The term “emotional practices” is gaining currency in the historical study of emotions. This essay discusses the theoretical and methodological implications of this concept. A definition of emotion informed by practice theory promises to bridge persistent dichotomies with which historians of emotion grapple, such as body and mind, structure and agency, as well as expression and experience. Practice theory emphasizes the importance of habituation and social context and is thus consistent with, and could enrich, psychological models of situated, distributed, and embodied cognition and their approaches to the study of emotion.
It is suggested here that practices not only generate emotions, but that emotions themselves can be viewed as a practical engagement with the world. Conceiving of emotions as practices means understanding them as emerging from bodily dispositions conditioned by a social context, which always has cultural and historical specificity. Emotion-as-practice is bound up with and dependent on “emotional practices,” defined here as practices involving the self (as body and mind), language, material artifacts, the environment, and other people. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus, the essay emphasizes that the body is not a static, timeless, universal foundation that produces ahistorical emotional arousal, but is itself socially situated, adaptive, trained, plastic, and thus historical. Four kinds of emotional practices that make use of the capacities of a body trained by specific social settings and power relations are sketched out—mobilizing, naming, communicating, and regulating emotion—as are consequences for method in historical research.