Key Concept: Structure of Feeling

Another useful term from Raymond Williams that is central to this project is ‘structure of feeling’.

Before unpacking what it means, it will be useful to outline William’s map of cultural groups, which he splits into three:

  • Dominant culture: the mainstream culture
  • Residual culture: old cultural practises that still exert influence on the dominant culture, they usually offer an alternative or opposition to the dominant culture
  • Emergent culture: new cultural forms that are yet to be fully articulated, often fuelled by elements of residual culture
  • (There is also ‘archaic culture’, which refers to outdated and abandoned cultural practises)

The ‘structure of feeling’ method is a way to map out these emergent cultures.

Evolving Generational Models

We are bombarded by insights into emergent culture. They are normally communicated as research into the ‘millennial’ or ‘Generation Z’ cohorts.

This comes under the umbrella ‘generational theory’, and it is useful. For example, we know that big cultural events - such as the economic collapse, the attack on the Twin Towers, the fall of the Berlin Wall and so on - shape world views in significant ways. We also know that younger generations have grown up as digital natives, and that they view the world differently as a result.

However, this method is simplistic. It is a sociological approach, whereas we are seeking to understand a cultural approach.

Mapping ‘structures of feeling’ is more creative and flexible than the generational approach. It helps us paint impressions of the cultural changes that are just around the corner.

What is a ‘Structure of Feeling’?

How can you provide ‘structure’ to a ‘feeling’? ‘Feelings’ are complicated, messy and random. Whereas ‘structures’ imply reason and logic.

There is a tension in the term. A contradiction or paradox.

Yet - it is precisely this paradox that generates new thinking. It captures the insight that, collectively, we ‘feel’ things before we ‘think’ things. Therefore, by attempting to structure feelings, we start to articulate new thinking.

What is an ‘Affective Landscape’?

‘Affect theory’ and ‘affective science’ are growing academic disciplines that explore how we are influenced by emotions.

An ‘affective landscape’ is a term from cultural studies that blends both the science and the theory together.

In short, we map out an affective landscape by articulating multiple structures of feeling.

The implication for organisations is clear. In order to develop a deeper connection to culture, they must embark on an ‘affective landscape mapping’ exercise.

The emphasis here is on ‘mapping’, an invitation to conceptualise ourselves as cartographers.

Can you give an example?

Yes. The (dis)Connected Lives project is an example of an ‘affective landscape’. Within this project are mini-projects that articulate multiple ‘structures of feeling’.

In the next post I’ll share where we got to during the latest 5-week immersion with the students at UAL.

Research Designer