Society for the Anthropology of Work




Working Affect


By Sameena Mulla (Johns Hopkins U)


When this column is published, the Johns Hopkins University Anthropology Department will have held its annual graduate student conference. This year's conference theme, “Working Affect,” sets out to expand the anthropologist’s tool-kit for the study of the workplace and self-work by utilizing the theoretical concept of “affect.”  Increasingly, ethnographers have drawn attention to emotional mastery as a facet of professional expertise.  Though often used interchangeably, affect is distinct from emotion and feeling.  As Teresa Brennan explains in The Transmission of Affect, emotions are social, while feelings are personal and biographical.  Affect, as elaborated by Brian Massumi in his introduction to Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus, is “prepersonal.”  Massumi follows Deleuze and Guattari in characterizing affect as a body’s ability to affect or be affected.  In this definition, a body can be an organism, an object, or a structure.  

Emotion and feeling have deep roots in the classical ethnographic tradition, such as in W.H.R. Rivers’ studies of melancholia and depopulation in Melanesia.  As a field, the anthropology of work has built on these traditions and pioneered concepts, such as emotional labor, which illuminate the multiple social levels upon which individuals must adhere to social norms in order to be deemed competent professionals.  Emotional labor is especially considered in relation to gender, as pioneered by the work of Arlie Hochschild, the 2006 winner of the Conrad Arensberg Award, in such influential works as The Managed Heart and The Time Bind

Among many of the papers to be presented at the conference, my own work examines emotional labor and affect among a group of forensic nurse examiners in Baltimore, MD.  As the forensic nurses with whom I worked conducted sexual assault forensic examinations, the workplace was an emotionally charged space.  My field notes and interview transcripts from a 36-month period of research are suffused with nurses’ techniques for both managing the tense atmosphere of the emergency room, and their concerns about presenting themselves as objective and rational expert witnesses before a court of law.  In this case, the nurses’ preoccupations reveal the spectrum of emotions that connote forensic expertise and professional mastery.

Affect, rather than emotional labor, proved to be a more productive theory to draw on when querying another recurring theme in my field research: the frequent accusation of racism against forensic nurses often voiced by African-American sexual assault victims.  While the feeling of being discriminated against may be precipitated by victims’ personal experiences, the nurses, who I came to know very well over the period of my research, were not “racist” in any obvious sense.  Perhaps, I thought, here was an instance of structural violence?  In the upcoming conference, I will discuss affect as it relates to structural violence.  I argue that the structures that activate the victim’s experience of discrimination are two-fold.  The local histories of racist practices associated with clinical interventions comprise one genealogy of racism.  The second set of structures, however, is not dependent on the race concept whatsoever.  They derive from the practice of the law itself.  The affect of the courtroom, as a space of adversarial encounter, suffuses forensic practice with suspicion and doubt.   While nurses claim that framing their inquiry with suspicion serves to establish forensic objectivity, victims experience the objectivity as discrimination.

The conference selection committee, headed by graduate students Bican Polat and Amrita Ibrahim, noted that many of the paper submissions addressed race and ethnicity.  The frequency of submissions addressing this topic led to the obvious decision to develop a panel on race, identity and discrimination.  Pedagogy; affect as critique; space and structure; and expertise and the body emerged as the other themes around which the panels were organized.  The panels are made up of 11 participants drawn from various graduate programs across the country, including five papers from the hosting university.  Students from University of Chicago, CUNY Graduate Center, University of North Carolina, and Rice University round out the rest of the group.  Psychiatry, theater, education, culinary arts, missionary work, and administrative labor are among the professions that panelists will discuss.

Professor Hirokazu Miyazaki of the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University is the invited capstone lecturer.  His book, The Method of Hope, brought him to students’ attention as an apt choice for conference speaker.  The Hopkins Anthropology graduate students look forward to the annual conference as an opportunity to discover overlapping interests with other graduate departments.  The conference organizers anticipate that “Working Affect” will lay the ground for a lively on-going conversation on the relationship of work to affect. 


[Sameena Mulla ( is an Anthropology Ph.D. Candidate at Johns Hopkins University.]


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The Hopkins Reading Group: Don Selby, Hester Betlem, Thomas Cousins, Ross Parsons, and Sameena Mulla (from left to right)