Emotional Intelligence: Elias, Foucault, and the Reflexive Emotional Self

  • Jason Hughes Brunel University


Over the last decade and a half there has emerged growing interest in the concept of “emotional intelligence” (henceforth EI), particularly within literature relating to occupational psychology, leadership, human resource management, and training. This paper considers the rise of EI as a managerial discourse and seeks to make sense of it, first in relation to existing accounts of emotion at work, and subsequently through utilising the analytical possibilities presented by the work of Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault. The case of EI is employed here as a concrete empirical site within which to explore potential complementarities between the analyses of Elias and Foucault, in particular around Elias’s arguments concerning the changing character of the social constraint towards self restraint, and Foucault’s discussion of power/knowledge and governmentality. EI is found to enshrine a more general move towards greater emotional possibility and discretion both within the workplace and beyond — an ostensible emancipation of emotions from corporate attempts to script the management and display of employee feelings. However, it is argued that rather than offering a simple liberation of our emotional selves, EI presents demands for a heightened emotional reflexivity concerning what is emotionally appropriate at work and beyond. As such, EI involves both greater emotional “freedom” plus a proliferation of new modalities of emotional control, albeit based now on the expression of feelings as much as their repression. Ultimately, these seemingly paradoxical aspects of EI serve to highlight an important point of inter-section in the work of Elias and Foucault around their conceptualisations of power, selfhood, and the shifting character of social control.

Author Biography

Jason Hughes, Brunel University
Special Section on Michel Foucault and Norbert Elias