Affect Effects Action

I’m trying to think through analysis of a case-study of blame and responsibility in which moral judgement is less about ‘action’ and more about emotion or ‘affect’ – the ‘state of feeling’ among and between people.

In the Yolŋu case it seems that it is not so much ‘action effects results’ in the sense of ’cause » effect’ but more ‘affect effects action’ and that action may or may not subsequently affect the state of feeling (and thus the state of relations) among and between those involved. The thing is, at this stage of analysis, I can’t get traction on the ’cause’ or ’causes’ of the event (a conflict in this case, which that took place during my time in the field). ‘Cause’, in this case –  it’s like an ink-spot of interpersonal influence and responsibility seeping and spreading through extended networks of kinship relations.

Turns out, I discovered in my thinking through reading, that ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ have a really interesting etymological relationship:


‘Affect’ is from Latin, ‘afficere’, meaning ‘act on, have influence on, to do something to,’ a verb of broad meaning from ad- ‘to’  + facere (pp. factus) ‘do.’

‘Effect is from Latin ‘efficere’, meaning ‘work out, accomplish’, which is from ex- ‘out’  +  facere ‘to do’


In the Yolŋu case, however, ‘affect’ is rarely intransitive. In fact, I’d go so far as to say never.



Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

8 responses to “Affect Effects Action

  1. Marcoiac

    I am not sure why you want to decouple action and affect. They seem so intertwined to me. It seems to me that all our actions have emotional roots and consequences. Are you saying that that’s not the case here? We say ‘that thing moved me’. Do these guys say something similar?

  2. Ah yes I should have clarified the specific context for this thought-post.

    Inferences of responsibility rest upon or implicate causal beliefs about human involvement. Action and affect are decoupled in terms of causality in the way we attribute responsibility in the Courts and in everyday life more generally – there is an incident, people determine the cause, a judgement of responsibility is made, which may give rise to blame and punishment. Causality here – the relationship between cause and effect or cause and event or incident – doesn’t entertain emotion as potential or possible cause. The ‘Crimes of Passion’ did I guess, but I don’t think that’s considered a genuine mitigating factor anymore.

    In contrast, in the Yolŋu case, causality – the relationship between cause and incident – is considered an issue of emotion or ‘affect’ as much as action. This gives rise to a local theory in which responsibility and accountability are distributed (in contrast to ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘personal accountability’).

  3. Marcoiac

    This seems quite interesting and potentially relevant to something I will be part of in the fall, but I want to make sure I understand what you are saying. I think I get your example about the separation of causality and emotion in western courts of law. (I actually think that things aren’t so cut and dry, but I do agree with you on the general principle)

    The Yolŋu case seems less clear to me. Let me make an imaginary but specific example and let’s see if I understand what you are talking about when you say “responsibility and accountability are distributed.”

    So, suppose you and I are both Yolŋu. I watch your videos playing guitar and like them. I show them to one of my buddies and he likes them too. He says “wow, that’s a great guitar, I bet you’d play great with it too.” next thing I do, I go to your house and steal your guitar.

    So, who’s responsible here of the act of stealing the guitar? My interpretation of what you’re saying is that I am not the only one responsible according to Yolŋu mentality. My buddy is also responsible, at least in part, and perhaps you are responsible too, maybe to a lesser degree than my buddy. (the degrees issue matter to me, because my mind is trained to be quantitative, I think ‘qualitative—only’ arguments are always a bit incomplete, but we can leave the degrees stuff out, at the mo, it’s not central)

    If I got this right, this is quite interesting, because it seems to me it involves a completely different cognitive construct of agency (the owner of an action) compared to the western one. Also, concepts like decision making and even that thing we call free will should be quite different in the Yolŋu mind compared to the western mind. 

    There is now quite a bit of discussion around the notion that a lot of empirical psychological data (and human neuroscience data too, for that matter, although nobody has raised that specific issue) are collected in WEIRD subjects. WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (I think) 🙂

    The point being that these data are collected in a very specific slice of human population (college students in western countries) and yet the results are extrapolated as relevant to the human mind in general. A case like yours (there are probably others, of course), the Yolŋu mentality regarding responsibility and accountability, hence agency and decision making, clearly shows the validity of the WEIRD concept in a rather dramatic way. Assuming I am getting it right 🙂

  4. Yes, that’s generally along the right line of thinking. I don’t know about ‘completely different cognitive construct of agency’ though; I’d say a different human theory of motivation and responsibility – a different model of interpersonal influence – or something. The front page post today is relevant in terms of some local concepts involved in the way people consider these issues.

  5. Marcoiac

    Good point, it could be just a different model of interpersonal influence. The front page post is the one on magic, sunshine (nice pics, btw!) and Mauss? Really? I must re-read it, didn’t see many connections.

    • Marcoiac

      I take it back. There are obviously connections. But, it’s kind of written in a way that doesn’t show to my evidently not well trained mind in these matters, the mechanisms, how it works.

      • Marcoiac

        It’d be good to be able to edit one’s comments, rather than just adding more and more. I wanted just to add that your answer here explains it for me. That is, the hypothetical case I outlined seems to be in the right line of thinking. I think I get it now 🙂

  6. Re: how it works – that’s what case studies are for – to show how these things play out in action in everyday life. Only I haven’t used pseudonyms for names of persons and place in case study material so I can’t post them on the web.

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