives and positions, defying dominant social constructions” (Cahill 2007a:275). As such, participation is still very much associated with strategies of structured representation as key to empowerment and social change (see also Jupp 2007), potentially ignoring the fact that most knowledge is “non-linguistic, tacit and generated in practice” (Mohan 1999:45).

Counterbalancing this prioritizing of analysis, reflection and discourse within participatory research and practice, I understand the young people's PAR process as a process of cultivating new subjectivities considering emotion as a fundamental part of subjectivity: “emotions are part of the reproduction of culture and subjectivity—emotions are constitutive of culture and subjectivity, and culture and subjectivity are constitutive of emotions—always within power relations” (Harding and Pribram 2002:421). I thereby understand emotions as multi-facetted phenomena consisting of varying combinations (depending on the specific emotion and the specific moment in time) of physiological, cognitive and behavioral aspects which are all, to a certain degree at least, influenced and affected by specific historical and socio-cultural contexts. I see emotions as cognitive and constructed through discourses and social and cultural processes and, at the same time, as deeply rooted bodily sensations (see also Bennett 2004; Burkitt 1997). The very fact that emotions are located between mind and body, but irreducible to any of them, is, as I will argue, what makes them fundamental to developing a more holistic approach to personal empowerment and social transformation in participatory research and practice.

The Research Context

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Power and Emotions in Participatory Approaches to Empowerment and Change
  4. The Research Context
  5. The Role of Emotions in Confirming and Challenging the Culture of Violence in El Salvador
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

El Salvador: A Culture of Violence

In El Salvador's history, terror and violence has always characterized relations between the state and society and has shaped the formation and reproduction of society itself (Holden 1996 cited in Hume 2007a). Violence has been the cornerstone of political life for decades, and although democratic reform has transformed the political context, a worrying legacy of authoritarianism remains (Hume 2007a). Since the ending of a bloody civil war and the signing of the peace accords in 1992, violence continues to dominate life in the country. Since the 1990s, El Salvador has experienced a pandemic of violent crime. In 2008, El Salvador had a murder rate of 53 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in the world (Seelke and Meyer 2011). Particularly worrying has been the rapidly expanding phenomenon of youth gangs. In El Salvador between 10,000 and 30,000 young people belong to the maras (street gangs) (WOLA 2005, cited in Hume 2007b). State responses to the problem of violence and crime have been highly inconsistent and repressive. The government's response has focused on youth gangs as the main actors for perpetuating violence through a series of heavy handed anti-gang measures (Hume 2007a, 2007b), thereby arbitrarily targeting poor young people. Such measures have allowed “the blame for global inequalities to be placed on local pathologies completely disconnected from any past or present patterns of domination” (Gledhill 2003 cited in Moodie 2006:63).

Today, Salvadorans live in what is called a “culture of violence”. They live in a culture in which different manifestations of violence overlap, contrast and interlink with each other: the structural violence of poverty and exclusion; direct interpersonal violence such as domestic violence, gender-related violence, and youth gangs; and cultural violence or the symbolic and ideological sphere of existence that is often used to justify structural and direct violence (Moser and McIlwaine 2004). Not only are there multiple forms of violence, but as the types proliferate, violence becomes “routinized” and “normalized” (Scheper-Hughes, 1992; Torres-Rivas 1999), being increasingly viewed as a normal option for many citizens with which to pursue interests, attain power or resolve conflict (Howard et al., 2007; Koonings and Kruijt 1999).

The Young People's PAR Processes

The young people's PAR processes were organized by The Youth Participation Project of the Centre for Training and Orientation (Centro de Formacion y Orientacion—CFO). CFO is a social service organization coordinated by Spanish and Salvadoran Passionist priests inspired by liberation theory and is located in Mejicanos, a poor and violent municipality of the capital of El Salvador. The Centre aims to contribute to the construction of a culture of peace and justice in El Salvador and is grounded in values of cooperation, equality, equity, justice and dignity. CFO consists of a variety of different social projects: an educational centre providing short-term vocational training sessions and running a small workers’ office functioning as a mediation agency between enterprises and jobseekers; a Women's Office advocating women's emancipation through a variety of workshops (such as literacy classes) in different communities, and providing individual, legal, psychological and financial assistance for maltreated and abused women; a Civil Participation Project working with community and municipality directives to strengthen local community organization and offering leadership training with the aim of promoting and consolidating social and political participation of marginalized communities; and the Youth Participation Project.

CFO's Youth Participation Project, where I worked and did fieldwork, aims to facilitate young people's active participation in their communities. In 2007, the Youth Participation Project started to promote and facilitate PAR with young people from different communities in Mejicanos. PAR is defined as being “part of the growing family of participatory approaches (Samaranayake 1996) and is described as a process of involving marginalized groups of people in identifying social problems, collecting and analyzing information, and acting upon the problem in order to find solutions and to promote personal and social transformation” (Reason and Bradbury 2001:1). Through this process CFO aimed to better understand young people's problems and needs and to engage young people as active agents in a process of critical reflection and community development. The PAR process was conceived of by CFO as a long-term process of critical consciousness raising, grounded in young people's daily reality and evolving according to their own needs and capacities. Through PAR, CFO hoped to stimulate young people to question unjust and oppressive structural power relations and social systems and to take up social engagement.

Two groups of young people participated in the PAR process. A first group consisted of 10–15 boys and young men between 14 and 20 years old. This group of participants emerged out of an existing group of boys and young men dancing and hanging out with each other and having one big passion in common: break dance and their interest in Hip Hop culture. When we met them, there were no girls in the group. The participants came from La Uruguay,2 a very poor and conflictive neighborhood with a long history of youth gang violence. More than half of the group had one or more family member (brothers, father, nephews) who had been killed; many had been detained or arrested various times (sometimes on their way to the project) for “illegal association” (walking in public spaces with more than two persons), and most of them had left school at an early age. Some of them had been involved in the gang but had distanced themselves as much as possible. They prioritized the issues of youth discrimination and violence towards young people as the main problems they were confronted with in their community. They mainly reflected on the problems through music and dance. With the help of two professional musicians, they started with making their own rap song about their life experiences and on young people's problems in their neighborhoods. Three participatory workshops were organized in which they talked about their families and neighborhood using the methods of mapping, drawing, graffiti and games. The lyrics of the song were based on the reflections and testimonies gathered during these workshops. They then were invited to facilitate two workshops during a special 1-week Hip Hop event. They facilitated two workshops on the origins of Hip Hop culture and on Hip Hop as form of social communication and as an alternative to youth violence. While preparing these workshops, they were able to explicitly relate their passion for Hip Hop to their experiences of “being discriminated” against or “being harassed” by the police all the time, and of not having public spaces of their own. Afterwards they organized a Hip Hop festival in their community to promote Hip Hop as an alternative to youth violence and discrimination and to claim more public and safe spaces where young people could freely express themselves. Within this group, during the whole PAR process, there were many tensions starting from relatively innocent problems such as the lack of responsibility of some group members, but ending up in huge and aggressive conflicts. Often it seemed the group would fall apart and many workshops were spent on peaceful conflict resolution, especially using cooperative games.

A second group consisted of 15–25 participants from La Bolivar, out of which 8 were girls and 17 were boys. La Bolivar is a poor, dangerous, isolated/closed and crowed community with tiny houses separated only by very small passages. There is no public space available for young people (no park, little field or square) and the participatory workshops were organized in the small community hall where all other community activities were organized, including the vigils for (young) community members who had died. The community has a long history of youth gang violence and many of the participants were slowly getting involved with the gang or strongly sympathized with it. The majority of the participants had lost several friends or one or more family members in the gang war. Their community had been hit hard by violence, with seven young people being killed in 2006, leaving its residents traumatized and in constant fear. Two participants were killed by the rival gang during the PAR process in April 2007. The community is completely surrounded by communities ruled by the rival gang and young people are afraid to enter and leave their community. Some young people no longer went to school because of safety issues. This group chose early pregnancy (insisted on by the girls of the group) and sexual discrimination as the main issues they wanted to research. During the process the problem of sexual abuse came up so strongly that specific attention was also given to this issue. They mainly reflected on these problems through participatory theatre and drama. In a first phase they participated in a series of participatory workshops exploring the importance of these issues in their daily lives. We used different methods to help young people to express and reflect on these issues in a safe and relaxed manner, such as drawing, storytelling and participatory drama. Because this group showed a great potential for theatre and drama, in a second phase we hired an artist and actor who further explored these issues with them through corporeal expression and participatory drama and who, based on their reflections, expressions and testimonies, prepared a theatre piece together with the participants.

Researching the Empowering Impact of Young People's PAR Processes

The young people's PAR processes were the focus of my PhD research looking at whether the young people were empowered by PAR and, if so, how, and whether the PAR process contributed to social change and, if so, in what ways? For this research I did two years of participant observation in CFO's youth participation project. In the last months of the PAR process I facilitated six participatory evaluation workshops with 25 young participants (coming from both groups) and conducted additional in-depth individual interviews with most of them.

The Role of Emotions in Confirming and Challenging the Culture of Violence in El Salvador

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Power and Emotions in Participatory Approaches to Empowerment and Change
  4. The Research Context
  5. The Role of Emotions in Confirming and Challenging the Culture of Violence in El Salvador
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

The Role of Emotions in Reproducing the Culture of Violence

Elsewhere, I have described how the particular historical, social and political context of El Salvador permeated the young people's consciousness, sense of security, and ways of being in and feeling about the world (Van Wijnendaele 2011). I have written about the young people's emotions of fear, distrust and rage (particularly for young men) as long-term emotional dispositions being profoundly embedded in their everyday lives. Understanding emotions as socially and culturally produced and as productive of subjects and the power relations that constitute them (Harding and Pribram 2002), the young people's rage, distrust and fear are not just private and individual phenomena, but have to be understood as generated by, and expressive of, the particular socio-cultural context in which they live (see also Abu-Lughod and Lutz 2009; Lutz and White 1986). Their emotions tell us something not only about themselves, but also about their social worlds, their relationships with others, and the social rules and structures that enable or prevent them from feeling in particular ways. Recognizing that particular cultural, social and historical contexts affect what people feel and how they manage their emotions (Bondi 2005), the young participants’ feelings of anger, fear and distrust are to be understood in the light of a multiplicity of mutually reinforcing socio-cultural factors: a long bloody history of dictatorship, civil war and authoritarian regimes; a historically polarized society; poverty in the face of abundance; machismo informed by aggressive notions of masculinity; a hierarchical educational system pursuing repetition and obedience rather than autonomous critical thinking; increasingly mediatized discourses of dangerous poor youth; and repressive zero-tolerance policies. In short, a deeply entrenched, enduring culture of violence resulting in social disintegration, paralyzing any form of protest and functioning to confirm the power of a small elite over the majority of the poor (Van Wijnendaele 2011).

The Role of Emotions in Challenging the Culture of Violence and Constructing a Culture of Peace

Evaluating the empowering impact of the PAR and taking into account the particular context and the culture of violence in which they live, noticeably, the young people's accounts of empowerment and change accentuate the importance of self-confidence, trust, connectedness and calmness as important emotion-related attitudes that were stimulated during the process and through which they felt empowered individually and collectively as a group. All the young participants mentioned they felt more self-confident, had learned to overcome feelings of shame and now felt better about themselves. Cecilia, one of the girls participating in the process, said: “I have been thinking that I feel much surer about myself now. I learned that I have valid opinions and that I deserve respect and that others have to take me into account” (participatory evaluation workshop, individual questionnaire, 28 October 2007). Cecilia refers to the fact that she now feels less embarrassed to talk to others, also in other spaces beyond the PAR process. As the other young participants, she increasingly believed in her own ideas and capacities and gradually started to claim the right to be listened to and to be taken into account.

All young participants also said they now trust others more. For most of them this was one of the most significant results of the research process. Throughout the process they shared their experiences and listened to each other's hopes and fears and this had brought them closer. Liliana, a 13-year-old girl from La Bolivar, for example, talked about how young people in her neighborhood used to be divided because of various conflicts and gossips in the neighborhood and about the changes she noticed in herself and other participants:

“I feel I have changed. Before I didn't have any friends, and now I have. I have lived here [in this community], but I only knew them [other young people] by face, I did not talk to them. Yes, but now we get on along well. There is more trust … Young people have changed [in that] they trust each other more, and before this was not the case” (individual interview, 10 February 2008).

For most young people from both communities, getting to know each other better and feeling more connected with the young people in their neighborhoods was an important condition for a growing solidarity among them as opposed to the indifference before. This, in turn, facilitated a learning process of cooperating together, strengthening their capacity to organize and take action together. Yet, also by bringing both groups from different neighborhoods together for some activities, they also felt they learned to trust, to some degree at least, young people from other neighborhoods. Given the general atmosphere of (gang) violence, fear and distrust in which they grew up, they felt that being able to connect and build bonds with other young people from other neighborhoods was very important. Noticeably, the young people did not just say that they started to trust others they got to know better; they also seemed to refer to a more open and trusting attitude towards “others” and “the world” in general. Ronaldo, for example, talked about the many new people he had met through the PAR process: people from other neighborhoods and from different countries and cultures, people with very different backgrounds, histories and convictions (artists, people from other organizations such as, among others a gay organization and a women's organization):

“Ronaldo: Well, as for me, I learned more in the workshops and I analyze more what I do. I feel bad because some people say CFO is just taking us out to have fun, but thanks to the workshops I have learned to value different people” (participatory evaluation workshop, 28 October 2007).

Many young participants also argued that they have become more open and tolerant. They felt better able to listen to others and are more sensitive for how others feel: empathy. By sharing experiences and listening to others most young participants became more in touch with their own feelings and with those of others. They felt increasingly connected to others and better able to communicate. Marcos, an 18-year-old boy from the group of La Uruguay, told me: “Aha! (When you are) with other people. And little by little the feeling of shame was taken away and we learned how to express ourselves. And (we learned) also to understand how others feel” (Marcos, individual interview, 8 January 2008). Marcos referred in particular to the many conflicts in his group during the PAR process and how they had learned to put themselves in the position of others and to imagine how they feel and why. Many boys of La Uruguay and some boys from La Bolivar also said that they had learned to deal differently with conflict. In particular, these were the boys who were (becoming) close to the gang. During informal moments a lot of them had told me that very often they feel overwhelmed by anger and that, in those moments, it seems to them that entering the gang (officially and with no way back) is the only option to canalize their rage.3 They said that the sharing of experiences and the support of others during the PAR process had helped them, to a certain degree, to learn to manage their anger in a different, calmer, way.

“Marcos: I have changed and I understand others better. I am happier with myself because I am calmer. I am happier with my relations with the people around me and I thank them for understanding and helping me. I have changed and I do not want to go back (as I was earlier) … I have changed. I am different now with people. Before, I solved everything by blows and fights, but not anymore. I communicate better with people and I express myself in a different, calmer way” (participatory evaluation workshop, 28 October 2007).

A certain level of calm also seemed to allow them to better engage with anger, channeling it for more constructive purposes, for example, claiming more public spaces for young people.

As such, throughout the PAR process, the young participants learned to trust and cooperate with each other, and to be more open for new people and new ideas despite the general atmosphere of hate, fear and distrust; they learned to express who they are and defend their ideas in public despite an authoritarian hierarchical system; and they started to resolve conflict in more calm and peaceful ways despite the prevailing culture of machismo and violence. The PAR process, then, offered the young participants the opportunity to negotiate and experiment with different ways of being and can be understood as a process of reflexive self-construction (a technology of the self) aiming at empowerment (though always partial and often contradictory) through the cultivation of new subjectivities. It can be understood as being about the micro-politics of personal transformation or the “politics of ourselves” (Foucault and Blasius 1993:199); a politics concerned with the social and political consequences of “who I am” (Foucault and Blasius 1993:199) in terms not only of “what I think”, but also, and equally important, of “how I feel”.

The Role of Mind and Body in Nurturing Empowering Emotions for Social Change

As stated in the introduction, emotions are cognitive and constructed through discourses and social and cultural processes and, at the same time, deeply rooted bodily sensations (Bennett 2004). I have focused on emotions as cognitive and socio-culturally constructed, arguing that, in El Salvador, emotions of fear, distrust and rage are produced by and reproductive of a culture of violence, and that, within this particular context, nurturing self-esteem, trust, empathy and a certain level of inner tranquility are important elements in challenging the culture of violence and cultivating a culture of peace. In what follows, I reflect on the role of emotions in the young people's PAR, not just as socio-culturally constructed, but also as pre-conscious and deeply embodied knowledges (sometimes also called “affective” knowledges) that can be worked with to facilitate transformation and change.

As argued above, critical reflection and critical discourse are the main “techniques of self” in most participatory research and practice. Gaining critical insight is considered to be the first and principal step in the process of cultivating new subjectivities. While some participatory researchers explicitly recognize emotion as part of subjectivity, they still seem to assume that we govern and change our emotions principally through analysis and understanding, rather than the other way around. Caitlin Cahill, for example, in her inspiring work (2004, 2007a) with young women of color, describes the PAR process as saturated with emotion, anger in particular, and as an often painful process of coming to terms with these emotions through reflection and action upon the world (Cahill 2007a). She writes that “putting into words complicated feelings about experiences of racisms is not only to release, but a way to make sense of experiences and emotions that are confusing and personalised” (Cahill 2007a:280, my emphasis). Implicitly, then, she gives the impression that the act of conscious articulation is the first step towards emotional healing and personal transformation, which then has to be reinforced by action (Cahill 2007a). As such, participatory researchers seem to strongly follow cognitive philosophers in their idea that only “understanding” can set us free and transform our emotional lives. Cognitive theories about emotion hold that beliefs are an essential element of emotions and that a change in the belief will typically alter the emotion (Calhoun and Solomon 1984; Van Reijen 2005). They are convinced that understanding the (socio-cultural) beliefs underlying our emotions is a first step (Calhoun and Solomon 1984) and that realizing that a certain belief is “false” will automatically change the emotion.

However, during the PAR process in El Salvador a few young participants had changed their ideas and beliefs about important aspects of their lives and about themselves and were quite able to critically analyze their situation. However, this did not necessarily result in empowered behavior and actions. The following example shows that, despite critical consciousness, there sometimes seems to exist some kind of “unconscious” resistance to change that cannot be located in the mind, but in the body and in emotions:

Through working on concrete examples in their daily lives, most young boys have learned something about discrimination against women. They start to think a bit differently about the girls in their group and in their community. Two of them did some additional participatory workshops on masculinities with another organization and they now look differently at what it means to be a man or a woman. They made a lot of progress. They are convinced about the need for change and the need for equal rights. They absolutely agree that men do not know better than women. However, Karla [the other female facilitator] and I often notice that when we reprimand them they [these boys] still get very upset, while they do not mind at all when Larry or Walberto [the male facilitators] do so. They would never admit that it has something to do with the fact that we are women, on the contrary, they agree it does not matter. But, still they just, instantaneously, get upset and feel angry. Karla and me we also notice (and regularly get a bit angry about it) that when Larry or Walberto are talking they all [all the boys] pay attention naturally. But, when we start talking, on the contrary, suddenly they change their bodily postures: they go and sit more comfortably, like hanging lazy in their chairs, some start to look at the ceiling, others suddenly receive a message on their mobile phone, at least one of them goes outside to smoke, others move closer to each other and eventually start whispering and talking among each other. They do not do this intentionally or consciously; it seems more like an intuitive spontaneous reaction, a long lasting habit (fieldnotes, 23 June 2007).

The example above demonstrates that people may change the beliefs that underlie their emotions, but continue to have the same emotions nonetheless. This is particularly true for the beliefs that are laid down in childhood in connection with attachment relations of deep intensity (Nussbaum 2001). Most often, such durable emotional and embodied dispositions are hardly conscious or controllable, reminding us of the fact that, though subjectivities are formed through discourses and social and cultural processes, they do become like a second nature to us. They imply more than just discourse and knowledge repertoires; they are embodied. Bourdieu (1984) developed the notion of habitus to emphasize this corporeal sedimentation of social identity beyond consciousness and discourse. Bourdieu defines habitus as the ability to function effectively within a given social field; an ability that cannot necessarily be articulated as conscious knowledge, but that is indicated in the bearing of the body and in deeply ingrained habits of behavior, feeling and thought: “in durable embodied dispositions such as ways of walking and talking, taste, and the ‘feel for the game’” (Lovell 2000:17). The schemes of habitus owe their efficacy to the fact that they function below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by the will (Bourdieu 1984). Similarly, emotions are not mere discursive phenomena or socio-cultural constructs. Emotions are also deeply rooted bodily sensations: “[They] derive from the depths and fleshiness of bodies as people respond to scenarios before the brain seems to have time to process or consciously think through the event” (Bennett 2004:415).

A focus on habitus and unconscious emotional, embodied dispositions might seem to lead to political pessimism concluding that transformation and change is simply impossible, however, this is not necessarily so. During the PAR with young people in El Salvador, learning and change often seemed to occur without the intermediation of critical reflection and representation, but through methods directly involving the body and emotions. The young participants clearly preferred those methods that involved them in doing, experiencing and feeling, such as drama, cooperative games, drawing and painting. In the PAR process methods such as drawing/painting, drama and games were used with the aim of stimulating critical reflection. However, very often, the young people were only interested in acting and playing. The young participants actively participated in the “doing” part (playing, drawing, acting, improvising) yet, during the moments of “critical reflection”, most of them did not say much, and some systematically left because they did not like the “thinking and talking” part. Over time, however, also just by playing, acting and improvising, the young participants changed, without them always critically reflecting on what they did. The young participants changed by participating in methods (and cooperative games were particularly successful) that allowed them to “do” and “feel” things differently; by offering them a direct embodied experience/experiment of how things can be/feel different. Through these methods new forms of subjectivities were cultivated, not at the level of discourse, but by directly engaging emotional registers and tapping into precognitive states. New subjectivities emerged through unexpected shifts in the affective registers freeing embodied practices from their usual sedimented patterns (see also Cameron and Gibson 2005).

For a few participants, unexpected shifts in affective registers also seemed to create more openness at the level of thinking. Experimenting with different ways of “doing” and “feeling” seemed to result in new ways of “thinking” and “understanding”, rather than the other way around. This implies that new subjectivities cannot only be cultivated through the introduction of alternative discourses, but also by triggering or intensifying certain unconventional (see also Jaggar 2009) emotions creating a affective “openness” that only then paves the way for accepting new discourses. Or, as Connolly argues: “changes in thinking affect, over time, the shape and quality of the ethical sensibility from which one acts. Yet, tactical interventions into sensibilities instilled at several layers of being can, in turn, also make a significant difference to the quality of thought and action” (Connolly 1999 cited in McCormack 2003:496).

In the young people's PAR process, then, empowerment and transformation happened, not so much through the technique of critical analysis and understanding, but by working with the body and with embodied emotional knowledges. Recent discussions in human geography around non-representational theory (eg Latham 2003, Lorimer 2005; McCormack 2003; Thrift 1996, 2004) have foregrounded affective4 and embodied (non-verbal, precognitive) knowledges, insisting that they can be channeled for political purposes. Writing about the politics of affect, Thrift (2004) argues that the discovery of new means of channeling and using affect is also the discovery of new means of manipulation by the powerful. By contrast, he argues, the conscious engineering of affect does not have to be abusive as affect may also be worked on to brew new collectivities which are potentially progressive (Thrift 2004). As such, non-representational theories of affect might encourage us to experiment with alternative approaches to empowerment and change. McCormack (2003), for example, looks at dance movement therapy. This therapy is founded on the principle that there is a relationship between motion and emotion and that by exploring a more varied vocabulary of movement people experience the possibility of becoming more securely balanced yet increasingly spontaneous and adaptable. Dance movement therapy uses movement experimentation to explore new ways of being and feeling and to gain access to feelings that cannot be verbalized. “Dance movement therapy engages directly with the productive force of the unconscious in ways that can, but do not necessarily need to be brought into a relation of verbal or linguistic specification” (McCormack 2003:492).

Similarly, in the PAR process, by participating in cooperative games, corporeal expression, improvization theatre and drama, the young participants were able to explore and experiment with different ways of being and feeling. These methods provided important moments for the young people to attend to their own emotional wellbeing. They allowed the participants to immerse themselves completely in the world of emotional geographies and to experience what it means to be part of that world in positive and life-enhancing ways (see also Wood and Smith 2004). Such methods tapped directly into the power of emotions to shape social life. Certainly, these methods did not result in direct structural changes; they did not make the poor young people rich, or their risky environments safe, but they did give the young people clues about what emotional wellbeing is, what happiness, contentment, trust, calm etc. feel like (Wood and Smith 2004). For many young people this was a first step towards questioning existing social norms; accepting and interiorizing new critical discourses; and towards imagining and creating a different world from which new actions (individual and collective) emerged. This is not to underestimate the fundamental importance of changing the material conditions of the poor and challenging structural inequality at the macro-level, but to give full recognition to the fact that individual empowerment and social change are just as much about emotions and embodied knowledges as about analytical knowledge and “objective”, broad-scale policies.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Power and Emotions in Participatory Approaches to Empowerment and Change
  4. The Research Context
  5. The Role of Emotions in Confirming and Challenging the Culture of Violence in El Salvador
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

I have argued that, by focusing on critical reflection and analysis as the principal step towards personal and social change, participatory research and practice tend to overlook the fact that power and politics also work through emotions as both, at the same time, socio-culturally constructed and deeply embodied phenomena. Acknowledging that our emotional and cognitive functioning are inseparable and mutually constitutive and that our thinking and feeling are intimately connected (Damasio 2000; Holland 2007; Hubbard et al., 2001), I have argued for a more holistic approach to empowerment and change. Such an approach, rather than overestimating and prioritizing critical reflection and analysis, recognizes the equal importance of emotions and embodied knowledge and the fact that they can also be worked with to facilitate empowerment and change. This means a recognition of the fact that our ways of thinking and feeling can be transformed, in part, through critical analyses and discourse, but also that new ways of thinking and feeling can be cultivated by using alternative methods and new media that directly engage with emotions as embodied (or affective) knowledge.

To explain the importance of emotions in the young people's PAR process in particular and in participatory research and practice in general, I have built on different approaches (a constructivist approach, non-representational theory) within the increasing literature on emotion and affect. Yet, the other way around, participatory research and practice also contributes significantly to the critical debate about emotions, affect, power and empowerment. By closely looking at the young people's PAR process in El Salvador, this article demonstrates that emotions can be potentially disempowering or empowering, always within a particular socio-cultural context. The same emotion—anger, fear, etc.—can be enabling or disempowering, depending on the specific context and situation and, as such, it is impossible to judge which emotions are inherently “good” or inevitably “bad” (Wilkinson 2009). It is only by taking into account the particular historical, economical and socio-cultural context, then, that we can “challenge and rework dominant understandings of emotions and affective ties and radically re-imagine what we are capable of emotionally” (Wilkinson 2009:42). In this article, I also explain how, during the PAR process, affective knowledges were worked with and channeled for empowering purposes. I insisted that these affective changes did not happen in a political vacuum and that their empowering potential could only be properly understood within the particular context of the culture of violence in El Salvador. As such, the young people's PAR offers a concrete example of how emotions transcend dualisms such as mind/body, public/private, nature/culture, conscious/unconscious (Williams and Bendelow 1996, cited in Hubbard et al., 2001) at the same time explaining why a politics of affect is also, always, a politics of emotion and the other way around.

Engaging with the political and empowering potential of emotions, some important challenges remain. There is a need for a better understanding of how innovative, embodied methods and new media can be used to forward an empowering politics of emotion. We also need to better conceptualize (and put into practice) how exactly different politics of emotion, as happening through the human body as the most local of scales, feed back into more global political and socio-economic processes and how exactly such politics can contribute to challenging larger structural causes of oppression and inequality in sustainable ways. Through their direct involvement with different groups of people and communities in concrete processes of change at both local and global scales and by increasingly using innovative research methods allowing us to engage with emotions and the body, participatory researchers are particularly well placed to take up this challenge.

  1. 1

    PAR is defined as a process of identifying social problems, collecting and analyzing information, and acting upon the problem in order to find solutions and to promote personal and social transformation (Reason and Bradbury 2001).

  2. 2

    Pseudonyms are used to assure confidentiality of the research participants.

  3. 3

    As Bourgeois (1995:326) argued: “The enduring experience of violence and continuous deprivation often results in poor and marginalized groups internalizing their rage and directing their anger and despair against themselves and their immediate community rather than against their structural oppressors.” In El Salvador, the increasing number of young people opting for gang life is a clear sign of “the anger of the dispossessed turned inwards upon themselves, among equals, permanently and fatally” (Torres Rivas 1999:288). Although gang culture partly emerges out of a personal search for dignity, it ultimately becomes an active agent in personal degradation and community ruin (Bourgois 2003:9) as desperate young people come to act as agents in their own extermination (Hume 2007b).

  4. 4

    The exact difference between emotion and affect is the subject of long debate (eg Askins 2009; Bondi 2005; Thien 2005; Tolia-Kelly 2006) which I will not go into here. It can be generally concluded that non-representational theorists associate emotion with specific nameable states, such as joy, shame, and anger, which are empirically attributable to or claimed by individualized subjects, while affect is associated with that which is pre- or extra-discursive and non-individualized (Bondi 2005). As such, they seem to follow the nomenclature of psychologists who tend to associate emotion with cognition and affect with the body (Probyn 2004 cited in Bondi 2005:340). Since non-representational theory seeks to challenge the privileging of cognition, they prefer the term affect (Bondi 2005).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Power and Emotions in Participatory Approaches to Empowerment and Change
  4. The Research Context
  5. The Role of Emotions in Confirming and Challenging the Culture of Violence in El Salvador
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
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