Politics, emotion and identity performance

3 The psychology of protest

Barry Richards, Bournemouth University

Let’s consider a very general argument, one that goes beyond protest to the whole field of political involvement. However we may understand our own politics, it is important to see political participation as grounded in some emotion, affect or feeling (I’m using these words interchangeably here, though in another context they might require differentiation). Moreover, this emotion has to be understood psychologically. That may sound odd: how else could it be understood? To explain, I am using the word ’psychological’ in a strong sense here, to mean referring to forces within the individual. There would be other ways of understanding emotion that made no reference to any internal drivers, and so are not really psychological in this strong sense.

For example, the fear of nuclear holocaust, which drove many people into the Ban the Bomb protest movement from the 1950s to the 1980s, can be seen as a straightforward, rational response to an external world in which antagonistic nations have nuclear weapons and an established procedure for authorizing their use. We don’t need to ask psychological questions about fear, such as, Why are you afraid? What are you afraid of? We can see the answers to these questions in the external world, not in the mind of the individual.

Similarly, the iconoclastic euphoria of the 1967 counterculture and the protests it spawned can be understood purely in terms of the external environment. The explanation here is perhaps less obvious than in the case of nuclear fear; it requires a sociological analysis of how socio-economic change was reshaping popular culture in the 1960s. A sense of individual freedom, of release from traditional constraints, of life as a search for fulfillment and pleasure, was widely experienced The hippy movement was just the purest expression of this broad cultural trend, so you can explain the involvement of individuals in the countercultural rejection of the existing order as a simple reflection of the times, a direct effect of external cultural change which requires no inner, psychological variables to understand it.

What about revolutionary anger, an emotion we may expect to find at the core of the most radical and demanding protest movements? This is easily seen in a sociological way as a response to manifest injustice in whatever form, such as oppressive military occupation, gross social inequality or endemic racism. If you see much of the suffering in the world as caused by a particular system or set of power relations, then it is a short step to commit yourself to the overthrow of that system. Indeed, your sense of ethical responsibility may mean that revolutionary activism is directly entailed by what you see happening in the world, irrespective of anything about you as an individual with an inner life.

However, there is a large crack in the structure of these sociological explanations. The flaw is simply this: although we all live in the same world, we do not all respond to it in the same way. Why did everyone not join CND in the early 1960s, or ‘drop out’ in the late 1960s, or join the Marxist movement of the 1970s? Or, as mid-20th century Freudo-Marxism asked, why had the German public acquiesced to Nazism? Why had all workers not joined the revolution which students in Paris in May 1968 were trying to make?

Credit: Danny Birchall/CC BY 2.0

There is a school of thought in psychology which tries to answer that sort of question in cognitive terms, by saying that the differences in how people respond are due to differences in how they see the world, and therefore in how they understand it. So it all comes down to perceptions, to how we construct the world. The problem with (social) constructionist approaches is that they simply displace the question, which then becomes, How and why do we construct the world differently? Why do we select certain information to focus on, and why do we prefer one analysis to another? The answer is that perceptions and understandings are motivated, and that we must turn to emotion to understand the motivations. Our world-views are driven by emotional needs to see things in particular ways and to believe some things not others.

The achievement of the Freudo-Marxists was to break through the rationalistic outlook which had dominated in the Marxist tradition. They could see that argument, evidence and analysis were not in themselves going to build the revolution. Underlying structures of feeling in the proletariat had to be addressed. But the Freudo-Marxist question needs universalizing. Emotional determinants, and perhaps in a sense irrational ones, cannot be confined to those passively outside of one’s own activist reference group. The complementary question about those who are activists needs posing.

To ask such questions is not to de-politicise the protest action. I’m suggesting a psychosocial approach, which seeks to bring together the internal and external factors, not to cancel out the external factors and so invalidate or de-legitimise the protest, which is what some people fear is going to happen when a psychologist starts analyzing the motives underlying protest. Even if a psychological inquiry reveals that someone is involved in protest for very self-serving reasons, that doesn’t in itself involve any judgement on the cause which the protest in question embodies.

Let’s take the fear which I suggested was the underpinning of many people’s involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Rational fear of the real possibility of nuclear war was one part of that. But to drive protest action, that fear had to have a compelling urgency. Why were protesters’ fears more compelling than those of others? I suggest this was because there were other fears which became attached to the threat of nuclear war. Typically these fears are not consciously articulated ones; in the language of (Kleinian) psychoanalysis, they would be called unconscious phantasies. An unconscious phantasy is a sort of template which can shape experience of the world, similar in some ways to the idea of a ‘frame’ in framing theory. But whereas a ‘frame’ can be about anything, unconscious phantasies always involve the primitive forces which psychoanalysis sees as being at the centre of psychic life: desire, aggression, anxiety and guilt. So, our experience of a particular piece of external reality can be loaded with powerful feelings not because of the intrinsic nature of that reality but because we are experiencing it under the influence of an unconscious phantasy.

This can be a dangerous process, if it results in someone feeling more threatened than they actually are. This is shown by those cases of paranoid psychotic individuals murdering strangers because they believe the stranger is somehow a threat to them. And the psychoanalysis of fascism has shown how both aggressive impulses and fears around sexuality can be loaded into an ideology and acted out in relation to particular people, with disastrous results.

So, the question of anger in politics may be more complex than is often recognized….


Barry Richards is Professor of Public Communication at Bournemouth University. After a first degree in psychology he trained and worked as a clinical psychologist in the NHS before becoming a lecturer and taking a PhD in sociology. At the University of East London he led the establishment of psychosocial studies as an interdisciplinary teaching programme and research paradigm, while researching and writing in a number of areas including popular culture, advertising, consumer behaviour, political leadership, and the rise of ‘therapeutic’ culture. At Bournemouth he has been developing psychosocial approaches in the field of media and communication, and has been involved in research on emotion in political communication, on journalism and emotional literacy, and on terrorism. From 2007 to 2010 he served as Deputy Dean of the Media School. He is a founding editor of the journal ‘Media, War and Conflict’ (Sage), and on the editorial boards of `Psychoanalysis and Culture’, the `European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling’, and `Free Associations’. His current work focuses on psychological factors and on the role of media in the development of political extremism.