Emotions, Identity and Power

Experiment: Now connect it to the literature.

I wrote earlier about my opinion about a student’s end of year speech critical of her school.

There are a few elements of this story that connect to the literature I’ve been reading. Just a quick wrap up of the original story. The student spoke up against what she felt was poor treatment of the students by the school. Former students said she was being “indulgent” and said she was just insecure, but her emotional state shouldn’t reflect on the school. So, let’s jump in to some of the literature on emotion.

Much of the most interesting research about emotions finds that feelings are not individual, but are socially mediated and that we construct our own identity based on emotional interactions. “Identity is formed in this shifting space where narratives of subjectivity meet the narratives of culture” (Zembylas, 2003b, p. 221). This is serious business for teens and part of why boarding schools like the one in this story are seen as a good way to shape children into young adults. In the correct environment, surrounded by people who are emotionally fulfilling and responsive, a student could create an identity based on positive emotional interactions. This doesn’t mean that a small negative interaction is disaster and it doesn’t mean that purely positive interactions guarantee a beautiful life. But emotions play an integral part in social structure and finding our place in the social world. The student in this boarding school showed a keen understanding of how the emotional environment of a school can shape identity. She was not willing to take part in the identity that was being perpetuated while her critics found nothing wrong with it. 

The social world is governed by more than just emotions or identity. Power plays an important role in every social relationship and emotions are part of creating a power structure. “Emotions are discursive practices operating in circumstances that grant powers to some relations and delimit the powers of others, that enable some to create truth and others to submit to it, that allow some to judge and others to be judged” (Zembylas, 2003a, p. 115). Emotions set up a social hierarchy and the “pecking order” of a place like a school. Some students will be more aware of how emotions delimit their power and some students will benefit greatly from how emotions grant them power. The student in this story spoke up about the way that the school paid more attention to students who were good for publicity, setting up an emotional hierarchy that was incongruous with her own values as a student there.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the school was unlikely to be upset by any of the allegations because even comments that seem negative promote the idea of the school as elite and challenging. For the student, she may have found herself in a struggle against fitting into the system and melding her values with the school culture. For a school like this one, the goal is to socialize students into the world that lives by the school’s values. “One could say that moral, character, and aesthetic educational studies are concerned with power relations. But such analyses of power generally are subsumed in a liberal model of power: the role of schools is not to alter social inequities but to adapt the individuals to the existing system” (Boler, 1997, p. 211). This student was not interesting in fitting into the existing set of values at the school and the school seems just fine that she did not fit their mold. Perhaps she is mistaken and needs to find her place within that system, or maybe she spoke up against a school that was perpetuating a competitive, adversarial world. We’ll never know for sure.

Boler, M. (1997). Disciplined Emotions: Philosophies of Educated Feelings. Educational Theory, 47(2), 203-227. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5446.1997.00203.x

Zembylas, M. (2003a). Emotions and Teacher Identity: A poststructural perspective. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 9(3), 213-238. doi:10.1080/13540600309378

Zembylas, M. (2003b). Interrogating Teacher Identity: Emotion, Resistance, and Self-Formation. Educational Theory, 53(1), 107-127. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5446.2003.00107.x

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