The Colonisation of Emotional Life

Notes on Nick Crossley’s “Emotions, psychiatry and social order”

A.W. Frank


Habermas’s core sociological contribution is idea that

·        society consists of system and lifeworld; analytically independent spheres, mutually dependent

·        lifeworld is interpersonal sphere of symbolic reproduction through communicative action

·        communicative action involves the interests of each being taken into account by all

·        communication becomes distorted when interests not taken into account

·        e.g., H’s critique that formal democracy “is no longer determined by the content of a form of life that takes into account the generalizable interests of all individuals” and is “no longer tied to political equality” (Garner extract from H)

·        in communicative action, people talk until each accepts plausibility of other’s perspective (n.b., not acceptance); oriented to mutual understanding, based on intrinsic value of the other and his/her worldviews (thus inherently ethical)

·        thus re emotions, Crossley’s emphasis that emotions are “rational” insofar as people can try to “argue [each other] out of seemingly unreasonable emotions” (279)

·        thus communicative action involves 3 claims: truth claims about world, sincerity claims about speaker, and normative claims about social world (e.g., circumstantial appropriateness of emotions)—these can all be contested (Crossley, 280)

·        symbolic reproduction is the reproduction of the shared understandings that ground people’s ability to assert and contest these claims; thus basis of social integration


·        system is economic-political sphere of material reproduction through strategic action

·        Crossley: “the harmonisation of the unintended consequences of action that is achieved by way of ‘emergent’ social mechanisms which operate ‘behind the back’ of the actor”, e.g., economic co-ordination of distribution of goods (285)

·        or money “allows for the co-ordination of the vast number of (economic) transactions that occur within any society at any time, in a way that does not depend upon a communicatively achieved co-ordination plan” (287)

·        action is strategic insofar as “oriented to success” (not mutual understanding) and employs “means-ends rationality” (286);

·        again, does not depend on communicatively achieved plan,

·        e.g., we don’t need to reach agreement with shopkeeper about what we buy; shopkeeper is treated as a means to our (independently decided upon) end (287) (n.b., inherently amoral)

·        problem is “uncoupling” of system and lifeworld levels

·        system integration still involves real people; their normative consent depends on communicatively achieved understandings

·        demoralisation” effects (282-83, and described implicitly, 288-89)

·        in terms of formal democracy, demoralisation occurs when individuals as citizens no longer have moral stake in participation

·        loss of interest in political equality, recognizing interests of all

·        “now only a key for the distribution of rewards…a regulator for the satisfaction of private interests” (Garner extract from Habermas)

·        “individuals pay taxes in return for services…provided by the state” (287)

·        thus “citizen” becomes “client” and interest in state becomes means-ends

·        problem is continuing legitimation of such a democratic state when “pluralism of elites” operates “independent of the pressures of legitimation and immunizes [political decision making] against the principle of rational formation of will [through communicative action]” (Garner selection from H)

·        “colonisation” comprises results of excessive decoupling

·        “Money talks in the economic system and everything has a price” (286-87); or, linguistic media are replaced by non-linguistic

·        re mental health, colonisation effects in rise of expertise that “effectively disempowers” the lifeworld (283); experts set norms of sane/insane, acceptable and not

·        effect of expertise is “deskilling individuals in relation to a wide range of spheres of action and of fragmenting their sense of the world” (288)

·        at systems level, “emotion industry” (283) of pharmaceutical companies, professional and self-help services, expanded legal jurisdiction of “emotional injury” (283-84)

·        “actively encourage individuals to be less tolerant of the range of emotions they might experience and encourages them to believe that they could and should always feel good, a right which psychotherapy purports to guarantee for them” (291)

·        individuals who are thus deskilled (unable to trust their own judgments), fragmented, and less tolerant of diversity thus need more psy services, which perpetuates the cycle: “the industry creates exactly the same sorts of problems that it claims to resolve” (292)


thus the end of the uncoupling process is colonisation, which produces “ a loss of autonomy at the level of everyday life: the capacity for regulation of emotion within the lifeworld is being lost to the system” (293)

·        but the system is, in principle, incapable of regulating emotion, since that “regulation” requires communicative action at lifeworld level (which is now colonised and demoralised)

·        thus crisis tendency; emotion regulation is micro level of this crisis; loss of legitimacy in formal democracy is the macro level

·        issue is not to remove systems rationalities, but to stop uncoupling and colonisation processes