Labour History and the Emotions: a Bibliography

Edda Nicolson offers a reading list and guide to sources for labour historians interested in the topic and methodologies of emotions history.

Although the popularity of emotions history is a recent development, interest in the feelings of the past goes back as far as Thucydides (454 – c.399 BCE). Scholars such as Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), Karl Lamprecht (1856-1915) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) were intrigued by the emotions and morality of the human condition throughout the nineteenth century. In the 1930s, Lucien Febvre (1878-1956) responded to the swift advance of fascism, and the captivated crowds of enraptured devotees that began to flood European streets, by imploring historians to play closer attention to the pervasive role of emotion in human experience. In doing so, he became known as the father of emotions history. Curiosity about experiences, affects, sensibilities, feelings and emotions then meandered through the twentieth century until Carol and Peter Stearns made a clear distinction between normative social expectations of emotional expressions and personal experiences of emotions in the 1980s. There is now a wealth of emotions historiography to explore. Here follows a brief list of books, articles, podcasts and websites that may interest labour historians seeking to know more about emotions history and the potential that it has for our field.


Boddice, R., The History of Emotions. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018
This book is a particular favourite of mine. Boddice charts the evolution of emotions history whilst also pointing out the potential avenues for further research. Chapter Four: Power, Politics and Violence led me to change the focus of my thesis to include an emotions lens.

Watt-Smith, T., The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopaedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust. London: Profile Books, 2016
An insightful and easy to use resource that uncovers the origins, changes and experiences of individual emotions. The definition of ‘terror’ is given by none other than Stephen King, ‘carefree’ is illustrated with a Chelsea FC chant of nonchalance, and the reader is introduced to some new emotions such as the Russian ‘toska’ (a type of melancholic yearning), the archaic German ‘ruinenlust’ (being drawn to crumbling buildings), and the Inuit ‘iktsuarpok’ (an anxiousness over the impending arrival of visitors).

Rosenwein, B., and Cristiani, R., What is the History of Emotions? Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017
Rosenwein pioneered the concept of ‘emotional communities’ and the social links of feeling that bind people together. Here, Rosenwein and Cristiani guide the reader through the different approaches that have been advanced in emotions history, and particularly emphasise the role of the body and the physicality of emotional expressions. This is a very good choice for anyone wanting a brief introduction to emotions history.

Downes, S., Holloway, S., and Randles, S., (eds) Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions through History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018
One for scholars interested in material culture, this volume on premodern Europe considers the emotional importance of objects and what they can tell us about the feelings of the people that owned them. This edited collection is particularly insightful for the variety of objects discussed; textiles, letters, religious relics and prosthetics all speak an emotional language.

Plamper, J., The History of Emotions: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017
Plamper’s overview is indispensable for understanding the debates between the biological, physiological, sociological and linguistic study of emotions. Particularly strong on the non-English speaking contributions to the field, Plamper belongs on every emotions history reading list.

Sterns, P., and Matt, S., Doing Emotions History. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2014
The refreshing thing about emotions history is that we can think anew about old sources. The history of emotions is as much a new methodological lens as it is a subfield. But how do we find emotions in our sources, and what do we do with them when we have found them? This book answers those questions and is therefore a useful primer for students and professors alike.

Eustace, N., Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution. United States: University of North Carolina Press, 2008
Labour historians are often interested in political changes, uprisings and revolutions. The emotional impetus behind such events is often acknowledged but rarely interrogated. Here, Eustace demonstrates that it is possible to place emotion in a central and explanatory position when we think about social, political and industrial movements. Her thoughts on the role of power were highly influential for me as I thought more closely about why workers wanted to form trade unions and how they then created their own sense of power and control in their working lives.

Bourke, J., Fear: A Cultural History. London: Virago, 2005
A fascinating read for those curious about the histories of emotions themselves, Bourke’s book on fear explores one of the most basic of human emotions. With a focus on the twentieth century, I think this book would be particularly appealing for labour historians that are curious about emotional motivations behind activism and campaigning. As fear of poverty, destitution and marginalisation has tended to be commonplace in working class lives, this book offers many insights and possible avenues for further research.

Dixon, T., Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015
The notion of the British stiff upper lip is carefully and extensively debunked by Dixon as he illustrates the changing and often surprising history of crying. The huge range of sources – from Margery Kempe to Paul Gascoigne via Oliver Cromwell – provides an insightful and thoroughly enjoyable journey through centuries of weeping in paintings, music, sport and cinema. Just try to resist the temptation to skip straight to chapter 19: The Thatcher Tears.

Schools of thought

Broadly speaking, there have been three major methodological interventions in the modern study of emotions history. Stearns, C., and Stearns, P., ‘Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards’, American Historical Review, Vol 90, 4 (1985) pp. 813-836 launched the contemporary field of emotions history by coining the term ‘emotionology’ to describe the normative social expectations regarding the expression of emotions. At the time, the Stearnses considered emotions themselves to be largely universal but were interested in the variations in ‘emotionology’ over time and how the social valuing of emotions likewise changed. Anthropologist and historian William Reddy was not persuaded by the delineation between the biological ‘constant’ emotions and the social experience of them, and coined the term ‘emotives’ to describe the action of expressing and hearing emotions and the physiological affect that this created. In Reddy, R., The Navigation of Feeling, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001 he built on this idea further, and centralised the role of power within emotional expressions by proposing that the autocratic monarchical-political regime of eighteenth-century France was so oppressive and harsh that its people were living in an ‘emotional regime’. The pressure of confirming to the ‘regime’, according to Reddy, led directly to the ‘emotional revolution’ of 1789. Barbara Rosenwein was not convinced by this. Instead, she described the emotional attachments found within social groups as ‘emotional communities’, and in Rosenwein, B., Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006 she highlighted the ‘systems of feeling’ that showed how people valued or rejected different emotions depending on their needs and wishes. Plamper, J., ‘The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein and Peter Stearns’ in History and Theory, Vol 49, 2 (2010) pp. 237-265 gives an in depth overview and critique of all three viewpoints.

Podcasts, research centres, and more…

The Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, under the directorship of Dr Tiffany Watt-Smith, have produced the award-winning podcast ‘The Sound of Anger’ as well as an extensive collection of blogs and reviews that explore the ever-widening field of emotions history. Similarly, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, led by Dr Kirk Essary, has an extensive bibliography and a number of other resources for emotions history researchers. Labour historians will certainly find the ‘Feeling Political’ project at the Max Planck Institute interesting; the Centre for the History of Emotions is run by Professor Ute Frevert, who has published widely on topics including emotions of war, politics, happiness, childhood, and flowers. Indeed, an entire reading list could have been constructed on Professor Frevert’s work alone. Lastly, something brand new: the Centre for the Politics of Feelings, established in September 2021 and directed by Professor Manos Tsakiris, is based at the School of Advanced Study and will offer a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of emotions. 

It goes without saying that this list could have been much longer. A special mention ought to go to Ahmed, S., The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2nd ed, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014 because, although not technically history, her insight into the spread of hate in and by fascist organisations and the ways in which she maps the pervasiveness of fear in political campaigning would be of particular interest to anyone studying the labour movement. Also, there are some books that I have not yet had the chance to read – such as Barclay, K., The History of Emotions: A Student Guide to Methods and Sources, London: Macmillan Education UK, 2020 – that have been published recently and will be key to building up our methodological toolkits as well as the toolkits of our students. However, I do hope that there are at least some useful starting points here for anyone considering the emotional histories of their research topics. I am certain that labour history is bursting at the seams with feeling, and I look forward to further work that brings fresh insight into the emotions of our fascinating field.

This bibliography forms part of a collection of content on this site on the theme of Emotions and Labour History.

Edda Nicolson is a PhD researcher at the University of Wolverhampton and is interested in the emotional history of business and the labour movement. Her thesis on emotions and the General Federation of Trade Unions explores their early history between their inception in 1899 and the general strike in 1926. A commemorative publication for the GFTU’s 120th anniversary was based on her research.