Book Review: Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes (2010)

Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes:  Emotional Rhythms in Social Movement Groups
Written by Erika Summers Effler
The University of Chicago Press.  2010.  237 pages. 

Reviewer:  Rebecca Dolinsky (for Social Forces: International Journal of Social Research)

            The subfield of emotions and social movements within the discipline of sociology has burgeoned in the last decade.  Erika Summers Effler’s book, Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes:  Emotional Rhythms in Social Movement Groups, brings new and interesting elements to the subfield.  The author ethnographically recorded the “emotional rhythms” of both a Catholic Worker community and an anti-death penalty group over the period of three years from the position of participant-observer.  In this book, she offers an intricate and innovative theoretical perspective that examines group patterns based on collapse, recovery, and adjustment. 
            There are five chapters and one Methods Appendix in the book.  Chapters 1 and 5 provide the introduction and conclusion, while Chapters 2 through 4 contain the crux of the author’s excellent ethnographic description of emotional life within the confines of the two social movement groups.  The first sections of Chapters 2, 3, and 4 contain rich detail of the “emotional processes” and histories of the two groups.  In the last sections of these three chapters, Summers Effler references a wide and impressive array of sociological theories to analyze the speed at which individuals experience emotional highs and lows within the groups, emphasizing the effect of time and space on emotions and group stability.
            Summers Effler’s methodology for data collection is notable.  Instead of relying on traditional recording devices, she used her ethnographic field notes to help reconstruct her experiences through the framework of storytelling.  In other words, the author imposes a literary writing style on the world of social science, challenging the positivist assumption that sociologists must aim for strict objectivity in their methodological efforts.  In some ways, I see this as one of the essential contributions of the book.  Summers Effler’s decision to leave the tape recorder at home yielded an ability to capture stirring, intimate detail during her three years in the field.  And once she finished data collection and gained distance from the field, emergent patterns within the two social movement groups became further obvious to the author.  Her methodology, thus, helps to expand the types of evidence that can be considered “sociologically significant.”
            Interestingly, the author worked in such close proximity to the Catholic Worker community and anti-death penalty group, that she included her own emotional responses to activities and individuals within the two groups.  The number of activists in both groups was fairly small, so the author’s decision to include her own emotions in the dataset only further enhanced her description of the two very different emotional rhythms within the groups.  For instance, she experienced and recorded the emotional effects of taking on grunge work in one of the groups—something she may have missed from the more objective position of non-participant researcher.
I laud her decision to include her own voice, which only further challenges social scientific objectivity.  Yet, her challenge could have been strengthened by an additional engagement with other authors who have also recently worked outside of strict, conventional notions of objectivity in their research.  For instance, the work of Avery Gordon[1] and Ann Cvetkovich[2] quickly come to mind.  Summers Effler does engage with literature that explores researchers’ spatial proximity and emotional reactions to subjects, but Gordon and Cvetkovich specifically grapple with the kinds of staid methodology that Summers Effler confronts.
            One of the elements of Summers Effler’s book that I most appreciate is her attention to both “negative” and “positive” emotions in social movement group processes.  Older social psychological analyses on emotion in spaces of collective action often pathologized negative emotions as both irrational and detrimental to group behavior, while more recent sociological analyses have privileged positive emotions as both rational and desirable to collective action.  Summers Effler avoids this binary, citing a multitude of activist emotions throughout periods of risk, drain, and expansion within the two groups.
            This book accomplishes the author’s goal of capturing emotional processes within these two very different altruistic groups in order to understand activists’ level of commitment throughout periods of collapse, recovery, and adjustment.  The theory she crafts does reference some dense literature at times, particularly in the footnotes.  However, as the reader follows her train of thought, a clear relationship forms between speed, flexibility, and the different types of emotions that individuals experience within social movement groups.  Summers Effler’s work adds to and enhances the literature on emotions and social movements and she importantly encourages future researchers to put her theory to the test.  Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes:  Emotional Rhythms in Social Movement Groups is an useful book for scholars on emotions and social movements, as well activists in small-scale organizations who are in search of an intimate understanding of emotional group dynamics within the daily ebbs and flows of their critical work.

Dolinsky, Rebecca C.  2010.  Review of Erika Summers-Effler’s Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes:  Emotional Rhythms in Social Movement Groups, in Social Forces:  International Journal of Social Research 89(1), September 2010, pp. 332-334.

[1] Gordon, Avery.  1997.  Ghostly Matters:  Haunting and the Sociological Imagination.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press.
[2] Cvetkovich, Ann.  2003.  An Archive of Feelings:  Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures.  Durham:  Duke University Press.