Moving affects: Ahmed´s affect theory and migration politics

Volume 11 | Número 107 | Abr. 2024

Júlia Gonçalves

Fabiane Simioni

Rafaela Isler da Costa


Our daily lives are influenced by others, whether we are in physical contact or proximity, or if affection is produced through other forms of communication, such as media, books or television news. The society of collective feelings, according to Sarah Ahmed (2004), is a society where we are affected by others as well as affecting others simultaneously. Our understanding and name of these affections are influenced by our previous experiences as well as the way we have learned to observe the world in the past.

Additionally, the way in which social media functions in terms of affections, emotions, and feelings must be considered in this context, as it propagates emotions more quickly and intensely, whether they are positive or negative. In the case of the present work, our focus will be on so-called negative emotions or affects[1], related to xenophobia, hatred, and fear of the other.

The understanding of affect and emotion is crucial in comprehending migration processes particularly how migrant individuals from the margins of power, generating positive or negative affects. In the field of international relations, negative affects such as racism and xenophobia towards migrant communities have been widely discussed. However, when viewed through the lens of affect theory, these traces take on a new dimension, offering a fresh perspective on how to address them.

In this article, we aim to explore the affect theory proposed by Ahmed (2004) with the goal to understand how emotions and affects are shaped against immigrants, particularly those who are racialized. Through this exploration, we hope to shed light on the fact that the discourse that supports anti-immigrant policies is often heavily emotional, evoking past experiences and sentiments within individuals. Through a literature review, we aim to understand the cultural impacts of affects o­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­n this matter and how emotion works in concrete ways.

The bibliographic research was carried out using databases such as the Omni library platform[2], accessed from the University of Ottawa program and the Google Scholar virtual platform, both of which direct the researcher to articles and books based on the chosen keywords. The keywords used were: “affect theory”, “Sara Ahmed”, “Migration”, “Xenophobia”, used alone and in different arrangements.

 With that in mind, we conducted qualitative research based on Ahmed’s (2004) perspective of affect and how it relates to the Global North view on migration processes. To do this, we filtered articles that were related to the theme of migration and dialogued with affect theory as proposed by Ahmed in her article “Collective Feelings: Or the Impressions Left by Others” published in 2004, which was the starting point for this research.


The intensification of migration processes and the role played by social media as mediators of feelings involved in exchanges between migrants and hosts can be disruptive and generate emotions that are considered positive or negative. The word “emotion” refers to movement, emotions are what move us, but they are also about our attachments, what connects us to something as well as move us away. For Ahmed (2004), the connection between movement and attachment is intrusive.

Emotions create the distinction between what is inside and what is outside, a separation that occurs through the movement of response to others and objects. In other words, rather than classifying emotions between the individual and the social, emotionality involves the intertwining of the personal with the social and affection with the mediated (Ahmed, 2004).

Ahmed’s work often revolves around topics of race and racism by exploring how people feel when encountering someone of a different race than theirs, and how this feeling causes bodily sensations. The term “surfacing” is used metaphorically to describe how tangible qualities, such as skin color, can create borders between people. This border is created by the sensation of touch on the skin that can be seen on an individual level, but it also applies to groups of people who are excluded or marginalized (Schmitz; Ahmed, 2014).

Affect theory is complex, and regarding migratory processes, it can be very useful in the attempt to understand why so many immigrants feel more than displaced (a feeling of lack of belonging that to some extent is natural, as they are abandoning the known and familiar for the unknown), but despised by the society from the place they migrated to. Ahmed explores how neighbourhoods, cities, and nations can come to identify themselves as a collective body by excluding outsiders.

This process of exclusion creates a sense of belonging for those who are included, but it can also be harmful to those who are excluded. This can be experienced either as the feeling of someone who feels like a stranger who doesn’t belong or the feeling of perceiving someone else as a stranger who doesn’t belong. The feeling of “you don’t belong” creates a sense of belonging for those who are included, but it can also create a sense of alienation for those who are excluded (Schmitz; Ahmed, 2014).

In the piece “Happy Objects” (2010), Ahmed explains the concept of “happiness as happening, as involving”. She suggests that being happy means being affected by something and has furthered this connection between affect and happiness by introducing the idea of “contingency” between bodies and objects. She argues that happiness brings us into a close relationship with things.

According to her, some affective values are sometimes attached to things being affected by something, which means evaluating that thing. Objects can accumulate positive or negative affect values in this sense, in the same way people do. This attachment isn’t necessarily the truth, but it shapes how people deal with it, an immigrant person carries some affects that are raised in other people’s minds even before the encounter.

In this context, being touched in a certain way (or moved) in the encounter with another human being may involve an understanding not only of the encounter itself but of the other that is encountered, as possessing certain characteristics which have been already identified and valued.

“If we feel another hurts us, then we may attribute that feeling to the other, such that the other is read as the impression of the negative. In other words, the ‘It hurts’ becomes, ‘You hurt me’, which might become, ‘You are hurtful’, or even ‘I hate you’ (Ahmed, 2004, p. 30)

The author’s great contribution is that she changes the focus of the feeling from the other as the person responsible for the fear, anger or disgust to the person who feels them:

That’s part of the way in which i’m approaching how emotions work to actually register the truth of a judgement – “i’m disgusted, you’re disgusting, it’s disgusting” – and how that then becomes the quality of a thing, but then how that quality becomes shared as a social agreement, that “they” are the disgusting thing (Ahmed, 2014, p .101)

Ahmed uses a chair metaphor to explain how bodily sensations work in terms of privilege. According to her, it’s like there’s a chair designed in a way that’s comfortable for certain bodies to sit on it, as if it were molded for those bodies (Ahmed, 2014). The chair welcomes those bodies that have been previously shaped in it, and when someone who doesn’t fit into that mold arrives (like an immigrant at their destination country), they feel extremely uncomfortable. “I am thinking about structures in terms of how worlds are actually made to shelter some bodies and not others” (Ahmed, 2014, p. 101)

The issue of comfort and discomfort is often used to evaluate the variables that different subjects face. Maria Rodó-Zaráte (2022) uses this approach to construct an affect methodology designed in her “relief maps”. She suggests that people who have a greater number of intersecting lines, such as gender, social stratum, and migrant status, find it more difficult to feel comfortable than those who have stable lines without major variations. The latter group typically consists of cisgender, white, non-immigrant men, who are considered the universal standard. They benefit from “chairs” that are molded to fit their bodies.

Given this, contact involves the person and the stories that came before, racism is an example of how it operates in intercorporeal encounters. When a white racist individual encounters a racialized one, he feels a range of emotions, such as fear, hatred, and disgust (Ahmed, 2004). Faced with this, this subject’s immediate response is to move away from that body or annihilate it through acts of physical or symbolic violence.

When we encounter someone, our past experiences and stories shape how we see them. This can sometimes create a sense of threat and influence our beliefs. On social media, the truth can be distorted and the line between real and imaginary becomes blurry. This can lead us to live in cultural bubbles where our understanding of others is shaped by our own biases.


In Ahmed’s piece Collective Feelings: or, The Impressions Left by Others (2004) interestingly, the figures of a rapist, a child molester, a mixed racial couple and a foreigner/alien are put in the same category, as things that cause fear, anger and disgust. The white western people, according to her, see the bad and the grotesque in these examples.

The rapist and the child molester cause direct harm to other people, and the other examples? To whom the “evil” is perpetrated? The author responds: the victim is the integrity of the Nation. The evoked body, as the author discusses, has pure blood, this blood, when mixed with “inferior” categories of people, ends up maculating the whole nation (Ahmed, 2004).

These preconceptions are maximized within social media, specially when intersected with different forms of oppression, such as race and gender (Collins; Bilge, 2021). In her work “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas” published in 2015, Collins explains intersectionality is defined as “the critical view that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, abilities and age do not operate in a unitary way, as mutually exclusive entities, but as phenomena of reciprocal construction that, in turn, shape complex social inequalities” (Collins, 2015, p.2).

For example, this can be seen in the racist discourse of certain media outlets in 2022 regarding the war between Russia and Ukraine, which led to the migration of Ukrainian people to other regions of Europe. The terms used to describe the Ukrainian refugees in the media reflected the structural racism on our society. Charlie D’Agata, a CBS news reporter once said, “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European country, a city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen” (Asylum Access, 2022).

In NBC News from Poland, another reporter said in an interview, “Just to put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria. These are Christians or white.” (Asylum Access, 2022).  Reporters talked about the need to protect those people that had no choice except leave their home to protect themselves, a similar situation to the African and Muslim refugees but in this case, those are people that looked white, Western and Christian. In this case, it is quite easy to bring on a sense of public fear of people considered a danger to the body of the Nation, such as immigrants and racialized groups. These people are often pictured as rapists and child molesters, causing the viewer to automatically identify these figures with those adjectives. Every immigrant can be a potential rapist in this picture (Ahmed, 2004).   

Given this, by dehumanizing immigrant people it is easier for the population to accept the absence or precariousness of public policies at this regard. For Estévez (2018), the increasing dismantling of social policies in the Global North is an effect of necropolitics, whereby people die because of the State’s lack of action.

In the United States, the growth of neoliberal populist policies based on hatred of migrant people from Latin America and the Middle East has led to impasses in their entry into the country.  This led to the creation of places that Ariadna Estévez (2018) credits as “spaces of death”, where these marginalized migrant populations are detained. These policies take the stance of marginalizing certain groups that are considered unfit. For Estéves, making minorities die and letting those favored by neoliberalism live, normally rich, white men from the Global North, is an administration of death (Silveira, 2021).

Regarding immigrant women, we can see some gender issues added to the plate. Women can be seen as threat for having the possibility for reproduction, who will generate more children for a nation that does not want them. In many cases, these women are sexualized and objectified by the same people who place immigrants as a possible danger.

This ideology connects with the “great replacement theory” which promotes de contraception of immigrant women whilst encourages the growth of birth rates among white women. The theory allege that white people are losing their power because of the demographic rise caused by racialized people because of immigration processes. Extreme right movements that support this theory believe that encouraging immigration and interracial marriage it will eventually lead to the extinction of the white race (Goetz, 2021).

On the other hand, the political-economic issue has also been subject to a discursive strategy employed by the Global North. This strategy involves shifting the focus from unmet social demands, such as the decrease in available jobs and increase in criminalization, to immigrants. By creating a common enemy, populism aims to simplify the complex issue at hand. Populism needs to elect a common enemy, using affects and feelings as fuel to give strength to that discourse.

In this context, for Bonilla-Silva (2019, p, 8): “Whenever whites have felt too socially or economically close to Blacks, they have lashed out”. The author elucidates how the white identity was built over notions of freedom, self-made and hard-working people making themselves oppositional to the “other” they see as unfit in these categories, such as immigrants and black folks (seen as lazy, underserving, or dangerous), in a way they can’t empathize with them.

So, for Bonilla-Silva, Donald Trump was elected in the United States not because he would bring jobs back or “drain the swamps”, but because he would build a wall to keep Latinos outside “their” country and keep them to take over “their” jobs and start living in “their” neighbourhoods. In addition to that, he would also deal with crime by controlling black people and banning Muslims from America to protect the “Christian nation”.

In this way, as Achile Mbembe (2017) explains, Western has reassured itself by sustaining the terror and hate towards the other that is seen as different and understood as a threat: to the nation, the body and the blood. The “altruicide” constitutes the other not as similar to oneself, but as a menacing object which one must be protected, “or which must simply be destroyed if it cannot be subdued” (Mbembe; 2017, p. 10).  

In determining what is true and what is not, individuals tend to prioritize their emotional and personal beliefs over circumstances and facts when it comes to shaping public opinion. Emotions play a significant role on how people from the Global North perceive immigrants in terms of identity structures. Given this, the person gets to decide what is the truth and what is not: circumstances and facts are less important than emotions and personal belief, when shaping public opinion. Affect and emotion are central to how migrants experience and express their sense of belonging and how white people from the Global north perceive them through identity structures.


Affection, long before the existence of social media and the most intense migration processes to the Global North shapes intercoporeal relations, and these processes have been shaped around negative rather than positive emotions. Either it happens through population whitening policies, conspiracy theories such as the great replacement, or through the media news that even if indirectly, places the immigrants as threats to the nation and to “pure blood”.

The influence of emotions in today’s digital age cannot be overstated. Emotions have become a significant factor in shaping public opinion and impacting the trustworthiness of news media and governance. This has led to a trust crisis, which needs to be addressed urgently.

To do so, we must develop and implement social policies that account for the role of emotions in decision-making. These policies should recognize that emotions are a fundamental aspect of political and social decision-making and reject the idea of rational impartiality. By acknowledging the power of emotions, we can envision a future where we are harnessed for the greater good of society and directed towards achieving social justice.

This can be done by developing policies that promote empathy and understanding of diverse perspectives. Such policies can help us create a society that is more compassionate, empathetic, and just, where emotions are not suppressed or ignored but channeled towards positive outcomes.


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[1] In the present study, we chose not to make an academic differentiation between emotions, affections and feelings, despite recognizing its importance within affect theory studies as presented by Shouse (2005).

[2] The author Júlia Silva Gonçalves studied at the University of Ottawa and a has access to the library. The platform is available at:

Julia Gonçalves é Mestranda em Direito e Justiça Social no Programa de Pós-graduação em Direito e Justiça Social (PPGDJS/FaDir/FURG/RS). Estudante internacional especial na Universidade de Ottawa (UOttawa) no curso Feeling Feminist Politics. Bacharel em Direito pela Universidade Federal de Pelotas (UFPel). E- mail:

Fabiane Simioni é Doutora em Direito pela Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). Professora de graduação (Relações Internacionais e Direito) e do Mestrado em Direito e Justiça Social da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande (FURG). Co-líder do grupo de pesquisa Interseccionalidades e Decolonialidade nas Relações Internacionais (INDERI/FURG/CNPq). CV Lattes: E-mail:

Rafaela Isler da Costa é Mestranda do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Direito e Justiça Social da Faculdade de Direito da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande (FADIR/FURG/RS). Representante discente do curso de Mestrado em Direito e Justiça Social – FURG. Pesquisadora bolsista da CAPES. Pesquisadora do Núcleo de Pesquisa e Extensão em Direitos Humanos (NUPEDH/FURG) e do Grupo de Pesquisa do CNPq: DIREITO, GÊNERO E IDENTIDADES PLURAIS (DGIPLUS/FURG). Bacharel em Direito pela Universidade Católica de Pelotas (UCPEL). CV Lattes: E-mail:

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