Accepted Paper:

Experiencing happiness in anthropology: methodological concerns with theoretical, moral and political implications  


Dimitrina Spencer (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

I argue for a phenomenological approach in studying emotional experiences, which includes the researcher’s emotions. Such an approach to happiness may allow for a humanistic understanding of mutuality and may limit, moralizing, victimising or rescuing tendencies in research.

Paper long abstract:

This paper situates the anthropological silence on happiness within the emotional regimes of academia. Even if silenced, the emotional is integral to the research process and permeates fieldwork, learning, teaching, writing and discussion. Drawing on examples from labour migration to the UK and from tango dancing, I discuss two ways in which we might gain analytically through studying happiness: firstly, through noticing and allowing more space in theory and method for the experience of happiness and limiting victimising discourses of social suffering (without pushing forward neoliberal notions of social capital); and secondly, through engaging and analyzing our own emotions in research, that is, employing radical empiricism to grasp the meanings and manifestations of mutuality.

The embodied experience of tango dancing, and particularly the intersubjective experience of the ‘the tango embrace’ is the key to understanding the power of mutuality in tango groups. Such research involves an immersion in shared sensuality, joy, creativity, exaltation, sexuality, and oblivion. How do we maintain the analytical value of emotions when conventional anthropological boundaries to participation dissolve?

A holistic enquiry into the experience of migration that includes joy, conviviality and happiness (re-)humanises the migrant, unveils the complexity of migrant experiences and the range of absurdity in the human condition without victimizing and portraying migrants simply as ‘units of labour.’ This questions the value of certain forms of morality and activism in research.

Panel W109
Happiness: anthropological engagements