Repository logo

Queer(y)ing the Politics of Offence: An Exploration of the Phenomenological Texture of Feeling in Higher Education



Change log


Stevenson, Gavin 


Amidst the contemporary ‘War on Woke’ in the UK and elsewhere, increasing concern has been focussed on the ‘offendability’ or ‘sensitivity’ of students on university campuses – a concern that has largely been captured in the notion of an ongoing ‘culture war’. Critical voices within the media and in government – as well as in academia – claim there has been a rise of a culture of “toxic victimhood” (Fox, 2016), and a creeping “crusade of conformism” (Hume, 2016) whereby students currently seek “freedom from speech” in the name of “intellectual comfort” (Lukianoff, 2014). This ‘conformity’ to the principles of ‘wokeness’ is considered to have an “infantilizing” effect on a generation of young people, producing pathologically vulnerable subjects, jeopardising academic freedom, and endangering freedom of expression more broadly (O’Neill, 2015; Furedi, 2017). However, largely absent from such diagnoses of the ‘problem’ of taking offence ‘too easily’ is any empirical analysis of how offence is experienced, understood, and responded to by those social subjects who describe themselves as ‘offended’. This thesis seeks to remedy that absence by demonstrating the disconnect between what such contemporary criticism describes and participants’ own accounts of the experience and impact of being offended.

In this thesis, understood as an archive of offence, I map out and interrogate the phenomenon, materiality, feeling, and experience (the texture) of offence. This archive is primarily composed of 38 semi-structured personal interviews conducted between March 2015 and June 2017, conducted in the context of the University of Cambridge, in which participants were asked to reflect on a time in which they were offended. By interrogating the complexity and nuance of how participants describe their own experiences, and their strategic responses to offensive behaviour in the context of everyday routine university activities, I generate new models and concepts that contribute to a sociology of offence. Through unpacking participants’ accounts of feeling offended, I explore both the affective and analytical dimensions of such encounters – which I argue are powerfully indexical of under- described dimensions of ‘the politics of everyday feeling’ in contemporary society. I explore, for example, that interviewees were able to clearly describe vulnerability to offence as a historical and materially produced relation rather than a product of individual pathology, and I argue such testimony from the study participants can help to reveal the highly patterned and repetitive nature of offence.

Furthermore, through an exploration of how participants themselves analysed and deconstructed their own experiences of feeling offended, as well as their accounts of strategies deployed to respond or resist such injuries, I provide a critical and sociological language of becoming and being ‘woke’ as a particular incarnation of being or acting ‘politically correct’. Using my participants’ descriptions of how they manage and navigate the feeling of being offended in relation to others, I describe being ‘woke’ as a prefigurative horizon politics legible through underlying guiding principles that aim to transform conditions of livability for marginalized subjects. Yet, importantly, these accounts also demonstrate that understanding ‘wokeness’ as a prefigurative horizon politics means that it is necessarily replete with tensions, failures, and strategic dilemmas. Being and becoming ‘woke’, from this perspective, is thus revealed as an ongoing project rather than something that can be mapped or known in advance. Furthermore, this politics, in seeking to extend comfort to others, often comes at a personal cost.

However, I conclude by suggesting that these operations of ‘wokeness’ are a means of practicing more inclusive and radical transformation through a politicization and transformation of everyday interaction. As such, this thesis utilizes queer, feminist, and anti- racist scholarship to further understanding of classical sociological issues such as identity formation, belonging, and institutional, social, and interpersonal violence through the “keyhole issue” (Hochschild, 2016) of offence and aims to provide an initial intervention into a subfield of the sociology of emotions in its own right – the sociology of offence.





Franklin, Sarah


higher education, affect, emotion, feminist theory, woke, offence


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
ESRC (1517324)