Culture and Emotion Research Paper

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In the history of emotion research in the modern social and behavioral sciences, the pendulum has swung repeatedly between universalist positions and social constructionist positions. This perhaps reflects the fundamental fact that emotions are both biologically grounded and culturally shaped. The debate continues, however, because theorists differ in their views on how large a role biology and culture play in the processes of emotion. For example, basic emotions theorists have suggested that culture modulates emotional expressions through culture-specific display rules, but that emotions themselves are innate and shielded from culture. In contrast, many social constructionists have argued that sociocultural processes participate directly in the formation of emotions themselves. However, with the advent of increasing cross-cultural data, a satisfactory integration of the divergent positions is very much needed. This integration should be consistent with the fact that the human is a species that has accomplished biological adaptation by inventing and elaborating cultural systems. Thus, there must be a cultural mode of biological adaptation, and emotion is no exception to this general principle.

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1. Cultural Perspective On Emotion

1.1 Culture, Biology, And Emotion: Definitions

A cultural perspective on emotion assumes that humans are biologically prepared with a variety of physiological, neurological, and psychological components of emotion. A reasonable rule of thumb may be that humans are equipped with emotional competence and potential roughly comparable to those of their immediate evolutionary kins such as primates and great apes (Tomasello 1999). Physiological drives of hunger, thirst, and sex, as well as attendant processes of homeostatic maintenance, will surely make this list. So will rudimentary responses of fight–flight and attachment. Further, basic brain processes of pleasure, pain, and arousal, as well as the corresponding psycho-logical dimensions of valence and intensity of affect, are also part of the significant evolutionary heritage of human beings.

However, by themselves, these processes are not emotions. Emotions are higher-order mental organizations formed around certain core elements such as pleasure and pain, approach and avoidance, or fight and flight (Ortony and Turner 1990). Hence, many other processes and elements have to be combined and accorded their divergent functions and forms through social and cultural processes by which individuals try to accomplish, collectively and personally, a form of adaptation and adjustment to their own sociocultural environment. It is important to note that as a human-made part of the environment, culture is fundamentally symbolic and meaning-ridden. In other words, culture includes a variety of tools, images, knowledge, conventions, and practices, which as a whole define the context of adaptation for each and every individual. The cultural perspective assumes that each individual becomes an agent who thinks, feels, and acts adaptively and functionally within a given sociocultural context both by incorporating cultural meaning systems into his or her individual memory and by coordinating his or her responses with the contingencies of external events that are defined and often taken for granted in the context. This applies to emotion as well. Thus, various innate components of emotion are likely to be configured differently, sometimes dramatically so, across different cultures and historical periods.

1.2 Emotions And Categories Of Emotion

One significant contribution of the cultural perspective is to have raised a question on a commonsensical notion that emotions causally follow certain antecedent events (Lazarus 1995). In the emotion research of the past, it was often assumed that a cognitive appraisal of an attendant situation as, say, ‘unfair’ and ‘demeaning,’ leads causally to an emotion of ‘anger.’ Although the notion seems familiar, resembling closely our folk understanding of mental life, it is not at all obvious that the appraisal can be so neatly separated from, let alone causally placed prior to, the emotion itself. One may wonder what will really be left in, for example, anger if an appraisal of ‘demeaning offense’ is taken out. Perhaps, anger is made up of ‘demeaning offense’ and the actual social act that is readily interpreted as such. If this is the case, the appraisal and the attendant pattern of social interaction may more reasonably be seen as the integral components of emotional experience.

It is important to note that a large number of studies have documented cross-culturally stable associations between appraisals and emotions (Scherer 1997). In these studies, subjects are asked to provide ratings on a variety of appraisal dimensions after having imagined an incident where they felt certain common categories of emotion such as joy, anger, and sadness. Although the degree of cross-cultural similarities observed in these studies is impressive, cautions are due for two reasons. First, there also exist small, but systematic cross-cultural differences in a predicted fashion (e.g., Fischer et al. 1999). Second, exactly what the documented cultural similarities might mean is far from clear. To the extent that appraisals are part of the meaning included in the emotion categories, the studies do show that people have cross-culturally and linguistically translatable folk categories of emotion. But do they equally experience the same set of emotions? Are these emotion categories embodied equally? That is, do they neatly correspond to the structure of online subjective experience, behavioral responses, and bodily reactions? The ability to understand each other’s experience in terms of a common set of categories (i.e., translatability) surely points to a common human heritage of some sort. However, as some cultural anthropologists have suggested (e.g., Lutz 1988), the translatability is hardly equivalent to the universality of the emotion process (Parkinson 1995). In fact, with better methods, it has become possible to document considerable cross-cultural differences, as well as similarities, in emotional experience and process (Mesquita and Frijda 1992).

Evidence for the thesis that human emotions are biologically prepared, but socioculturally configured and conditioned is still sparse, limited largely to a few domains. Most notably, these domains include (a) culture and happiness; (b) culture of honor, insult, and violence; and (c) culture and facial expressions of emotion. This evidence is reviewed below.

2. Sociocultural Shaping Of Emotion: Some Recent Findings

2.1 Culture And Happiness

Cultures vary considerably in terms of the conditions under which happiness is experienced. In North America and many European cultures, self-esteem is shown to be a major predictor of happiness and subjective well-being. Although the association be-tween self-esteem and happiness can also be documented in many other cultures, it is considerably weaker outside of the European and American cultures (Diener and Diener 1995). In these cultures, appraisals of the self that is separate from other aspects of life carry an especially large weight in the judgment of the quality of life in general.

Cultures outside of Europe and North America tend to be more interpersonally and socially oriented. Instead of the ethos of independence (which is pre-dominant in the West) the ethos of interdependence permeates various aspects of life in non-Western cultures (Markus and Kitayama 1991, Triandis 1989). So far, much has been learned about East Asian cultures. Overall, in these cultures an assortment of interpersonal and social factors come out as more significant predictors of happiness.

For example, Kitayama et al. (2000) asked both Japanese and American undergraduates to report how frequently they experienced a variety of emotions. These emotions included three different types of positive emotions. Some positive emotions such as friendly feelings and respect are interpersonally en-gaging in that they subjectively result from a success in tasks of interdependence of the self with others in relationship. Some other positive emotions such as pride and feelings of superiority are perceived to have been caused by a success in tasks of independence and autonomy of the self. Finally, still other positive emotions such as happiness, relaxed feelings, and elation are more general in that other perceived antecedents are possible.

The results suggested that happiness is associated with very different experience in the two cultures. In the US, the reported frequency of experiencing the general positive emotions (e.g., happiness) was more closely associated with the reported frequency of experiencing the disengaging positive emotions (e.g., pride) than with the reported frequency of experiencing the engaging positive emotions (e.g., friendly feelings), thus conceptually replicating the earlier finding regarding the central significance of self-esteem in producing happiness among Americans. In contrast, in Japan the reported frequency for the general positive emotions (e.g., happiness) was much more closely associated with the reported frequency for the engaging positive emotions (e.g., friendly feelings) than with the reported frequency for the disengaging positive emotions (e.g., pride). In short, this and other related studies show that different types of people are likely to be happier in different cultures (Kwan et al. 1997). Thus, whereas in North America individuals with high self-esteem are most likely to be happy, in East Asia those with good social relations are most likely to be happy.

A similar point may apply to the question of when individuals are likely to be happy. In a recent study Mesquita and Karasawa (in press) used an experience sampling method to examine this issue. Both American and Japanese undergraduates were asked to record different aspects of their emotional experience four times a day for a period of several days. It was observed that whereas American subjects were likely to experience pleasant feelings when they thought that they had succeeded in tasks of independence, Japanese subjects were most likely to experience pleasant feelings when they thought that they had succeeded in tasks of interdependence. This social nature of happiness is likely to generalize to other Asian cultures. Thus, in an ethnographic work of Indian women, Menon and Shweder (1998) conclude that the well-being of these individuals is immersed in the notion of social harmony, cyclic continuity of the extended household and lineage, and associated duties and obligations.

The foregoing analysis has an important methodological implication. So far, this literature has been based on an assumption that happiness is a positive emotion that is attributed to the self. This assumption is required to justify the operational definition of happiness as an endorsement of a statement like ‘I am happy.’ However, cultures may vary in the degree to which emotions are defined and, hence, experienced to be shared in a social relationship or interpersonal space. The social sharedness of emotions may be especially pronounced in non-Western, collectivist, or interdependent cultures.

Finally, evidence indicates another curious cultural difference in the association between positive and negative emotions (such as happiness and unhappiness). Bagozzi et al. (1999) have proposed that Asian, especially Confucian, cultures hold a relatively holistic and dialectic construal about emotions. This construal, which asserts that positivity and negativity should coexist as yin and yang of the same process, may be contrasted with a more prototypically Western construal that assumes an opposition between positivity and negativity. These cultural assumptions seem to be related to the actual experience of emotions. Thus, there is considerable evidence in the West that positive and negative affect are statistically either independent or, otherwise, negatively correlated. Thus, feeling negative emotions does not influence or, otherwise, does decrease the likelihood of simultaneously feeling positive emotions. Recently, however, it has been shown that this is not the case in China (Bagozzi et al. 1999) and Japan (Kitayama et al. 2000). Consistent with the dialectic construal of positivity and negativity, in these Asian cultures the frequency or intensity of feeling negative emotions is often positively correlated with the frequency or intensity of feeling positive emotions.

2.2 Culture Of Honor, Insult, And Violence

A remarkable degree of culture-dependence has also been demonstrated for another kind of emotion, namely, honor-related anger and aggression in the American South. Nisbett and Cohen (1996) have suggested that there is a culture of honor in the American South and that this culture is responsible for a higher homicide rate in the South than in the North. A culture of honor is characterized by an ethos of individual power, masculinity, and self-protection (Pitt-Rivers 1965). That is to say, one reacts violently to even subtle cues of insult and attack. A resulting reputation of honor and proneness to violence is likely to preempt any actual insults or attacks on the person, hence serving the function of self-protection. Nisbett and Cohen hypothesize that the honor culture that is held in place in the contemporary American South has its origins in the herding and pastoral cultures of Celts who settled in the southern states of the US in the eighteenth century. They suggest that cultures of honor are likely to arise whenever no effective policing power is available for the protection of private properties. This surely applies to herding economies. Once established, however, a culture of honor often becomes self-perpetuating because many different aspects of the culture reinforce each other to form a sociopsychological system and, furthermore, some of those aspects are likely to be conventionalized (e.g., socialization practices) and institutionalized (e.g., laws that tolerate honor-related violence).

Drawing on this general theoretical framework, Nisbett, Cohen, and colleagues have marshaled evidence from three different layers that constitute the cultural system of honor. This work is exemplary of a cultural approach to emotion. It uses multiple methods; it focuses on different interlocking aspects of a culture; and, as discussed above, it addresses historical origins of the psychocultural complex.

First, the researchers demonstrated attitudinal differences between the two regions of the US. Thus, as compared to Northern men, Southern men are more approving of violent responses when personal insults or other threats on one’s properties such as houses and women are involved. Second, the authors have also shown that honor-related violence is sustained in part by social institutions. For example, personnel man-agers of many firms in the South show a much more tolerant attitude toward a potential employee who allegedly killed someone after having been insulted by him.

Will the honor-based system of culture and attendant attitudes and personal beliefs penetrate a much deeper layer of spontaneous emotional reactions? A third line of evidence, based on a series of ingenious experiments, addresses this issue. These experiments demonstrate that spontaneous emotional responses of Southern men are shaped in part through participating in the culture of honor. Specifically, in one condition of these experiments, when male subjects were arriving for the study, they had to pass another person (an experimental stooge) who was sorting files in an open file drawer. When the subject passed by, he inevitably interrupted the stooge because of the narrowness of the hallway. Further, because of the interruption, the stooge ‘accidentally’ dropped some files on the floor. Seemingly upset, the stooge audibly called the subject an asshole. There was no such insult manipulation in a control condition. Immediately afterward, a variety of measures were taken including levels of cortisol and testosterone (physiological measures of arousal and proneness to aggression). Half of the subjects were from the US South and the remaining half were from the Northeast or Mid-west. The researchers found that the insult produced a visible increase of physiological arousal and behavioral readiness for aggression among Southerners. None of the effects were found among Northerners.

2.3 Culture And Facial Expressions Of Emotion

How universal is people’s ability to recognize emotions on the face? Earlier work had suggested that recognition of facial emotions is quite culture-specific (Bruner and Tagiuri 1954). In the 1960s, however, this conclusion was challenged by Ekman, Izard, and others, who proposed that several basic emotions (e.g., joy, anger, sadness, disgust, and fear) are innate and part of the built-in hardware of a human animal. The most impressive evidence was that posed faces of Americans corresponding to each of the basic emotions were correctly categorized even by New Guinea tribe men who had minimum contact with the West, and vice versa. The current hypothesis is that cultures vary in terms of intensity of perceiving the basic categories of emotion, but the emotion categories themselves are universal (Matsumoto et al. 1999). Although there is a kernel of truth in the universalist position that emotional expressions are biologically prepared, several reservations have been raised.

First, there are some methodological weaknesses in the cross-cultural studies by Ekman (1992), Izard (1994), and colleagues. Although minor by themselves, as a whole they may have led the researchers to overstate their case. In particular, Russell (1994) has argued that the available evidence is consistent with a much simpler assumption that people in all cultures categorize facial emotions in two dimensions of pleasantness and arousal. Thus, emotion categories such as joy, anger, and sadness may not be part of a universal hardware of emotion. Second, Wierzbicka (1986)—a linguist from Poland—has suggested that the categories of emotion that are claimed to be basic are relatively specific to the vocabulary of the modern English. Indeed, some cultures do not have any corresponding emotion categories for some of the emotions. The question she raises is apt: What would the list of basic emotions have looked like if it had been compiled by a psychologist who did not speak English? Third, as implied by the cultural perspective described here, emotions may be much more social in both experience and origins.

Importantly, facial expressions of emotion appear to have different subjective consequences across cultures. Levenson et al. (1992) have shown that once the face is posed to mimic expressions of different emotions, there typically result (in North American subjects) both systematic changes in different aspects of autonomic activation, such as blood pressure, galvanic skin responses, and heart rate, and corresponding changes in subjective experiences of emotion. This suggests that the inner sensations caused by the contraction of facial musculature in, say, a grimace or smile, are often enough to generate an emotional state of anger and happiness. Yet, in a Sumatran village where the researchers conducted the same study, they failed to find comparable changes in the subjective experience of emotional states, although they replica-ted the physiological changes that were contingent on posed facial expressions. The researchers commented that in Asian cultural contexts interpersonal context serves as an important element of emotional experience, so much so that without the provision of an appropriate interpersonal context, the inner sensations are not sufficient to produce any distinct emotional experience.

3. Conclusions And Future Directions

Advances in culturally informed research on emotion towards the end of the twentieth century have high-lighted the notion that emotions are both biological and cultural. Species-specific predisposition, potential, and competence are differentially configured and integrated into culture-dependent forms of communication and social life, which in turn are dependent on the historical, ecological, economic, and political conditions of different cultural groups and regions. Accordingly, all mental organizations, including emotional processes and structures, are likely to be significantly shaped and constituted by sociocultural processes. In turn, these mental organizations become integral parts of the sociocultural processes them-selves. Much has been learned about the culture-dependence of emotional responses and processes. Yet, much more remains to be learned. It is especially important to develop better theories and methods that can be used to explore mutually constitutive interactions between sociocultural processes and mental organizations. In all likelihood, this will define one major agenda for research in the cultural psychology of emotion during the first decade of the twenty-first century.


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