Emotional Intelligence and Grassroots Epistemology

By Gino Canella, Ph.D.


As media studies scholars, social scientists, and journalists focus on big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, they often fail to consider the importance of emotional intelligence.


“Anger is loaded with information and energy,” Audre Lorde said in 1981. Emotion, according to Lorde, is data.


Feelings are often the expression of a personal truth. When emotions are expressed in public discourse, through social media, print, or protest, they have the potential to become a collective fact.


I produce documentary films with community organizers to understand how activists utilize media to complement traditional organizing and amplify campaigns for social justice. This essay reflects on the “emotional turn” in media studies, and argues that the emotions inherent in activism alter how I, as a researcher and filmmaker, document, perceive, and analyze movements and the issues they champion.


Although my camera literally filters how I perceive activists and alters the relational dynamics between me and the movements I document, it forces me to repeatedly confront the affective dimension of activism in my research. Initially, I view and film emotional expressions at protests and demonstrations. I then repeatedly re-view them during the editing and post-production, which is part of analyzing and understanding the data.


At a demonstration I filmed in November 2015, Black Lives Matter 5280 hosted a vigil to stand in solidarity with activists who were shot while staging a sit-in outside of a Minneapolis police station. The emotions expressed at the vigil ranged from sober to rage.

One woman at the vigil expressed grief and her desire to be with community “while I hurt.” Another shouted through a bullhorn, “It is not time for us to be docile here. It is not time for you to sit here and pacify your heart, because anger is what gets shit done, and we are upset. I am pissed the hell off!”


Juxtaposing these comments in the short film demonstrates how expressions of grief and anger are political tactics. Focusing solely on emotions, however, runs the risk of viewing the emotional aspects of movements as a political strategy. As Lorde said, “[A]nger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies.”


Scholars can ally themselves on the side of justice by translating the emotional intelligence of social movements through research and art that narrates and visualizes the struggle for truth.

Emotional intelligence is truth emerging at the nexus of affect and data. This is where scholars and activists should operate: collecting evidence, organizing emotion, and communicating why it matters to publics. Rather than avoid emotions, researchers and journalists should utilize affect to construct stories that help citizens untangle the complexities and contradictions of the world.


The laws of physics cannot be altered through provocative storytelling, but visual ethnographers should recognize how emotions exist on a spectrum that cannot be neatly categorized in a binary system. Joy and rage, love and anger, anxiety and security, happiness and sadness, are neither good nor bad, neither positive nor negative. Emotions represent the origins of understanding.


Activists imagine, and emotionally demand, a more just world. Imagination is simply truth that hasn’t yet been realized.





Gino Canella is a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor of journalism at Emerson College. His research and creative works examine how activists utilize media production and distribution to interrupt social, political, and journalistic discourses about race and labor and build progressive solidarity.


Leave a Reply