Political Emotions of Combatants, Between War and Peace

Interview with Pénélope Larzillière and Jacobo Grajales

War combatants. Copyright: Shutterstock

Pénélope Larzillière and Jacobo Grajales are the coeditors of the Thema n° 91 of Critique internationale, Revue comparative de sciences sociales, April-June 2021, dealing with the emotions of combatants. They have agreed to answer our questions relating to this turn in war studies and the methodology of social scientists working in this field.

This special issue is part of a recent movement in the French and international social sciences that questions engagement, and more generally social phenomena, in light of the emotions expressed by actors. This new perspective is present in war studies as well, even if political science has for a long time neglected, if not ignored, the feelings of combatants. What has made this change of perspective possible in the analysis of phenomena of war?

War studies has long developed around strategic and geopolitical analyses even though it often deals with issues that are emotionally loaded, because of their violence. This is less of a paradox than it appears, because these studies also inherited a dichotomous vision of reason and emotions; and, from this perspective, it seemed all the more necessary, scientifically, to insist on interests, costs and benefits, organisation and tactics, more than the deployment of emotions. Taking into account war in a broad sense, in its many dimensions, including the emotional dimension, has occurred progressively. In international relations, this turn has corresponded to the development of feminist studies of the international, which have contributed to questioning the discipline’s traditional areas of focus. The turn also refers to an increasing attention brought to more mesological and micrological levels with the rise of research on the micropolitics of armed groups. In particular, this evolution relies on two changes in method and epistemology of research on political emotions. The first relates to the general renewal of the study of emotions in the social sciences. Interest is no longer focused on the political passions of irrational and rioting masses but on bringing these expressions under true sociological scrutiny. Concerning the emotions of combatants, the input of historiography is notable, with the vast field of studies on the feelings of soldiers in the First World War being a good example. The second relates to a strong ethnographic anchoring, nourished by the progress of fieldwork on violence and war, which shows their repercussions from the perspective of the everyday and in their full emotional thickness, which enables another look at combatants’ lived experience.

What is the contribution of this analysis of affects to the study of violent engagements? Does taking into account the part played by emotions and feelings in the phenomena of organised violence make it possible to renew research devoted to institutions, organisations, and social structures involved in or affected by these conflicts?

We have focused here on the expression of moral feelings that associate affects and reference to values and representations of the common good. By bringing attention to the expression of these feelings, it is possible to analyse the way these combatants and ex-combatants perceive their situations and situate themselves within a social organisation that is also made of moral economies. These moral economies are redefined through violence, conflict, and conflict resolution. As soon as images of oneself, one's place in a family, and one's political identity are at stake in these contexts, moral feelings constitute a privileged entry point for studying these transformations. These transformations are also part of biographical trajectories, from commitment to disengagement or the reconversion of these violent commitments. Their analysis sheds new light on situations of violence and exits from violence, by making the view more complex, particularly with regard to the links that exist between violence, emotions, and representations of justice and injustice. This aspect is often a blind spot in institutional policies of conflict resolution such as disarmament, demobilisation, and reinsertion (DDR). More widely, there is an epistemological input at several levels. Within combatant organisations, and when soldiers are sent away, there is a visible game between expected emotions, elicited emotions, and expressed emotions when it comes to violent engagements. Expressions of these emotions intertwine with specific networks and contexts while also shedding light on them. From one network to another, one social setting to another—for example from the armed group to family relationships—certain continuities appear. They can be observed in the role played by institutions at shaping emotions, but also in the tensions and discontinuities that translate into variable expressions.

How do you address the complex and shifting material of the emotional states of combatants and ex-combatants? What concepts do you use in particular? What are the pitfalls or biases to avoid?

We insist on studying modes of expression, to avoid an initial bias: what we analyse is the expression of these feelings in discourses and practices, in specific contexts, according to distinct social rules. It would be illusory to consider that we have access to some sort of “raw” emotional material. This is a necessary remark, because emotions are often broached through an idea of “authenticity” or “truth”. Additionally, we do not seek to establish direct causalities that would, for example, explain this or that violent engagement or disengagement as the result of this or that feeling of injustice or “moral shock”. Our approach consists in contextualising the expression of these feelings, in showing where they stand socially and politically in order to clarify the reading grids and interpretations, the experiences associated with these violent engagements and disengagements, and their legitimation. One additional precaution concerns the analysis of these feelings in a particular situation: if they refer to the past, we are less interested in the description of these emotions as they were felt before than in the way the emotions expressed during a situation of enquiry (our interviews) help give a retrospective coherence to a biographical trajectory.

In this work of collecting and interpreting testimonies not only of combatants and ex-combatants, but also of their relatives, what is the position of the interviewer?

We want to emphasise the particular complexity of these sensitive surveys, which are difficult to access not only because of the relationship to violence and contexts of conflict, but also because of the type of data that is processed. The collection and analysis of this data is only possible through long-term fieldwork and research. For example, it is easy to understand that revealing the disjunctions between certain emotional expressions and the expectations of a particular network is not self-evident. And there is no decontextualized evidence of emotional interpretation, at all times and in all places. Moreover, the relationship with violence adds an emotional load for the interviewers, while the emotional expressions of combatants and ex-combatants also refer to legitimisation and demands for empathy. This type of survey calls for a great deal of reflexivity on the impact of the researcher’s positioning and on the situations of enunciation (of the interviewees). In our case, the comparative work made it possible to fuel this reflexivity.

Access the issue on Cairn
Interview by Catherine Burucoa.
Cover image copyright: Shutterstock

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