Sociology Of Emotions Research Paper

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1. Introduction

In this research paper, a brief social history of the Western bias against emotions will clear the air for their current study. Works defining the beginnings of the ‘sociology of emotions’ are described; substantive topics addressed by the field are organized under a cybernetic macro–micro framework that emphasizes its contribution to sociology in general.

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The sociology of emotions is premised on several recent observations that contradict popular prejudices. First, some constant emotional posture is necessary for mental functioning. Second, rather than depicting the asocial, idiosyncratic part of human existence that escapes through the seams of social organization, emotion is socially patterned and is a vital part of the maintenance of social organization. Third, rather than shaping the mere cultural display of biologically fixed emotions, in most cases, social processes are involved in their very constitution.

Definitions of emotion typically include organized mental states comprising cognitive appraisals, impulses to action, and to varying degrees, feelings. Hochschild (1983) likens emotions to senses that signal what is personally relevant about surrounding events. Scheff has cautioned that the attempt to define emotion is a rock on which many a ship has split. One difficulty is that emotion labels are often ideological. Contemporary American salaries for corporate executive officers averaging 400 times more than the lowest organizational worker can be viewed in terms of ‘purely objective rewards for effectiveness,’ self-interest, or greed.

2. The Recent Shift In The Western Evaluation Of Emotion

Until the end of the twentieth century, Western society paid scant attention to emotions except to warn against them as a source of bias. The last quarter of the century however, saw a significant reversal from the devaluation of emotion to recognition of its crucial importance. Emotion, once seen as the enemy of rationality is now viewed as the foundation for our engagement in the world. Studies of brain trauma now identify certain emotional processes as necessary for rational choice-making and social adaptation. Artificial intelligence research reveals the importance of emotional predispositions in selecting what is relevant to a particular line of thought out of an unmanageable array of objective possibilities. Philosophers contend that ‘emotion is what one sees the world in terms of.’ Thus, emotion sets the very agenda for thought.

3. The Discursive Origins Of The Word Emotion

The practice of carving affective experience into many separate subtypes and grouping them together as the same kind of psychic phenomena called ‘emotion,’ is relatively recent, and suspect to many scholars. The word did not appear in the Oxford Dictionary until 1580, after terms like ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’ lost their negative connotation and individual experience became a subject worth attention. Before that, rage, love, and pity, etc. were not seen in terms of the broader category, ‘emotions.’ As the ascribed identities in the dark ages gave way to identities based more on achieved status, subjective experience became more relevant. Personal identity depended more on interpersonal skills and self-reflective behavioral control. People became more aware of, and interested in, their emotions.

Since antiquity, the more narrow term, ‘passion,’ stemming from ‘pathos’ and associated with suffering, referred to psychic events that overcame individuals. The broader term ‘emotion’ in France came from the Latin ‘movement’ or ‘migration,’ and meant that which ‘moved’ the person psychically. While this movement could now be for good or bad, the term still carried the connotation of persons torn between their hearts and minds (Sarbin 1986). This placed cognition as the exclusive link to reasoning with emotion as its threat. Thus, the implication of the term ‘passion’ still lurks in the broader word ‘emotions.’ Positive emotions such as awe, appreciation, gratitude, and determination are typically glossed over. Baily (1983) suggests that this is because emotion is used strategically as a discursive practice to account for, and excuse, untoward action. Nonetheless, sociological analysis depends on giving attention to a broad range of both dangerous and life-affirming emotions. All humans are emotional in the broad sense. Bureaucratic unease with emotion, is itself, emotion.

4. Scientific Devaluations Of Emotion In The Nineteenth Century And Lessons Learned

William James (1902) and Charles Darwin (1955) set the scientific stage for the twentieth century depreciation of emotion. Darwin saw emotion as a vestigial remnant of the primordial bodily preparation for action. Its evolutionary survival lay only in its expression as cues to others; emotion had no current value to the individual. To James, emotion was primarily internal; it was essentially the body responding to the body, and not important in relating persons to the world. What lasted from James was the debated idea that an internal, defining substrate exists for major emotions.

Ironically the very ‘subjectivization’ of postmodern mentality that made the broad classification ‘emotion’ make sense and seem important has also led to distortions insofar as they are seen as self-contained, totally internal processes, independent of ongoing human action and particular social contexts. Emotions do not exist separated from action in an inner depository of the self, like cookies in a jar waiting to be discovered by inner reflection (Baumeister 1986).

With all the diverse emotional lexicons in the world, it is an illusion to insist that there is a distinctive process or state existing somewhere in the person that coincides with each emotion word. However emotion is viewed, its relation to cognition must be handled carefully. To the extent that the two can be separated, they are nonetheless highly interdependent; changes in one system produce changes in the other. Though they can be experienced in serious tension with each other, recent findings, alluded to above, have demonstrated the necessity of certain emotions for adaptive behaviors. Emotion and cognition are now seen, not in terms of their oppositional contrasts, but as parts of a single, though multivalent, system in human mentality.

5. Origins Of The Sociology Of Emotions: 1975–80

Particular emotions were, indeed, important to the classical sociologists (Marx and alienation; Weber and disenchantment, etc.). Their treatment, however, was not concerned with the light they shed on the broader social-emotional process in general (Smith-Lovin 1995). It was not until 1975 that American sociologists, for example, called for a study of emotion as a social process in its own right. In that year Arlie Hochschild (1975) argued that a purely cognitive view of human life was not sufficient for sentient humans. Her insistence that emotion was socially patterned was partly explained by her concept of feeling rules, i.e. culturally and historically variable norms defining what should be felt in various situations. Often these rules served ideological functions. While Foucault was stressing hegenomic power in forms of knowledge, Hochschild was stressing the hegenomic control of the heart. ‘Emotion work’ described the individual processes that maintained these norms. This occurs when actors feel a pinch between what they actually feel and what they feel they should feel. Techniques used to change emotions include surface acting to mask or enhance the emotion and deep acting wherein the actual emotion is changed. Recent studies also focus on how other persons encourage or cut off the actor’s expression of emotion and in some cases, feeling itself.

Scheff’s (1979) model of the emotional person allowed for the possibility that culture could violate inherent emotional needs. He stressed how culture provided, or failed to provide, the cultural rituals needed to purge the physiological build-up of distressful emotions. Such rituals evoked the distressful experience so it could be relived emotionally but simultaneously offer a new cognitively distanced perspective resulting in cathartic, ‘aesthetic balance.’

In the following decade (Scheff 1990) refined his proposal that shame and pride were the most important human emotions, forming indicants of the individual’s social bond. This bond was the sine qua non for human adaptation. The current overemphasis on impersonal forms of social organization puts this bond in jeopardy and increases incidents of shame. Through a series of escalating shame–anger spirals, rage and violence emerges. Most conducive to violence is unacknowledged shame, that is, shame not identified as such by the actor. Observable shame markers are identified that manifest themselves independently of the actor’s knowledge and allow for testable hypotheses.

Kemper’s (1978) Power and Status Theory argued that ‘social power,’ the ability to force others’ compliance against their will, and ‘social status,’ conceived as favors freely given, were critical dimensions determining emotional states. A person’s ‘structural’ place in hierarchies of excesses or deficits along these dimensions automatically produced certain distressful emotions depending on whether one attributed the cause to one’s self or others. At a minimum his deterministic scheme drew attention to the fact that a great number of emotions had to do with one’s place on the social map.

Shott (1979) presented a theory that stressed the importance of emotions in voluntaristic social control. Prior research had stressed the importance of roletaking as a process that fused self-control and social control. Role-taking is the capacity to respond to one’s own on-coming behavior as would others, and to use their anticipated response as a guide to further conduct. It had been understood as essentially cognitive. But cognition was not sufficient to ensure normative social control. Role-taking could as soon be used to manipulate others without the self-reflexive emotions of guilt, shame and embarrassment or the other-directed empathetic emotions of sympathy. The personal discomfort these emotions produced gave actors a personal stake in the avoidance of behaviors producing them. In these cases harming others is harming one’s self.

In her focus on chronically failed emotion-work, Thoits (1990) coined the term ‘emotional deviance.’ The label of mental illness is often the result of reactions by others or one’s self to the inability to feel appropriately. Sources of discrepant feelings are multiple roles, role transitions and unrealistic demands. Thoits expanded Hochschild’s treatment of emotionwork strategies identifying points at which they could easily fail. She also drew attention to the emotional dimensions of coping behaviors and social support, the latter seen as emotion work on others. Support may not alleviate pain but it can help victims cope with it.

Assuming the close relationship between emotion and cognition, fundamentally diverse life forms and thus fundamentally diverse ways of thinking will produce important emotional differences. This is the basis for Social Constructionism, articulated by Rom Harre (1986). Like Baily, he sees the use of the term ‘emotion’ as a social strategy—a discursive practice used for identity maintenance. He does not deny bodily concomitants, or the perceived reality of the experience, but to him the physiology involved is not a ‘natural sign’ of a biological inner state. Instead, emotional experience is a function of diverse local languages and moral orders.

Denzin (1984) argued against the study of emotions as an abstract class, separated from the lived experience of situated individuals. Emotion was to be studied by narrative and as reflected in cultural reflections such as film.

6. The Cybernetic Program For The Sociology Of Emotions

In 1985, the sociology of emotions was formally recognized as a subsection in the American Sociological Association. Several scholars independently suggested a cybernetic program for emotion studies. This balanced the cultural and structural shaping of emotions with equal attention to how individual emotional experience worked inadvertently to maintain, confirm and change the social arrangements that initially shaped them. This view is clearly illustrated by incest taboos shaping feelings of sexual attraction and disgust. Aggregate individual experiences of these sexual aversions confirm and maintain the kinship arrangements and feeling rules that shaped them in the first place. Without these feelings, the structures of kinship would collapse. The advantage of such an approach is that it allows for a detailing of the individual interactional processes that form the foundation of emergent structures. Without this, our theory of social structure becomes dangerously reified (Scheff 1990). Regardless of the emergent quality of structures, the detailed link between concrete people and institutions must be traced. Collins’ (1984) conception of emotional energy emanating from ‘interactional ritual chains’ argues for a similar articulation between micro- and macro-levels.

7. Cultural And The Social Structural Shaping Of Emotion

Emotions presented as culturally distinct include the Japanese amae, an accepted adult feeling of dependence and a desire to be cuddled that would make most Westerners uncomfortable. Legit is an emotion of the Philippine Llongots that combines achievement of group membership with force and creation. They feel legit when they ‘take heads.’ There would be little debate that certain cultures encourage and discourage certain emotional experiences and that these lead to important behavioral dispositions. Through history one can trace the emotional tenors of particular epochs like the anxious prudishness of the Victorian bourgeoisie and the shift to the ambivalence of the more narcissistic discontent of today. Shifts in the incidences of swooning imply the degree to which culture socializes the body. Other examples of the cultural shaping of emotion include the literature on emotion and gender. Important here is the devaluation of emotion and the belief that women are inherently more emotional than men. There is no reason to think that men are not as in touch with their own perceived manly feelings as are women. Hochschild (1983) brought attention to ‘status shields,’ i.e. shared, interpretive dispositions that protect those of privilege against (a) the displaced feelings of others, (b) the negative interpretations of one’s own emotional expressions, and (c) the conviction of others that one’s emotions are unwarranted and not important. The undermining of women’s anger by interpreting them as ‘crabby’ because of their menstrual period or otherwise ‘hysterical,’ is an obvious example of a structured lack of status shields. The aggregate of such interpretations serve male dominance.

Emotions are shaped by the ways whole societies are organized, as well as the organizations within them. As an example of the first type of shaping, Hochschild (1989) demonstrated how macro-level changes in women’s entry into the workforce effected micro-level gender imbalances in feelings of gratitude between couples in the household. Because of traditional gender roles, men’s relatively small contributions to housework evoked more gratitude than the larger contributions from their working wives. This resulted in a ‘second shift’ for women and interpersonal tension. The study of gendered inequalities in how much it takes to evoke gratitude has important implications for power relations in general.

In spite of the devaluation of emotion in many businesses and bureaucracies, they organize emotional processes unwittingly or consciously. Feelings can impede organizational efficiency but they are also necessary for it. Any workplace must deal with loyalty and disenchantment, stirrings about status and power, anxieties about keeping control and being controlled, pride, defensiveness, fear of change, and the comforts of the familiar. Emotional labor, according to Hochschild (1983), is the commercial exploitation of the principle of emotion work. The airline stewards she studied were paid to ‘be nice’ regardless of insults and paradoxically asked to be genuine. Loyalty can supercede error; receptionists and credit collectors are paid to make persons feel certain ways. Many studies deal with divisions of emotional labor in organizations and the simultaneous relations between formal and informal emotion rules. Hospitals must deal with protecting their staff from the anguish of patients and the different emotional roles played by practitioners and nurses. The emotion work necessary from female public defenders of rapists has also proved of interest to sociologists.

8. Social Interaction And Emotions Supporting Structures

Individual emotional processes acting as concrete support for structural arrangements most obviously include emotion work and the reflexive role-taking emotions. Below, other such processes are identified.

What persons care about determines emotion. Persons care about their identities. Identities are connected with social structure because they are embedded in social roles. Emotions will determine what roles are chosen as central to identities and resulting role performance will be affected by emotions (e.g., confidence) as well as producing them (e.g., pride). The emotional aspects of identity work are, then, simultaneously commitments to structural role performances. The work by Heiss and Smith-Lovin on affect control as well as that by Stryker and Serpe on identity theory describes this ‘maintenance’ process (Smith-Lovin 1995).

A crucial process in maintaining the Western belief that each emotion is an underlying physiological state is the ‘documentary method.’ This process underwrites the reality of socially constructed ‘facts’ by a circular logic. An unobservable belief (like the fixed existence of a certain emotion in the person) is presumed, and overt events are selectively used as evidence of its existence or explained away if they refute it. This process is especially evident in the interpretation of gendered behavior.


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