Doing emotion, doing policy: the emotional role of 'grassroots' community activists in poverty policy-making

Working Paper 96 - May 2013

This paper examines different understandings of the emotional role played by activist or ‘grass-roots’ participants in policy-making. Drawing on findings from an ethnographic study of anti-poverty policy-making forums in Scotland, it considers what informants understand by ‘emotion’ and its role in policy-making.

It explores some of the explicit and tacit ‘rules’ about who may be ‘emotional’, when they may do that and how emotion should be expressed socially. It highlights how emotion is described as a particular form of knowledge, and how community activists are considered to have a particular affinity with it due to their first-hand, personal experience of the topics under consideration.

The paper looks at how participants understand the relationship between emotion, authenticity and legitimate decision-making in policy. Many participants see this aspect of knowledge as at odds with other forms of knowledge, such as scientific or legal expertise. Splitting off the ‘emotional contribution’ of community activists from the role of professionals, helps preserve their ‘grassroots’ and ‘professional’ status. While emotionality excludes you from ‘professional’ status, it is also seen as vital for good decision making.

The research raises some key challenges for policy makers, researchers and practitioners, including questions of power and status, and what is at stake when valuing particular types of knowledge.

Rosie Anderson