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The Sociology of Emotions

An emotion is an abstract concept that has been defined differently by several

academicians. For instance, Denzin (2009, as cited in Bericat, 2012) claims that emotion
is a “lived believed-in, situated, temporally embodied experience” (p. 1). which may
indicate that emotions are fleeting feelings undergone by the social actors. Lawler (1999),
on the other hand, claims that emotions are “relatively brief, positive or negative
evaluative states, which have physiological, neurological and cognitive elements”.
Lawler’s definition takes into consideration the bodily and biological aspects of human
nature. It relates with Brody’s (1999) description of the concept as he states that these
components affect humans’ well-being, and they can be initiated by interpersonal
socialization with other people. The distinctions are necessary in order to understand the
concept and to be able to study its sociological significance.

Bericat (2012) mentions that emotions can be classified as primary emotions and
secondary emotions. Primary emotions are considered inherent because of human’s
physiological and biological components. They are universal. Meanwhile, secondary
emotions are combinations of primary emotions—only culturally and socially influenced.

According to Turner and Stets (2006) most sociologists have avoided venturing
into the issues of evolution and biology. For this reason, many scholars still resort to
constructionist views of emotions as a social construct and/or resulting from culture. This
is contradicted by Kemper (1987) who enumerates the primary emotions. They are fear,
anger, depression, and satisfaction. He explains evolutionary-adaptive value of the
primary emotions by pointing out the studies of Darwin and the like. For example, fear
and anger may instigate activities that serve a need to protect oneself in order to survive.
Turner (1999, as cited in Bericat, 2012) contradicts the list with a different list: satisfaction-
happiness, aversion-fear, assertion-anger, disappointment-sadness, and startlement-

Fehr and Russell (1984) adds that such emotions are already available even
during the infancy stage of human beings for they represent symbols and expressions in
the early life. Scherer et. al. (n.d., as cited in Thoits) offer information about situations that
elicit emotional responses leading to socialization. For example, joy, happiness, and
satisfaction can be felt during times spent with friends or loved ones. Depression and
sadness can occur during death or other misfortunes. Fear occurs during times of threat
in one’s safety or other aggression by an exterior party, and finally, anger comes out as
a result of failure to conform to convention. Their study indicates that these subjective
emotions are cross-cultural because people may feel the same way toward concerns on
personal relationships or societal order regardless of culture and heritage.

Combinations of these primary emotions result in secondary emotions such as

guilt, shame, love, resentment, disappointment, and nostalgia. Guilt, for example, is
related to fear of having imposed excess power against another, which in turn caused
deprivations or misfortunes to that person. Pride can also be considered as a result of
satisfaction, while shame may be felt because of the degradation of one’s status. Shame
can also be linked to anger, especially as Izard (1977, as cited in Kemper) compares
shame’s physical manifestation to the primary emotion’s. He hypothesizes that anger is
the base of shame. It is also important to note that although guilt and shame may occur
simultaneously, they are distinct. Despite being called secondary emotions, Kemper
argues that they play autonomous roles similar to the primary emotions after being linked
through socialization.

A deeper analysis provided by Jasper (2011) lists a typology of emotions such as

bodily urges, reflex emotions, moods, and reflexive emotions. Emotions, therefore,
become internal consciousness that result from the communication with external social
or natural world. The individuals’ perception of his/her surroundings, and how the
environment may affect his/her own well-being affect the formation of emotions.

Thoits’ (1989) work asserts that it also goes the other way, claiming that emotions
can be seen as motivators of behavior. Shott (1979, as cited in Thoits) labels this as “role-
taking” emotions. As an example, reflexive emotions are considered limiting emotions, or
emotions for self-defense. An event that leads to shame or embarrassment will make the
individual act in such a way that shall save his/her reputation. Empathic emotions, on the
other hand, allow the individual to recognize the needs of others; thus, s/he becomes
motivated to act on these feelings and to be of rescue. Such feelings include sympathy
and pity.

Emotions are also claimed to be mediators in the sense that these feelings play an
integral or micro part in the macro setting of the society. It means that because individuals
interact, and they inherently have emotions, these feelings can be reasons for any
societal changes. However, despite the potential of “role-taking emotions” to explain
social control and prosocial behavior, more studies are needed to be done to prove its
influence in macro-social exchanges.

Emotions may seem to merely be a biological or physiological concept; however,

it is significant to understand its relation to the outside world, or the natural and social
world. After all, a large portion of these feelings involve social interactions. Bericat (2012)
elaborates Kemper’s (1987) social relational theory that have been deliberated earlier.
Again, primary emotions are combined, and thereafter, interact with other dimensions
such as power and status to produce secondary emotions. There are specific patterns
that form the individuals’ reactions toward a stimulus, and these patterns are connected
to the social situation. Meaning to say, the interaction of emotional responses and the
external norms, values, and circumstances result in the specific type of social

Therefore, emotions are social because they play a role in socialization practices
and outcomes. As mentioned above, primary emotions, or emotions in general are
universal. Boucher and Brandt (as cited in Kemper, 1987) state that there is a “cross-
cultural agreement” that some situations can elicit specific emotions thereby emphasizing
that the social world relate to the formation of these feelings and their behavioral
outcomes. Thoits (1989) argues that many developmental psychologists have studied
about the growth of human beings and their social skills from the time of their birth. They
were also able to point out the time of acquisition of knowledge and other learning skills.
He states, however, that their studies isolate the role of emotions in the social processes.
This is where sociologists must fill in the gap. Sociologists can explain how the structures
of the environment differentiate the formation of emotions—like how a child’s emotional
response will be different from that of an adult. Unfortunately, Thoits also recognize the
lacking of studies in order to reveal specific structural influences because they focus more
on age and sex-related influences.

In line with this, Hochschild (1983, as cited in Thoits) states that some jobs, like
service-sector jobs incentive people who specialize in “emotional labor”, meaning, those
who can repress their emotions in specific settings, and at the same time, able to interact
positively with others, thereby drawing out better responses and emotions. He also
argues the difference between the underprivileged and the middle class, saying that the
disparity of fortune lead to contrasting parental socialization processes. However, there
have been no concrete evidence to support his statement. A careful analysis of social
structures, behavior, and expressions will be helpful in understanding why emotions are
social, and in explaining the processes of socialization.

To further explain why sociology delves into the concept of emotions, Barbalet
(1998, as cited in Bericat, 2012) states that there is ‘sociology of emotions’ basically
because sociology as a discipline seeks to “explain social phenomena, and emotion is a
social phenomenon” (p. 3). and second, emotions become instigators or factors that can
affect social behavior. Hochschild (1990, as cited in Bericat) asserts that the incorporation
of emotions means that “what we feel is fully as important to the outcome of social affairs
as what we think or do”. Understanding emotions, its elements, components, or
dimensions that affect structures and processes, will help in explaining social
phenomena. Bericat highlights that sociology of emotions faces two daunting tasks:
“studying the social nature of emotions and studying the emotional nature of social reality”
(p. 4).

It is easy to explain emotions as a product of culture and outside social processes

and nothing else; however, to do so will not fully comprehend its complex forms. Biological
and neurological bases need to be considered in theorizing emotions, because just as
humans are capable with language and expression, they are also inherently capable to
feel. Kemper (1987) explains that the studies on facial expressions have contributed to
the cross-cultural universality as well as biological aspects of emotions. Facial muscles
and expressions help in identification of feelings, and it was proven that the same
movements of lips and eyes occur across cultures. Remarkably, this universality proves
that emotions have strong neurological basis and may have little to do with culture. It is
in recognizing these possible truths that sociologists will be able to explain how these
feelings actually came about, even without the existence of social norms and values.

Now it may have appeared that emotions are taken as conscious parts of the
human body; however, Turner and Stets (2006) argue otherwise. Emotions may not
always be conscious, and they can be in the subconscious of the human mind. In addition
to this, there is evidence not that every expression of a person represents what s/he truly
feels. This is why there is the notion of repressed emotions, or perhaps self-defense, as
mentioned earlier. Sociologists also need to delve into these problems to theorize and
capture the essence of emotions as integral to explaining behavior and societal changes.

Other concerns of the sociology of emotions deal with the relation of emotions and
motivations. Once more, it is easy to isolate motivations of people from anything more
than profits and self-enrichment; thus, most sociologists fail to conceptualize motivation
to more than rational decision-making and profiteering. This perspective is definitely
narrow. The sociology of emotions intends to expand this view and incorporates the idea
of internal feelings that can affect behavior (Turner & Stets, 2006). Although Kemper’s
(1987) work discusses primary before secondary emotions, sociologists must refrain from
theorizing that the former is more important than the latter. Unfortunately, choosing to
narrowly define the range of emotions endanger the study itself. Other issues include the
inability to conduct studies where stronger emotions such as vengeance, depression,
love, and etc. can arise, and it is apparent that these feelings play important role in
understanding actions and society.

Another shortcoming of the present theoretical perspectives stems from its limited
set of structures. Kemper, for example, present power and status. They are recognized
as major influencers in the feeling of satisfaction (when a person enjoys privilege and
wealth) or depression (when a person is deprived of fortunes); however, they cannot be
the only structures that should be taken into consideration. In addition to this, Turner and
Stets (2006) claim that sociology of emotions may offer ways to understand micro-, meso-
, and macrolevel levels of analysis.

Admittedly, sociologists have cultural bias. Studies often resort to using pre-
existing ideologies and norms to explain organization and individual behavior. After all,
constructionist views allow people to claim that everything is socially-constructed, and it
underplays the neurological and other biological factors than can explicate emotions.
Despite this, there have been little evidence to analyze the emotion culture since Gordon
(1989, as cited in Thoits, 1989) state that sociologists lack social epistemology. For
instance, people know that some emotions cannot be expressed explicitly especially if
they will not conform to the society’s standards. These periods of emotional conformity
and beliefs on which emotions should be manipulated pertain to this emotion culture, and
they have not been studied deeply. As Clark (1997, as cited in Turner & Stets, 2006)
stated that sympathy is interpreted differently depending on the cultural norms of each
individual. It is a remarkable attempt, but was nonetheless, deficient. There is nothing that
can fully encapsulate the cultural values and rules and their linkages to emotions in
general. Cultural theories will be expounded later on, but it is only surprising that despite
the heavy cultural bias placed on scholars, there is very little study to support their claims.

In line with this, Gordon (1986, as cited in Thoits, 1989) claims that sociologists
often present beliefs about emotional experiences, but there have been no systematic
and empirical studies. Oftentimes, gender becomes the measure of the distinctions of
emotions. Women are frequently considered as gentler and more loving, whereas men
are less likely to express emotions like fear and anger. These may be a result of societal
pressures. Stearns and Stearns (1986, as cited in Thoits) offer a study on the American
anger and its changes through time. Anger became an emotion controlled by both men
and women. Women refrain from expressing rage to promote harmonious marriage and
family relationships whereas men control their emotions outside and seek home for
refuge. In the 1900s, unfavorable labor conditions become more prevalent. More women
entered the labor threatening the existing control on workers’ emotions.
Meanwhile, social hierarchy also explain the distribution of emotional experiences.
The privileged or those with high economic status are expected to feel positive emotions,
while those who live in impoverishment are expected to feel negative emotions. However,
once more, there is little evidence to support this hypothesis especially as there are
instances where even famous celebrities and rich people commit suicide. It is not enough
to reduce emotional experience according to social status and wealth.

Numerous theoretical perspectives have been offered to discuss sociology of

emotions. The popular one is of course, as mentioned, the cultural theories. Basically,
emotions are viewed as feelings influenced by social factors, specifically, the person’s
culture (values, norms, ideas, ideologies, etc). Emotions, therefore, arise as a result of
the interaction of these factors (Bericat, 2012). In line with this, it is also expected that
certain emotions are guided by particular rule. Swidler (as cited in Thoits, 1989) provides
a study on Western emotional ideology, specifically on the love ideology. In her study,
love for the youth meant growth, autonomy, and sexual expression while adult love
ideology tends to lean towards self-sacrifice and self-restraint. However, she emphasizes
the cultural aspect of her observation and ends with the claim that culture provides a “tool
kit” and they serve as guide for individuals to justify their actions. Thoits (1985, as cited
in Bericat) argues that despite limits, human beings are still capable to determine his/her
own experiences and expressions; hence, it weakens the heavy bias on culture. So far,
anthropologists have pursued the concept of emotion culture and sociologists need to
catch up to explain the “cultural mappings” that may affect individuals’ experiences and
actions (Thoits, 1989).

Symbol interactionist theories claim that the “identity of the self” cause the
formation of emotions. In short, individuals formulate the meanings of their own emotions.
A person’s perception of him/herself interact with the identities that surface in specific
social conditions. Their emotions become objects that need to be interpreted as one
attempts to understand him/herself while simultaneously trying to understand other
people’s perception of them (Thoits, 1989). The individual possesses multiple identities
that can therefore be activated when needed; hence, the self becomes an important
manipulator of behavior. Burke (1991, 1996, as cited in Turner & Stets) labels this as the
identity control theory which states that the self has several frames of reference to
regulate behavior, and allowing him/her to change his identity at will. Aside from this, it
becomes necessary for other people to affirm this self-conception in order to elicit positive
feelings such as pride and satisfaction. The self continues to do as expected of it.
Otherwise, an individual will feel negative emotions such as grief, depression, sadness,
and etc (Burke & Stets, 2009; Turner & Stets, as cited in Bericat, 2012). Powers (1973,
as cited in & Stets) label this monitoring system of confirmation as the cybernetic control

Social construction theories are similar to symbol interactionist theories in the way
that they depend on social constructs, or definitions of the situation and/or the self.
Emotions become reliant on social constructs of the self, the situation, and other beliefs.
Constructionists, however, fails to link emotions with behavior unlike the symbolic
interactionists. Symbolic interactionists recognize that these sociocultural constructs
shape human actions (Thoits, 1989). Schachter and Singer (1962, as cited in Thoits) state
that “bodily changes accompanying emotions are not specific” and are actually affected
by the environment. These ‘bodily changes’ are then attributed to cues of situations. Both
theories state that emotions may also vary according to the cultures, and not because of

Turner and Stets (2006) also discuss about the possible repercussions of
acknowledging others’ confirmation of self and repression of emotions. For instance, a
release of negative emotions which have been repressed may result in defensive
behaviors. Another person’s refusal to confirm the social actor’s self or identity may
interrupt the socialization process if the actor blames the other or the environment. It is
logical to think that when these negative emotions are bottled-up and then activated, they
can result in actions that might destroy relationships.

Finally, among these theoretical perspectives are the exchange theories pioneered
by George Homans and Peter Blau. These theories propose the rational thinking of
individuals in which social interaction takes place in a way that would be most be
beneficial to actors. The socialization process is done to maximize utility and to avoid
costs and punishment. This advantage and profits elicit positive emotions while the
opposite, or when pay offs do not exceed costs, stirs negative feelings (Turner & Stets,
2005, as cited in Bericat, 2012). Interactions, however, do not exist in a vacuum and are
governed by several factors such as the type of exchange; the nature of social networks;
the power relations of exchange partners; expectations; normative standards of justice
and fair exchange; and lastly, the attribution of the cause of the outcome (Bericat, 2012;
Turner & Stets, 2006).

Turner and Stets (2006) enumerates the four basic types of exchanges:
productive, negotiated, reciprocal, and generalized. A productive exchange occurs when
social actors cooperate in order to produce a maximum utility or pay offs. Lawler (2001,
as cited in Turner & Stets) claims that this type of exchange generates the most intense
emotions because social actors invest more than other exchanges. Hence, the actors
involved are unable to separate themselves to their contributions, a term Lawler called as
‘nonseparability’. Negotiated exchange incorporates bargaining. Basically, individuals
attempt to reach a compromise about the management of resources and which of their
own will be given up. Molm (1997, as cited in Turner & Stets) indicate that this type of
exchange generates conflicts that may result in a gridlock and more negative emotions,
especially as there are always offers and counteroffers. The exchange will not be
completed until both parties are satisfied. Reciprocal exchange is when one party gives
his/her resources while hoping that the same amount of favor will be returned in time.
Actos are often separable from their contributions; thus, there is less likelihood to
generate intense emotions, whether positive or negative. Lastly, generalized exchange is
when actors pass their resources not directly to its intended recipients, but these
resources always come back to the original sender. It occurs in a chain thereby involving
high separability from the individuals.

The nature of the social networks involves a variety of social structures. For
instance, positively connected networks enable the exchange of positive emotions.
Proximity also matters because actors tend to look forward for positive exchanges with
others when they are nearby. The power relations of the actors are also considered as
vital in the exchange. A can exercise power over B because the latter may have strong
dependency on the former. Meaning to say, B needs A for resources. Despite this power
imbalance, frequent exchanges may develop stronger commitments and positive flow
emotions such as joy and satisfaction while simultaneously reducing negative emotions
like anxiety (Markovsky & Lawler, 1994; Emerson, 1962; Lawler & Yoon, 1993; Kollock,
1994 as cited in Turner & Stets, 2006).

Expectations have so far been considered as critical to emotions. Even symbol

interactionist theories recognize its value as explained above. Expectations are affected
by several factors like past experiences and others. In exchange theories, payoffs that
fail to meet the actors’ expectations elicit negative emotions such as anger. More
complicated factors to consider are the norms of justice which have not been set
concretely; some of them being equity, equality, or procedure. Homans’ (1961, as cited
in Turner & Stets, 2006) law on distributive justice states that “individuals calculate their
payoffs relative not only to their costs and investments, but also to the costs, investments,
and payoffs of others” (p. 43). In essence, justice prevails when the calculations
correspond with one another, and the social actors react positively. This law was replaced
later on with the idea of rewards as more important in determining positive emotions. A
person who receives rewards as s/he expected will be happier, but being over rewarded
will result in guilt, especially if their prosperity may lead to the destitution of others. It is,
however, a finding that people may also feel joyful when their rewards exceed others. Not
being able to meet his/her expectations, or receiving less than the others’ rewards, will
cause anger and aggression (Hegtvedt & Killian, 1999; Homans, 1974; Jasso, 1980,
1990, 1993, as cited in Turner & Stets).

Emotions are complex and the existence of several theories that to explain its
function in the society prove that these feelings do not merely depend on one factor.
Bericat (2012) summarizes these theories. Appraisal theories of Brody (1993) claim that
human beings play a central role in evaluating his/her feelings before acting on it.
Attribution theories say that actors attribute certain events to the others, but also to
him/herself. Someone else’s actions lead to certain emotions. Expectation states theory
pertains to having expectations toward another, and failure or success to meet these
hopes have effect on the emotional experience. Intergroup emotions theory place
importance on the experience of the group where the social actor identifies. Emotions are
also considered complex because what actors feel may not always what they show. For
instance, a person whose heart hurts because of a break up may force a smile. Therefore,
emotions cannot be reduced to just manifestation of what is inside. Emotions are complex
because they can undergo transformations, as mentioned earlier, with the idea of
secondary emotions. Shame can become anger, and then can become guilt. Emotions
are not static and they can be keys to understanding behavior and organization. It is for
this reason that studies should still be conducted to understand emotions and their
relation to society.
Bericat, E. (2012). Emotions. Sociopedia. doi:10.1177/205684601361
Kemper, T. D. (1987). How many emotions are there? Wedding the social and the
autonomic components. American Journal of Sociology, 93(2), 263-289.
Thoits, P. A. (1989). The sociology of emotions. Annual Review of Sociology, 15(1),
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Turner, J. H., & Stets, J. E. (2006). Sociological theories of human emotions. Annual
Review of Sociology, 32(1), 25-52. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.32.061604.123130