Fear, compassion and other political emotions affect the future of democracy

Political emotions play a significant role in the establishment of a democratic culture and in the political mobilisation of young people, which is why they should be discussed in education.

In her doctoral thesis on philosophy of education, Iida Pyy, MA, explores the significance of political emotions to education through, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement, the youth climate movement and a specific case of educational policy making (in one Finnish city).

According to Pyy, thorough understanding of political emotions is needed, and emotions should be critically assessed in today’s polarised social and political environment so that they can be utilised in educating people for a democratic way of life.

In her research, Pyy concentrates on political emotions, such as collective anger, fear, compassion and hope, and discusses their essence and meaning to democracy and education. According to Pyy, these emotions have also been observed in connection with the war in Ukraine. 

“Political emotions are significant, as they tell us something about our values and can induce people and groups to act,” Pyy says. 

“Having said that, emotions should be thoroughly understood in all their ambiguities and possibilities to make them useful to the culture of democracy.” 

Polarisation and global challenges in liberal democracies increase the need for research on political emotions

In recent years, the political culture of liberal democracies has been characterised by continually increasing polarisation. At the same time, societies are faced with complex shared global challenges, including climate change or the Covid-19 pandemic, for which constructive solutions should be sought together. Perhaps partly for these reasons, academic research on the significance of emotions in political mobilisation has increased in recent decades. 

“However, emotions are not discussed in education or related research to a sufficient degree, even though education plays a significant role in establishing and supporting a democratic lifestyle,” Pyy posits.

Focusing on Martha Nussbaum’s theory of political emotions 

In her research combining educational sciences and political philosophy, Pyy applies to education the theory of political emotions by the well-known philosopher Martha Nussbaum, highlighting the youth climate movement and other topical examples. 

Pyy notes in her research that a well-functioning democracy requires the establishment and pursuit of at least some shared political goals, and that political emotions, such as hope, compassion and trust, engender the desire and motivation to commit to these shared goals. Education has an essential role in learning to adopt democracy and the dismantling of political and social challenges, such as racist discrimination. 

Pyy’s doctoral thesis comprises three sub-studies, in which political emotions are examined through various examples in three different frameworks of citizenship education. Among other things, Pyy suggests that anger and fear can be detrimental to decision-making in education policy, whereas the development and practice of political compassion in school can lay down a sustainable foundation for democratic citizenship and human rights education. 

The doctoral thesis offers new perspectives for understanding the connections between emotions, politics and education. Pyy suggests that emotions, their different manifestations as well as potential benefits and harms, should be introduced both to public and school discourse.

Iida Pyy, MA, will defend her doctoral thesis entitled ‘Evolving Emotions: the relevance of Martha Nussbaum’s theory of political emotions in education’ on 27 May at 14.00 at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki.

The public examination will be held at Siltavuorenpenger 3 (the Athena building, room 107).
The public examination can also be followed via Zoom. Webinar ID: 622 9402 3103 

Contact details of the doctoral candidate

Iida Pyy, iida.pyy@helsinki.fi

Further information

Iida Pyy has a Master of Arts degree in education. Before her postgraduate studies, she studied at the University of Oulu and the University of Melbourne, Australia, with intercultural education as her major subject. Previously, Pyy has worked as a bilingual class teacher and a special class teacher as well as at UNICEF Finland. In addition to research, Pyy is involved in activities associated with antiracism and social responsibility.