History Of Emotions Research Paper

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1. Using The Past For New Understanding

This field of study builds on two assumptions. First, historians of emotion believe that emotion, the response to stimuli that combines physiological reactions and cognitive evaluations, plays a significant role in historical action. In this they differ from some historians who have argued, for example in interpreting rioting, that purely rational calculations underlie behaviors even when there are admitted emotional overtones such as anger or fear. Second, historians of emotion believe, and demonstrate, that emotions are subject to change, according to shifts in historical context. In this they differ from some researchers who argue that emotions are human constants, based on inherent biological and psychological factors, varying only by personality. Historians of emotion join anthropologists and many sociologists in seeing emotional standards and reactions as group variables, at least in part. Whereas anthropologists mainly study different emotional configurations across contemporary cultures, historians of emotion deal with changes over time, venturing a periodization of key developments. Historians of emotion also contribute to emotions-study a concern for the social results of emotional standards, as opposed to purely personal qualities.

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2. Major Themes

Historical research has become a significant contributor to the exploration of emotion and the role of emotion in larger social interactions. Although there are a number of different approaches to emotions history, and several different rationales, most historians agree in the focus on ‘changes’ in emotional standards and experience. They seek to chart what the changes were, granting that explicit standards, or what is often called emotional culture or emotionology, are easier to delineate than actual individual or collective experience. However, they demonstrate that standards themselves, have important results both in emotional life and in social and institutional behavior. Here, indeed, is one of the chief methodological pillars of the field. Historians also try to explain what the ‘causes’ of change were, which helps connect emotions to larger social developments. They are also eager to show what the ‘results’ were, not just in individual perceptions of emotions and capacities for display, but in other institutions and interactions.

3. How The Field Became Explicit

History cannot be written without dealing with emotional issues and expressions. Even before the rise of psychohistory—the application of psychological theories, particularly Freudian psychoanalytic concepts, to historical data—biographers often referred to emotional qualities of their subjects. Classic attempts to convey the larger spirit of a historical period, like Johan Huizinga’s characterization of the waning Middle Ages, often included emotional dynamics, as did descriptions of reactions to wars or crowd behavior. With all this, however, the principal focus was not on emotion per se, but on emotion as a component of some other phenomenon.

The history of emotions received a considerable boost in the 1930s. The rise of social history in France, seeking to understand the experience of ordinary people in the past, involved exploring topics not previously part of the historical repertoire. Innovators like Lucien Febvre (1973) specifically called for research on emotions as part of the larger social history effort. At about the same time, German sociologist Norbert Elias sketched his theory of a ‘civilizing process,’ (Elias 1978, 1982) arguing that standards of self-control became more rigorous in Europe’s upper classes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His primary focus involved physical behavior, such as eating habits, but his attention to more refined manners also involved discipline over emotion. Neither Febvre nor Elias generated an immediate response; indeed, Elias’ theories are used currently more widely than ever before.

The development of psychohistory in the 1970s certainly called new attention to the historical exploration of emotion. Historians of childhood like Philip Greven (1977) and David Hunt (1970) thus explored the emotional impact of characteristic styles of childrearing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, using psychoanalytic theory; Greven focused on the consequences of new styles of discipline associated with religious movements in colonial America. Most psychohistorians, however, concentrated primarily on biography, as in the classic study of Luther by Erik Erikson (1962). Still, historians influenced by Freudianism have continued to contribute, particularly when they have turned to larger cultural standards and individual experience around these standards. Generational emotional results of the experience of World War I have thus figured in some explanations of the rise of German Nazism (including the impact of father absence).

However, most explicit attention to emotions history resulted from a slightly different set of developments, in social history and related social sciences, as a framework established in the 1970s translated into explicit research from the mid-1980s onward. Social historians, now dominant in many areas of historical research, continued to widen their exploration of how ordinary people functioned in the past. A major extension of these inquiries, launched in France but spreading more widely, argued for inquiry into deeplyheld values and assumptions—mentalites—concerning subjects such as death, community, or the forces of nature. Not surprisingly, attitudes about emotion quickly figured into this mix; sweeping studies of fear were one key result. English and American historians, for their part, broadened the investigation of family patterns into qualitative relationships among family members. In this vein they explored shifts in the definition and valuation of love, both marital and parental, and also changes in the ways anger was viewed in family life. Mentalities and family historians alike painted a distinctive picture of emotional standards in early modern—sixteenth to seventeenth century—European and American societies, compared to more modern norms. They also paid explicit attention to processes of change, particularly by the eighteenth century.

Two related strands of social history inquiry thus produced a new understanding of the extent to which past culture, and institutions like the peasant village or the family, could not be grasped without assessing the emotional dynamics involved. The same inquiry underlined the extent to which emotional dynamics varied over time—with the historical period—and were therefore subject to explainable change.

Concurrently, various social scientists exploring emotion, began to probe the historical record as well, in this case with primary, though not exclusive, attention to more recent developments. American sociologists and social psychologists began to look at new emotional standards at work, as service sector jobs expanded in the twentieth century. They also investigated changing definitions of family-related emotion. While most anthropologists concentrated on painting rich, but fairly static pictures, of emotional standards in various societies, some began to build in attention to change. Thus Robert Levy, in his classic study of the Tahitians (1973), dealt with the impact of Western colonialism on Tahitian emotional culture, while Catherine Lutz (1988) in a variety of studies looked at shifts in emotion over time, while relying heavily on contemporary field work descriptions for her basic categories. A number of European sociologists, some strongly influenced by Elias’ theories, began to examine changes in ‘emotion management,’ particularly in the twentieth century but in some cases over a longer sweep of time, focusing on ways emotional impulses were to be controlled. A Dutch group, in particular, worked on the emotional standards that accompanied more informal manners and relationships in the twentieth century. By the 1980s, explicit work in the history of emotion was well underway (see Wouters 1995).

4. Gains And Gaps In Historical Research On Emotion

Once launched, emotions history inevitably gained additional vantagepoints and emphases. The list of emotions historically explored now includes envy, disgust, joy (tentatively), grief, shame, and guilt, as well as the initial roster.

The takeoff of emotions history has also widened in terms of place and time—crucial indications of a project’s significance in this empirically specific discipline. Thus several studies deal with changes and continuities in emotional standards and expressions in Chinese history. Historians addressing medieval Europe have generated an impressive literature, as in an important set of studies on anger and projects on wonder and empathy (Rosenwein 1998). Classicists are also dealing with love, in the context of further explorations of family history. The growing range still begs for expansion and connection. Changes within the Middle Ages need more explicit linkage to the patterns noted in the early modern centuries, while the Renaissance, as a possible period in emotions history, has not clearly surfaced at all. Geographical gaps are at least as obvious as the challenges in chronology and linkage. Specialists dealing with a number of key areas—Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, additional parts of Asia—have yet to generate focused histories of emotion, as opposed to more haphazard overlaps and connections with other topics like family life. Relatedly, key theories about emotional change—such as the civilizing process idea—have yet to be seriously tested beyond the Western context, so despite some speculation there is no consensus about possible applicability. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the process of moving emotions history toward a full historical canvas is underway.

5. Two Turning Points

The most elaborate work, however, continues to emphasize developments in the USA and Western Europe. Here, in addition to broadening the varieties of emotions considered and the contexts in which they operate, historians and kindred social scientists have particularly emphasized two points of particularly revealing transformation. An important set of changes redefined emotional culture between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, with timing somewhat varying with the emotional configuration involved. A subsequent turning point intervened in the second quarter of the twentieth century, possibly a bit earlier in the USA than in Western Europe. Within this periodization framework a host of questions remain disputed or unanswered, but the framework itself has proved widely useful in explaining significant recastings of emotional guidelines and experience and in beginning to amass evidence about why emotions change and with what larger results.

In the early modern emotionological transformation, two factors propelled change. First, growing commercialization helped place new value on the family, as communities became somewhat more competitive. Family ties were alternatives to older, now frayed communitarian bonds. Same-sex friendships, by the same token, declined. Along with this, Protestantism, attacking the idea of special credit for celibacy, greatly improved the religious status of marriage (and, in destroying convents, made marriage more essential for women). By the seventeenth century Protestant writers urged emotional sharing in marriage. From these twin bases, actual emphasis on love as a key ingredient in forming and evaluating marriage measurably expanded by the mid-eighteenth century. A concomitant, noteworthy by this point, was a more systematic attack on anger in the family, as contradictory to love and also to the greater equality in human relationships being promoted by Enlightenment ideology. Jealousy was also redefined and more systematically reproached, particularly as the idea of a jealous defense of honor came under attack as uncivilized. Growing emphasis on parent–child love, combined with further erosion of community controls, helped generate the growing reliance on guilt over shame in childrearing (Stearns and Stearns 1988). Techniques such as isolation increasingly supplanted both shaming and physical punishments, convincing children that love was temporarily interrupted and could be restored only by sincere repentance—often establishing guilt as a durable emotional enforcer of character standards. Grief, though more fully amplified in the nineteenth century, also followed from a greater emphasis on love, along with new beliefs that deaths should be brought under greater control. The apparatus available to commemorate death changed in order to accommodate growing grief needs (Rosenblatt 1983).

Emotional change also developed outside the family. The acceptability of sadness and melancholy declined, with people (initially, particularly men) urged to present a cheerful demeanor. More broadly, emotions were increasingly seen as operating under individual control, rather than sweeping through the body as an out-growth of physical humors. Correspondingly, responsibility for personal emotion management increased. Words like temper began to suggest a type of anger that should be controlled, while outright neologisms, such as tantrums, indicated a childish level of rage that could disqualify an adult from serious consideration (Stearns and Stearns 1986). The rise of new standards of disgust followed from cultural redefinitions of emanations from the body and from growing social inequality, with disgust used to mark and justify boundary lines between respectable and unrespectable people and situations (Corbin 1986).

Historians are still working out some of the implications of these changes, in altering the context of family life but also spilling over into wider public arenas. The transformation of criminal justice, shifting from shaming to imprisonment, clearly reflected the new commitment to guilt, for example, along with growing disgust at crowd reactions to public punishments. Ramifications of emotional change could reach into a wide spectrum.

Redirections in emotional culture between 1900 and 1950 were also extensive. Here, the dominant motifs are greater control over intensity plus growing in-formality in social relationships. Some historians also add an increasing democratization of emotional standards, with fewer systematic social divisions between respectable groups and others. Suspicion of intensity showed in several arenas. Anger, previously approved for men as a motivation for business and professional life (though dangerous in the home), was now more systematically reproved, with new techniques designed to defuse it. Grief was increasingly disallowed. Even more revealing attacks on intensity turned against too much stress on guilt, which might damage children’s self-confidence. Maternal love, praised without major qualification in the nineteenth century, now fell victim to extensive criticism because of its overpowering qualities; mothers should keep their affection under tighter bounds. Romantic love, which had evolved toward increasingly idealistic statements in the nineteenth century, seemed excessive as well by contemporary standards; many prescriptive writers urged more limited, realistic emotional connections, while also freeing sexuality from some of the emotional commitment promoted in nineteenth-century advice literature (Seidman 1991, Stearns 1994).

The new concern about intensity was no accident, and it had some of the same range of effects noted in the earlier Western transformation. Causes centered on changes in economic structure, and therefore emotional functions, along with the rise of a new, psychologically-informed expertise. Growing consumerism urged emotional investment in acquisition and goods, and this diverted from some of the emotional investments that figured powerfully in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Corporate and service employment required higher levels of emotional selfmanipulation, in order to turn on a friendly smile and avoid bureaucratic confrontations. ‘Impersonal, yet friendly’ became a literal watchword in business training programs, with considerable emotional implications. At the same time, popularizing experts now referred to their psychological, rather than moral credentials, creating a picture of a more fragile mental structure than had previously prevailed. A recent study (Pfister and Schnog 1997) further probes the particular American fascination with psychological explanations and remedies, as a framework for contemporary emotional life.

The consequences of change involved, as with earlier redirections, both personal and social features. Americans became more nervous about emotional display, convinced that intensity reflected immaturity on their part; hence a recent study emphasizes a proclivity to check with others about onsets of jealousy, in order to provide a peer-mirror to guard against lack of restraint. Other studies (Salovey 1994) show the consequences of rigorous emotional control on the job, in distorting responses even in private relationships. Legal changes, including the rise of no-fault divorce, incorporated the growing belief that moderns should be able to keep anger and grief in check, in the most trying circumstances. Even changes in protest rates—the marked decline of labor strikes after 1958—derived in part from successful efforts to persuade workers that anger was childish, a reflection of personal flaw rather than a valid emotional response to objective problems. The reach of this new change in basic emotional style, in sum, was considerable.

Finally, amid growing constraints on certain emotional expressions, a recreational culture arose that provided some symbolic contrasts. Intense spectatorship, for example at sporting events, played off against normal emotion management, and athletes and actors were allowed displays of anger, grief, or vivid camaraderie that were not usually countenanced—providing, in other words, what has been described as a compensatory surrogate culture.

Exploration of the two great transformations has involved the work of a substantial number of historians and historical sociologists. Inevitably, even in a new field, some disagreements have surfaced. Specific emphases and attributions of cause differ in the approaches to the early modern transformation. French work divides between explorations of distinctively Catholic features (as in the work on fear) and a sense that French emotional culture moved in harmony with other parts of Europe (as in the work on familial affections) (see Delumeau 1978). Divisions, though not outright clashes, also inform the work on the twentieth-century turning point. European sociologists have worked more on the process of ‘informalization’ than have their American counterparts, arguing that contemporary emotional relations work because people can assume successful incorporation of the rules of restraint (Wouters 1992). American historians accept this conclusion, in part, but additionally point to important new regulations and tensions. No coherent schools have emerged as yet, but there are fruitful debates.

Both of the great changes in emotional standards raise a host of questions, headed by the problem of social class. The rise of new standards of love in the eighteenth century involved a variety of social groups; proletarians, free from the constraints of property arrangements, may have moved early to emphasize a type of love more fully (Gillis 1985). But some of the standards particularly attached to the rising middle class. Emphasis on heightened emotional sensitivities between parents and children, for example, while no monopoly of a single class, moved into a bourgeois lexicon; and many observers criticized workers for failure to display the finer parental feelings. Changes in the twentieth century did have a democratic air, in that nineteenth-century attempts to downplay certain groups as impossibly crude noticeably declined. Romantic love was a case in point. American jurists in the late nineteenth century had been willing to allow lack of love as a valid reason for divorce for middleclass people, under the heading of mental cruelty, but they would not do the same for the working class because such emotional refinement was impossible at this level. In the twentieth century, however, the nowmodified romantic love ideal was proclaimed for all. Still, issues of how particular emotional standards affected social classes are only now beginning to receive needed attention. One study, for example, shows how new hostility to the use of fear in childrearing, an American middle-class staple by 1900, captured Catholic working-class culture only in the 1950s. In other instances, middle-class prescriptions were not simply more slowly assimilated by other groups, but were positively defied, as in some of the more emotionally exuberant facets of twentieth-century African American culture (Stearns and Lewis 1988).

6. Current Issues And Future Directions

The success of historical work to date considerably adds to available information on varieties of emotional formulations and the ways values and emotions interact. It thus amplifies the constructionist approach to research on emotion, arguing that a significant part of emotional codes and responses vary with context— by place, but also by time period. The exploration of change and causation builds a further ingredient into constructionism, often missing from anthropological studies, in showing how one emotions variant may transform into another, responding to wider factors in economic, political, and cultural structure.

The historical agenda also raises problems, even aside from the range of areas and periods, and types of emotions, still open to this kind of analytical inquiry. The relationship between widely-prescribed cultural standards and other aspects of emotional experience—aspects that usually leave less explicit past records—is an obvious issue. Standards count in themselves: they affect social rules and practices, based on expected emotional behavior; they color evaluations of others and of self; and they unquestionably shape actual experience. Thus a culture that discourages romantic love—a common pattern in premodern peasant societies—almost certainly has less of it. But there are disjunctures as well, and historians must be sensitive to these. Among other things, emotional experience may vary somewhat less than standards do. Historians who initially assumed that the absence of explicit encouragement (indeed, the considerable explicit hostility) to marital love, in prescriptive materials before the seventeenth century, meant that there was in fact little, were assuming too much, and more recent researchers have improved on the evidence available in generating more nuanced statements of contrast and change.

A related issue, now happily beginning to gain constructive attention, involves subcultures. As noted previously, most emotions history to date has focused on mainstream standards issuing from dominant social groups. Various social classes, religious contingents, even age categories form emotional cultures of their own. Research in American history, particularly, is beginning to reveal patterns of emotionology in various religious and racial groups, and in the working class. These patterns sometimes link to mainstream trends, if with a certain chronological lag, but they sometimes deliberately run counter—as in the enthusiastic religious sects that arose around 1900 as an antidote to growing mainstream hostility to emotional intensity.

Comparison also deserves more attention. The extensive focus on large transformations invite finetuning. Most research on both the early modern and the twentieth-century turning points has been either strictly national ( just the USA or just France) or has assumed large transatlantic, Western trends. Yet we know that in the year 2000, in key particulars, regional patterns vary—the French get angry when jealous, the Dutch sad, while Americans scurry to get other people’s opinions. We need explicit historical comparisons to determine when, and above all why, distinctions of this sort emerged.

History can also establish middle-level generalizations about emotional change, based on the accumulation of cases. We can begin to use partial models of the factors most likely to cause change, and about the length of time normally required between the introduction of widely-shared new standards, and actual changes in social arrangements and behaviors (including childrearing). It took about a century, for example, for warnings against scaring children with bogeymen stories to gain sufficient acceptance that the prescriptive emphasis could be cut back (after the 1920s). Thirty years elapsed between new strictures against anger in the workplace, and incorporation of the same standards in parenting advice; and almost 40 years between the new culture’s inception and clear implementation in laws and protest levels. These are straws in the wind, toward more systematic statements about timing.

In what is still a new field of explicit research, despite promising results to date, dealing with empirical and theoretical gaps inevitably forms a challenging agenda for the future. Identifying subcultures has barely begun, for example in dealing with racial differences over emotional goals in the USA. Geographical omissions are troubling in themselves, and they limit opportunities for comparison. Even for the Atlantic world, where the literature is richest, comparative opportunities have barely been taken up. With all this, two additional challenges remain: further integration with history, and further integration with the other disciplines that examine emotion.

The number of historians interested in emotion has expanded steadily. But findings about emotional change are not usually incorporated into mainstream historical study. Family historians come closest to recognizing the importance of this topic, as an element for example, along with birthrates and the roles of family members, in establishing periodization. But the day when historians of protest or politics consider the role of shifts in emotional standards has not yet arrived. The connection is possible: at a time when the emotional reactions of American politicians are carefully scripted in light of the dominant emotionology, there is obvious invitation to explore mutual interactions between culture and political reactions in the twentieth century (Kofler 1997). The same holds for studies of sports or labor relations. While the record to date is tentative at best, there is reason to assume that fuller integration will occur, as historians become more comfortable with the idea that emotional standards shift and that shifts have important consequences.

The even greater challenge for the future is interdisciplinary. Historians of emotion have found ready audience among anthropologists, sociologists, and some social psychologists (particularly, of course, those theoretically wedded to a discursive, culturalconstructionist approach). But actual interdisciplinary projects, that would deal with change and impact in relation to current emotional manifestations, have yet to emerge. Mainstream psychology focuses primarily on invariant aspects of emotional display, such as facial expressions, and ignore issues of cultural variance and change (Harre and Stearns 1995). We lack the collaboration necessary to use historical analysis to help test the boundary lines between inherent emotional components and the role of cultural standards, yet precisely this collaboration constitutes a vital next step. Projects that would identify recent change and subject the emotional results to standard psychological scrutiny are possible—for example, the tentative signs, since the 1970s, of partial modification of the contemporary hostility to grief. But constructing the interdisciplinary apparatus that can handle such issues is no easy task, given the growing split between cultural analysis and scientistic psychology. The desirable agenda is obvious; its realization, distinctly problematic.

Even as things stand, the history of emotions is contributing not only to an understanding of emotion, but also to a wider assessment of emotion’s impact on behaviors and social institutions. Too often, emotions research focuses on individual experience. Even in the short time explicit emotions topics have commanded their attention, historians have advanced the exploration of why particular emotional articulations matter—how they affect the experience of family life and friendship, how they connect to regimens at work, even—in some extensions currently being developed—how they can help shape new political styles. Historians will continue to probe emotional characteristics in the past, and particularly cases of significant change; but they will also be eager to fold emotion actively into our larger understandings of how societies function. Momentum continues to build in this active new disciplinary partner in emotions research.


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