Why is it important to examine emotions from a sociological perspective? 

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although the fields of psychology and sociology have co-existed for more than a century as social sciences, they are not morally, ethically, nor academically "obligated" to interact completely within the research field. The two sciences are often put together for empirical research or when specific phenomenology requires so. Emotions, from a psychological perspective, are  It wasn't until the 1970s that Kemper, Shott, and Hoschild define the term"sociology of emotion" independently from the concept of dynamic interaction, placing special emphasis on personal reactions to social triggers, defense mechanisms, and point of views based on background knowledge.

The psychological study of emotions often follows the same physiological model of reactive behavior which is summarized as:

  • Event-Arousal-Interpretation= Emotion (James-Lange Theory)
  • Event-Arousal-Reasoning= Emotion (Schacter-Singer)
  • Event-Thought= Emotion + Arousal (Lazarus) ... (among others)

From a psychological perspective we notice that the idea of emotion is sort of limited to the mental and physical reactions of the body.

However, in the sociological perspective, Durkheim et al give emotions a much broader and multidimensional role. Sociologists contend that emotions change the individual who, by default will influence society. Hence, emotions can affect an entire world. The way that this is done is through the study of emotions as necessary elements of social interaction in five dimensions:

  • Under the perspective of power and status- The attribution that we give to things changes from situation to situation. Our feelings about words, actions, gestures, even looks, also vary from one case to the next. Our emotions certainly become affected by delineation of status and power. To illustrate, think of the "men in uniform" paradigm; plain-looking men all of a sudden look seductive and attractive to women when they wear a symbol of power, such as a fireman's uniform, or when they sport a high military rank. Those symbols of power and control change how we feel from one person to the next...whether we admit it or not. Therefore, why is it important? Because, as individuals, we are responsible for recognizing our weaknesses and the behavioral tendencies that we may display unconsciously toward others. This way, we safeguard our relations and learn to maintain distance, respect boundaries, and establish limitations.
  • Under a dramaturgical perspective - studies show that humans naturally contour their emotional affect depending on what impression they wish to leave upon others. Emotions are more flexible than we think and we have more control over them than what the psychological theories show. Think about how sociopaths and psychopaths are able to commit gruesome crimes against innocent human beings and still maintain a perfectly straight face, even a kind, warm personality that attracts many, sometimes right through their being judged or investigated.
  • According to Meade, we base our emotions (like in the power/status theory) on how meaningfully we affect those who mean a lot to us. In Mead's opinion, we are all fakes so to speak, a symbolic interaction. We have a tendency to disguise our true selves and corroborate with the environment around us. We look for validation in nearly every action that we choose until we remain with what seems to be more accepted by others. This is potentially dangerous, as we also need to learn to behave as we see fit, and not as others do. Hence, it is important to know this so that we can prevent ourselves from becoming led astray.

Sociological theories also examine interactive behavior, thus helping predict patterns in human dynamics. This is a much broader look into "being human" than what psychology alone offers.  Think about the forth theoretical perspective, which is the rules of interaction and rituals. These are the behaviors that are produced by something higher than us; it is what occurs during religious fervor, during initiations, hazings, and all other kinds of indoctrinated behavior. Therefore, the simple, kind man who works at the local gardening store might be a completely different individual when interacting with the football team that he coaches, or during masonic meetings, or when interacting with peers of of similar interests.

Finally, sociological theories allow us to understand the extent of human potential: we can all be potentially good or bad to whatever extent we want. There are no limits as to what humans can and are able to do when trying to make an impression upon others, to reinforce the view that they have of themselves. The final sociological theory, the exchange theory, explains the basic building blocks of emotion: reward and motivation. When humans are rewarded with something that affects them positively or that they are attracted to, they are likely to sustain and enforce the emotion that the reward caused. It is classical conditioning at its best. However, keep in mind that each individual is different and what is good for some is not for others, and vice versa. Think of S&M communities, and how their main motivator is pain and dominance. Although for many that is far from a reward, for others it is. Hence, the exchange theory explains that, as long as there is a motivator involved, humans will be much more likely to entice and sustain emotion.