Understanding the Emotions

Submitting Institution

Queen Mary, University of London

Unit of Assessment


Summary Impact Type


Research Subject Area(s)

Language, Communication and Culture: Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Philosophy and Religious Studies: History and Philosophy of Specific Fields

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Summary of the impact

Research into the history of the emotions undertaken by members of the QMUL Centre for the History of the Emotions has made possible a series of impacts of local, national and international reach and significance, on public understanding of emotions, on contemporary art and culture, and on political debates about public policy, emotions and wellbeing. Impacts have been achieved through a range of activities, including practical interventions in schools, input into radio and television broadcasts, an artist in residence scheme, an international email list and blog, and policy discussions with think tanks such as the Young Foundation.

Underpinning research

In November 2008, QMUL established the Centre for the History of the Emotions, the first of its kind in the UK. The Centre has since become one of the leading international fora for research into the history of emotions, with a particular emphasis on the effects of science, medicine and technology in shaping modern emotions; on the history of expression, including physiognomy; and on the implications of these histories for public policy in the areas of health and education. The Centre is in close contact with international colleagues at cognate centres in Berlin and in Australia. The Centre Director, Thomas Dixon, co-edits a new Oxford University Press book series `Emotions in History, 1500-2000' with Professor Ute Frevert of the Max Planck Centre for the History of Emotions, Berlin.

Thomas Dixon (01 Sep. 2007-) has undertaken influential historical research into the emergence of the category of the `emotions' during the 19th century, the way it displaced a more differentiated typology of `passions', `affections' and `sentiments', and the impact of this on moral philosophy, psychology and medicine. Subsequently his work has investigated the history of ideas about the expression of emotions, especially weeping, and about the education of the emotions. He has also been writing about the relationship between science and religion for over 15 years, one product of which was his Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction which won the 2009 Dingle Prize. Rhodri Hayward (01 Oct. 2007-) has explored the changing role of psychological and psychiatric theories and practices in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with particular emphasis on their impact on policy in relation to public health. His work demonstrates how emotional states arise from a complex network of theoretical, practical and political agencies, with particular reference to ideas about the emotions and the unconscious and the role of the state in shaping the expression of emotions during the twentieth century. Colin Jones (01 Sep. 2006-) is writing a monograph on the history of the smile (OUP, forthcoming 2014), which is linked to a Leverhulme Trust international network on the history of physiognomy since the early modern period. Jones's publications on this subject, arising from Presidential Addresses to the Royal Historical Society form an important part of the work of the Centre on the history of scientific, medical and philosophical ideas about the expression of the emotions. Fay Bound Alberti (01 Sep. 2008-) has produced two books which provide important theoretical underpinning to the work of the Centre: an edited book on the place of emotions in the history of modern medicine, to which Dixon and Hayward were also contributors, and a monograph on the history of representations of the heart as an emotional organ in both medicine and culture. She held a Wellcome-funded fellowship at the Centre researching the histories of how emotions and emotional disorders have been expressed through the skin, and skin disease and is writing a book on the history of the body for OUP.

References to the research

Fay Bound Alberti, Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, and Emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).


Thomas Dixon, `The Tears of Mr Justice Willes', Journal of Victorian Culture, 17 (2012), pp. 1-23.


Thomas Dixon, `Educating the emotions from Gradgrind to Goleman', Research Papers in Education, 27 (2012), pp. 482-495.


Thomas Dixon, Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)


Rhodri Hayward, `The Pursuit of Serenity: Psychological Knowledge and the Making of the British Welfare State', in Barbara Taylor and Sally Alexander (eds), History and Psyche: Culture, Psychoanalysis and the Past (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Colin Jones, `French Crossings II: Laughing over Boundaries', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 21 (2011): 1-38.


Key grants:

Thomas Dixon, Colin Jones, Rhodri Hayward, Elena Carrera, Fay Bound Alberti. `Medicine, Emotion and Disease in History, 1700-2000' (Wellcome Trust, Enhancement Award). 2009-2014. £323,000.

Rhodri Hayward. `Psychiatric epidemiology and public policy in 20th-Century Britain' (Wellcome Trust, University Award). 2007-2012. £210,000.

Fay Bound Alberti. `Skin deep: Dermatology, emotion and disease' (Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship). 2009-2013. £167,000.

Colin Jones `Physiognomy, 1500-1850: The Arts and Sciences of the Face', with École Normale Supérieure, Paris and Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa (Leverhulme Trust International Network Award). 2007-2010. £45,000.

Thomas Dixon, with Ali Campbell (Drama). `Embodied Emotions: History, Performance Education' (AHRC, Beyond Text). 2009-2010. £100,000. Plus follow-on funding, 2011, £30,000. Colin Jones. `Society for the Social History of Medicine Conference 2012: Emotions, Health and Wellbeing'. (Wellcome Trust Conference Grant). 2012. £13,000.

Thomas Dixon. `Artist in Residence: Ron Athey'. (Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence Scheme). January-August 2010. £12,500. (Clare Whistler and Lloyd Newson have joined the Centre on the same scheme in 2013-14. £15,000 in both cases.)

Rhodri Hayward. `Mental Health services in the UK 1943 to the present' (Wellcome Trust, Research Expenses Grant). 2010-2011. £3,900.

Rhodri Hayward. `New Directions in the History of Emotion' (Wellcome Trust Meetings Award for Seminar Series). 2008-2009. £3,600.

Details of the impact

Public understanding: The underpinning research has been communicated to wide audiences through broadcast and other media and has thus had an impact on public understanding of the emotions and their history.

Dixon's research has had wide impact through the media. In 2010 the BBC produced The End of God? A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion which arose directly from Dixon's book on the subject. Dixon co-wrote and presented this programme, in collaboration with Naomi Law at the BBC. Viewing figures for its first broadcast on 21 September 2010 were 387,000; subsequent hits on YouTube versions of the programme totalled over 100,000. The programme was repeated three times in 2010 and again in November 2011. An accompanying piece written by Dixon for the BBC News Magazine online received over 200,000 hits. In 2011, Dixon gave a talk on `Victorian Philosophies of Weeping' at a conference organised by the QMUL Centre for the History of the Emotions. One of the delegates at the conference was assistant producer for Wingspan Productions, who was currently in the early stages of research for what became Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip: An Emotional History of Britain, a major BBC Two series. After this initial meeting, Dixon became involved as the academic series consultant, working with the series producer to provide material and ideas from his own research (for example Dixon 2012) to help shape the content and argument of the series. Viewing figures for the three episodes, when first broadcast in October 2012, were 2.3 million. Dixon was an on-screen expert interviewee in every episode, and credited as series consultant. The series was widely and generally very positively reviewed in the national press, introducing many people for the first time to the history of emotions as an area of historical enquiry. Dixon was also an academic consultant and on-screen interviewee for a TV documentary, For Crying Out Loud, presented by the comedian Jo Brand on BBC Four (total audience for first broadcast and first two repeats, all in February 2011, c.750,000), and his research formed the subject of an associated BBC News magazine online article (over 250,000 hits on the first day of its publication). In November 2011, Dixon was interviewed by one of the leading newspapers in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant, about his keynote lecture on the history of emotions at the Netherlands Historical Association annual conference. During 2012 Dixon was interviewed about the history of emotions for articles published in two Brazilian publications: the scientific and cultural magazine, Superinteressante (monthly circulation c. 500,000) about the history of anger and the seven deadly sins; and the science and technology magazine Revista Galileu (monthly circulation c. 200,000) about the history of emotions and Auguste Comte.

Rhodri Hayward supported the 2011 inter-generational `Threads and Yarns' Project organised by Central St Martins and the Victoria and Albert Museum in which Camden senior citizens explored their lifelong experience of medicine through discussion and handicraft. His work set these experiences within the broader history of emotions in modern Britain. Hayward was interviewed about his work on the neuro-physiologist William Grey Walter by BBC Radio Sheffield in 2009 and for a feature-length documentary, Flicker in 2008.

Jones's research into the histories of the smile and laughter led to his involvement as a consultant and contributor to the BBC Radio 4 programme `Smile', first transmitted 2 June 2012, to coincide with Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and repeated on 15 October 2012.

Fay Bound Alberti's book on the heart (2010) reached a wide audience and was shortlisted and highly commended for a major national prize, the Longman-History Today Book of the Year. The Centre for the History of the Emotions and its PGRs/PDRFs staged the first ever Carnival of the Emotions in 2013 (emotionsblog.history.qmul.ac.uk/?p=2328) as part of its public engagement. It also continues to publish its History of Emotions Blog, created in 2011, to disseminate its findings more widely. Google Analytics data show that the blog received 21,687 unique visitors during the year to Oct. 2012, and a 50% increase in the following 12 months to 33,840. The average monthly page-views currently range between 5,000 and 7,000. Information about the Centre's activities, and other events nationally and internationally, are disseminated through an international email list with over 1,300 subscribers (comprising of academics from many disciplines and practitioners in education, health and public policy. The email list is the most subscribed to of any JISC email list on a historical topic).

Arts and Culture: The underpinning research has been undertaken in conversation with artists and performers and has had an impact on the creative arts.

The AHRC-funded `Embodied Emotions' project was a creative collaboration between an applied performance expert (Ali Campbell), a dancer and choreographer (Clare Whistler), a historian (Thomas Dixon), and a local school (Osmani Primary School). One of the core activities of the project was a series of interdisciplinary workshops in 2010 in which historians (including Dixon, Jones, and Bound Alberti), educators and performance theorists gave short talks, which were combined with specially created dance performances by Whistler, accompanied by live music, in response to the themes of the session. Whistler's performance notes indicate how the historical research presented at the workshops fed directly into her creation of new solo pieces. Whistler has explained that `Working with academics has opened up a new area as I value the expertise and knowledge in creating the work, as well as the writing that they do that brings a deepening of the work with insights and intuition and knowledge that leaves a lasting legacy of what is often an ephemeral art. A big difference is that I would always hope to have an academic on all my projects either as collaborator, interpreter, critic and context-maker. I would not have considered this before working with Thomas.' Also in 2010, the performance artist Ron Athey held a series of talks as Leverhulme-funded artist in residence at the Centre. Over 100 people attended each event on aspects of Athey's controversial work on bodily modification et al. Athey's period of residence at the Centre allowed him to work, with Dominic Johnson (Drama, QMUL), on a retrospective book on his work, Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey (ed. D. Johnson, Intellect Books and Live Art Development Agency, 2013) which was partly funded by a successful `crowd-sourcing' campaign (100 individuals donated over $16,000). Athey commented: `These events helped me think through the intellectual frameworks for my artistic practice. I usually work intuitively with emotions (my own and those of audiences), and carry out literary and other kinds of research, but the Fellowship encouraged me to think in new ways about intellectual contexts and histories. Without the Fellowship and the support of the Centre, the focused work on my book with Dominic Johnson wouldn't have been possible.'

Education and Policy: The underpinning research has, through practical activities in schools and discussions with think tanks, had an impact on education and public policy.

Dixon's work on the AHRC-funded `Embodied Emotions' project involved using historical research both into the history of expressions of emotion and into the history of ideas about educating the emotions, to shape a new set of activities piloted in Osmani primary school and involving c. 400 pupils in a whole-day event. The project was designed in response to the UK government's promotion of `Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning', and to the 2009 report into the primary curriculum produced by Sir Jim Rose, which put emphasis on emotional literacy and emotional learning. Dixon designed a simple set of exercises using historical images to promote discussion of emotions and expression among primary-school children, and wrote a substantial report, published on the Centre's Blog and website, documenting this work, and drawing conclusions for policy debates. Dixon has been invited to speak about the outreach and policy aspects of this work at the universities of Birmingham (in 2010 and 2012) and Exeter (in 2012). At the Birmingham event in March 2010, other contributors included senior figures from Birmingham City Council, including the Head of Strategic Children's Services and the Director of Professional Training in Educational Psychology. In May 2013, Dixon spoke about boys and emotional education at the International Boys' Schools Coalition conference. Ali Campbell (QMUL, Drama) has already presented the findings of the project at several locations, nationally and internationally, including at a workshop in Dirambarphur village in West Bengal in which 100 children participated; and at a workshop at Swanlea School, Whitechapel, as a pilot roll-out event facilitated by the E8 Schools Partnership. There is ongoing interest in this material both nationally (further schools in Tower Hamlets are investigating adopting the model) and internationally (the Education and Outreach Officer at the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions, Sydney, is working on an adapted version of this project).

The Young Foundation is a centre for social innovation with interests in a wide range of social issues including public health, resilience and happiness. In July 2010, Rhodri Hayward and Thomas Dixon were invited to contribute to the Foundation's policy work by giving a presentation on the significance of history of emotions for policy debates. During 2010 and 2011 Hayward co-organised a series of Wellcome-funded talks and debates on `The History of Mental Health Policy and Practice in Post-War Britain' that were attended by representatives of the service-users movement; mental health services (Prof. Hugh Freeman; Sir David Goldberg; David Clark, IAPT); government agencies (Louis Appleby, Mental Health Tsar from 2000 to 2010; Baroness Murphy; Jim Symington, National Mental Health Development Unit; Anthony Sheehan, chief executive National Institute for Mental Health in England); third sector groups (Lord Adebowale, Turning Point; and Prof. John Hall, Kings Fund).

Sources to corroborate the impact

Public Understanding

QM Centre for the History of the Emotions website, blog, and email list Threads and Yarns at the V&A: http://www.vam.ac.uk/whatson/event/1206/ Flicker (2008) IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1236194/; BBC Sheffield (13 November 2009)

Arts and Culture: AHRC Beyond Text `Embodied Emotions' webpages, blog post, report, and film

Education and Policy: The Young Foundation: www.youngfoundation.org

Individuals who can be contacted to corroborate impact:

  1. Ron Athey (independent artist) on: how working with academics at the Centre for the History of the Emotions influenced his artistic work.
  2. Television Producer, Wingspan Productions Ltd on: Dixon's academic consultancy on the television series Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip: An Emotional History of Britain.
  3. Claire Whistler (independent artist) on: how working with Dixon and the Centre of the History of the Emotions has influenced her artistic work.