Dr Carolyn Pedwell, Newcastle University


Empathy is today framed as affective panacea to a wide range of international social ills. While Barack Obama has called on Americans to address the nation’s ’empathy deficit’ and feel for those who are struggling, both inside and outside the nation (2006: 67-8), feminist and anti-racist theorists have long argued that ‘engagement based on empathy’ is integral to fostering ‘social justice’ and ‘solidarity’ transnationally (Alexander and Mohanty,1997: xlii). This Fellowship project explores the power dynamics underlying the contemporary affective injunction to ‘be empathetic’ and their complex transnational implications. Through close analysis of a range of popular and scholarly ‘affective texts’ – including Obama’s political memoirs and speeches, postcolonial literary and cultural works, best-selling business books, international development literatures, popular science writing, and feminist, anti-racist and queer theory – it employs a critical feminist perspective to investigate the possibilities, risks and contradictions of figuring empathy as a tool for engendering transnational social justice. As my monograph and journal article will argue, although empathy may enable transformative social connections, it can also reconstitute gendered, racialised, sexualised and classed hierarchies on a global scale. As such, we need to pay critical attention to empathy’s uneven political effects.

Opening up ways of thinking empathetic politics that take us beyond universalist calls to ‘put oneself in the other’s shoes’, I examine empathy’s dynamic relationship to processes of location, translation and imagination. This involves exploring the ways that emotions are radically shaped by relations of history, power and violence in the context of postcoloniality, globalisation and neoliberalism, and fleshing out the possibilities and limitations of ‘affective translation’ across cultural, geo-political and temporal contexts. Moving away from liberal and neoliberal narratives which invest empathetic perspective-taking with a near magical power to bridge all differences and heal all wounds, the project considers how ‘alternative empathies’ might offer new and transformative ways of thinking – and feeling – the links between emotion, affect and social change in a transnational frame. It will contribute to an affective theory and politics which do not view emotions instrumentally as sources of, or solutions to, complex social, political and economic problems, but rather examine diverse and shifting relations of feeling for what they might tell us about the affective workings of power, and the emergent possibilities for radical political solidarities, transnationally.

The Fellowship will enable me to disseminate my research in the UK and internationally, in North America and Australia, where there are important communities of critical scholars working on the politics of emotion. It will also allow me to further hone my research leadership skills, and bring together interdisciplinary researchers of affect, culture and politics with leading professionals and practitioners, through convening an international symposium: ‘Transnational Affects: Emotions and Politics in a Global Context’. An interactive website and blog will be desgined to support the event and the research project. These activities will enable me to develop an international research network for the study of emotion and transnationality, and to generate further high quality research and publications in this field. In sum, this project seeks to develop a critical vocabulary for theorising the transnational politics of emotion, which should be of significant interest and utility to interdisciplinary scholars of emotion, affect and political relations across the humanities and social sciences, as well as key audiences outside academia, including professionals in international politics and development, social business and enterprise, and local, national and transnational media.


Dr Carolyn Pedwell

Culture of Empathy page


Project Outputs:

Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy (2014). Basingstoke: Palgrave.

“Cultural Theory as Mood Work” New Formations (82) pp. 47-63

Faculti Media video


Related Publications:

Pedwell, Carolyn (2013) Affect at the margins: Alternative empathies in A Small Place. Emotion, Space and Society, 8. pp. 18-26. ISSN 1755-4586.

Pedwell, Carolyn (2012) Economies of empathy: Obama, neoliberalism, and social justice. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 30 (2). pp. 280-297. ISSN 0263-7758.

Pedwell, Carolyn (2012) Affective (self-) transformations: Empathy, neoliberalism and international development. Feminist Theory, 13 (2). pp. 163-179. ISSN 1464-7001.

Pedwell, Carolyn and Whitehead, Anne (2012) Affecting feminism: Questions of feeling in feminist theory.Feminist Theory, 13 (2). pp. 115-129. ISSN 1464-7001.

Pedwell, Carolyn and Whitehead, Anne (ads) (2012) Special Issue on Affecting Feminism: Questions of Feeling in Feminist Theory. Feminist Theory, 13 (2). ISSN 1464-7001.

Pedwell, Carolyn (2014) Circuits of Feeling in The Age of Empathy. The History of Emotions

Blog: https://emotionsblog.history.qmul.ac.uk/2014/02/circuits-of-feeling-in-the-age-of-empathy/