What does irritation look like cross-culturally? And what can it tell us about more universal human processes like cooperation and moral judgment? Read more about this exciting new interdisciplinary project.
The Irritation and Human Sociality Project, led by Dr. Anni Kajanus at the University of Helsinki, brings together cultural anthropology and experimental psychology to explore experiences of irritation across five cultural contexts (Brazil, China, Finland, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe). The broader aim of the project is to contribute to deeper inter-disciplinary dialogue between anthropology and other disciplines that explore human life and experience, often from very different perspectives on knowledge and theory building. To that end, the Irritation project could not have had a more fitting and exciting start than the interdisciplinary kick-off workshop held in October 2023 at the London School of Economics.
Irritation project researchers in London. From left: Patricia Scalco, Nadia Augustyniak, Fangming Cui, project leader Anni Kajanus, Hua (Miranda) Wu, and Justice Medzani.
Nestled in a seminar room overlooking the city, our team was joined by a group of inspiring scholars across the fields of anthropology and psychology, to discuss our developing research designs as well as the broader conceptual and methodological challenges and promises of crossing disciplinary thresholds.
Each of us presented aspects of our research design, which foregrounded some of the key conceptual themes at this stage. In exploring the exciting possibilities of survey-based cross-cultural studies of emotions, we also grappled with the challenge of operationalizing categories and distinguishing subjective experience from its expression. In describing our ethnographic research contexts, we drew attention to irritation as potentially a political emotion or mood in times of economic breakdown as well as the way it may trace colonial histories and modes of racialization alongside kinship ethics. We also engaged with the problem of language as a central entry point for understanding others’ subjective experiences and the possibilities of phenomenological analysis that foregrounds daily rhythms and embodiment as windows onto irritation in social relations.
The presentations elicited insightful methodological and conceptual suggestions from fellow participants. Broadly, these included thinking about the tension between more defined categories that enhance comparability across sites and staying open to the specificity of the cultural contexts we are exploring; the problem of distinguishing subjective experience from its expression in words or behavior; and the potentially helpful strategy of developing points of commonality that we can use as a reference in the collaborative process of research design and analysis.
Interwoven with our project-focused presentations, the invited participants’ discussions of their own research exposed us to various interdisciplinary projects and methodological innovations.
Reflecting some of the underlying questions of our own project, we discussed with Dr. Ivan Kroupin how critical perspectives in ethnography can enrich cross-cultural experimental designs in cognitive psychology. For example, how might localized understandings or perceptions of everyday infrastructure shape the categories that define “statistical ecologies”? Dr. Eleanor Power introduced us to social and egocentric network analysis and some of the ways these might be drawn upon in urban ethnography to trace the social and environmental irritants people experience. Her discussion tracing the links between religiosity, reputation and social support led us to consider more deeply how reputational costs and social networks might be important elements that shape how, when and if irritation is felt or expressed.
Furthermore, Dr. Dario Krpan presented his and his colleagues’ imaginative work on human tendencies towards the utopian impulse and perceptions of robots. Bringing together behavioural sciences and philosophy, the studies brought into relief the interpretive nuance and artistry of coding and statistics—a common ground for both anthropology and psychology. And finally, foregrounding an ethnographic perspective, Dr. Charles Stafford, encouraged us to think carefully about what it means to follow an object such as irritation—how and when might it be visible? What kinds of settings and observational strategies will allow us to trace emotional experience as it happens in the course of social life rather than as it may be described by our interlocutors when we ask?
Irritation researchers from the University of Helsinki with researchers at LSE.
The workshop left us inspired and excited as we continue to discuss and plan the fieldwork stage of the research and lay the ground for subsequent quantitative and experimental studies.
We are grateful to Charles Stafford for hosting us at LSE and to the other workshop presenters and participants for such generous and stimulating discussion. We hope to have another chance to come together in such interdisciplinary spirit, this time with even more insights about irritation to share!