Affective societies, affected scientists! 5 Questions to Mohammed Bamyeh

The interview series poses questions concerning the role of affects and emotions in research practice and contemporary society to researchers on short-term visit and associate members of the Collaborative Research Center “Affective Societies”. Today we introduce Mohammed Bamyeh. He is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh (USA), and President of the Board of Trustees of the Arab Council for Social Sciences (ACSS). He was the keynote speaker at the workshop “Affective Authoritarianisms: Affect, Emotions and Authoritarian Governance in Global Perspective” organized by the research project C01 “Emotion and Affect within the Context of Authoritarian Transformations”. His lecture dealt with charismatic leaders in postcolonial movements as well as the absence thereof in more recent protest movements such as the Arab uprisings of 2011 and 2019.

1.) Which research question affects you at the moment? What is its social significance?

At the moment, I am interested in contemporary revolutions and social movements, although this interest has also made me look at older revolutions historically. Part of this exploration emerged out of my interest in the prospects of radical social change, which probably has to do with various personal backgrounds. In the process, I realized that before we decide what kind of change we want or how to get there, we need to understand the social dynamics and psychological conditions that help bring people together, and to appreciate more the perspective of participants themselves as they enter into revolutionary processes. Our biggest analytical mistake here, I think, is to assume that we know what the “goals of the revolution” are or should be, without bothering to ask the participants themselves what it is that they think they are doing. A good theory of revolution, for me, is one that is produced by a revolution, rather than imposed on it.

2.) Can you think of an emotion whose relevance has recently surprised you?

Pleasure. In recent revolutions, pleasure was not something I had looked for or expected to find. When we consider revolutions from a distance or in abstract ways, we typically expect to find the usual negativities: anger, hatred, outrage, fear and so on. But I was struck by the amount of pleasure the participants seemed to feel in being part and creators of a world historical event. This pleasure of togetherness seemed to me at least an equally strong motivating factor in comparison to other emotions one finds at that moment.

3.) Do you perceive any affective driving force or affective barrier concerning your research work?

I think critical empathy is essential. It has three roles in research: first, as an approach to understanding how affective states generate or are generated by an action. Second, empathy may be regarded as one way by which affect may generate sufficient energy for the research itself to be done. And third, in its critical form, empathy is one way by which we may arrive back at “reason” through an emotion. Or, put differently, it is a way of keeping affective states from eliminating our critical distance from what we are observing. In this sense, I regard immersive exercises to be necessary but temporary practices, and to require openness to novelties but not fruitless disorientation.

4.) Which book has lately affected you the most?

That is a difficult question. I was strongly influenced by Michel Foucault but that was many years ago. In the meantime, I have tried to look at literary production as sociological knowledge. So, I am interested in poets who become important, not just because of the quality of the poetry but because their popularity signifies the existence of a social trend. Novelists, too. In recent years I have become very interested in the historical novel in particular, again from a sociological point of view. Writers like Abdul Rahman Munif and Ibrahim al-Koni, for example, did in my view capture highly complex social realities in more vivid and in fact, comprehensive ways than we find in sociology or history books that have more “disciplined” or circumscribed goals. This is not to devalue the social sciences, but these do not capture the totality of human experience. That is why I think we have to complement our specialized knowledge by looking at genres that employ alternative ways of seeing.

5.) From which feelings or sentiments would you rather refrain at the moment?

One emotion I would like to refrain from is impulsive hatred. First, I think hatred is an analytically useless posture, and it is in fact a generally useless emotion. “I hate Donald Trump,” for example. Well, that is not all that interesting because one must move away from hatred in order to actually understand where the Trump phenomenon came from, and the social life force or social energy that keeps it alive. So, for me, moving away from hatred is not just an ethical standpoint. More importantly, it is an analytically essential posture.

The interview was conducted by Jana Treffler.