'I felt like a bird without wings': Incorporating the study of emotions into grounded normative theory

Katie Tonkiss*, Luis Cabrera

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article explores how giving systematic attention to emotions could enhance grounded normative theory accounts. Grounded normative theory, and related approaches featuring an ‘ethnographic sensibility’, involve the conduct of original empirical research and/or analysis in the development of normative arguments. Each has been increasingly visible in normative political theory, focusing on moral claims in contexts such as migration, democratic practice, and grassroots struggles. Yet, while such approaches have sought to sensitively present experiences of injustice and exclusion within such contexts, they have given relatively little attention to the emotional or ‘affective’ turn in normative theory and social science disciplines, where emotions are studied as integral to political/moral claims and the motivation of action. We highlight how a similar emphasis on emotions as integral to political and moral claims could enrich grounded normative theory, in part through presenting an illustrative analysis of emotional expressions by immigration detainees in the UK. We show how such analysis can expand normative inputs, and clarify or reveal normative issues arising in a given empirical context. We also highlight how grounded normative work could enrich normative treatments of political emotions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)187–208
Number of pages22
JournalContemporary Political Theory
Issue number2
Early online date20 Aug 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2023

Bibliographical note

This version of the article has been accepted for publication, after peer review (when applicable) and is subject to Springer Nature’s AM terms of use [https://www.springernature.com/gp/open-research/policies/accepted-manuscript-terms], but is not the Version of Record and does not reflect post-acceptance improvements, or any corrections. The Version of Record is available online at: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-022-00570-9


  • emotions
  • affect
  • grounded normative theory
  • immigration detention
  • normative political theory


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