Sociology of Emotions Research Paper Starter

Sociology of Emotions

(Research Starters)

Newly prominent in sociology, the study of the sociology of emotions defines emotions as socially constructed and culturally variable labels attached to physiological responses to stimuli. Studies have questioned the universality of emotions, their variation across cultures, rules about feelings and emotional displays, and the necessity of emotions to maintaining the social bond. As children develop selves, they also learn how to identify and express emotions according to their culture's rules. New advances in neuroscience are allowing sociologists to use an understanding of the brain to further comprehend the nature of emotions.

Keywords: Affect Control Theory; Collective Effervescence; Deference-emotion System; Emotion; Emotion Scripts; Emotional Socialization; Feeling Rules; Looking-glass Self; Primary Emotions


The sociology of emotions is a relatively new subfield of sociology, which first gained prominence in the 1970's. Prior to this time, the field of sociology concentrated more on cognition than emotions, although emotions have often remained a subtext in important works. Emotions were seen as the turf of psychologists and biologists. However, sociologists began to systematically study emotions because they realized first, that emotions are fundamentally social, and second, that emotions have always figured as causal mechanisms in sociological theory. They are necessary to the theories of some of the most influential figures in sociology, such as Emile Durkheim and Erving Goffman. Emotions are of sociological interest because they are a primary human motivation, they help in rational decision making, and they link the biology of the body with classic sociological questions about social construction and social control.

Emotions in Classic Sociological Theory

Even though the subfield of the sociology of emotions is relatively new, many of the classic theorists in sociology have made emotions important in their theories. For example, Emile Durkheim (1912/1965), [CCL1]one of the founding figures of sociology, discussed the importance of the emotions that arise during group rituals in his influential book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. In his theory, when people come together to perform collective rituals, they generate intense emotions, which they believe to be a sign of the power of their rituals and their "totems" (gods or symbols of the tribe). Group rituals served to connect this intense group emotion, which Durkheim called collective effervescence, to the group's symbols. Participants in the rituals thought that their intense feelings arose because their totems were powerful. Durkheim explained that such intense emotions were a sign of the emotional power of the group ritual itself (Shilling, 2002; Summers-Effler, 2006). In Durkheim's theories, emotions are the glue holding society together.

Emotion also figured prominently in the theories of two founding figures in microsociology, Charles Horton Cooley and Erving Goffman. Cooley created a theory for understanding the development of the self through interaction with others — the "looking-glass" self. In his theory, when people interact with others, they imagine how their actions look to others, imagine how others judge their actions, and then experience feelings of pride or shame. While this does not imply that people will conform to the expectations of others, it does stipulate that emotions are crucial for self-understanding. Goffman, like Cooley, also described society as a place where individuals create selves to present to others. Goffman studied how people craft self-presentations to evoke desired reactions in others. Success means saving face; if performances go awry, people lose face. Losing face — being embarrassed — dominates Goffman's work; however, he did not spend time considering its opposite, pride (Scheff, 1990; Summers-Effler, 2006).

While emotions appear in the works of these and many other theorists, they were usually "black boxed" — there was little attempt to specify exactly what emotions were, or how they arose, and how their biological, psychological, and socially constructed aspects were related.

What are Emotions?

Sociologists understand emotions as operating on two levels. First, emotions have a biological or physiological aspect. When people experience emotions, they generally experience some sort of physiological arousal; for example, the heart rate increases or chemicals such as dopamine or adrenaline are released into the body's autonomic systems at a faster or slower rate. Second (and more important to sociology), emotions are socially constructed. People are taught to interpret these states of arousal in culturally specific ways, to label them as emotions, and to follow specific rules about how to interpret and act on these feelings. Emotions are shaped by society, by cultural definitions, expectations, and rules and norms that regulate their acceptable experience and expression.

Thoits (1989) says that emotion consists of four components,

(a) Appraisals of a situational stimulus or context,

(b) Changes in physiological or bodily sensation,

(c) The free or inhibited display of expressive gestures, and

(d) A cultural label applied to specific constellations of one or more of the first three components (p. 318).

It is not necessary for all four components to be apparent for an emotion to exist.

Affect, Sentiment

Some sociologists use the terms emotion, sentiment, mood, and affect interchangeably. Others (especially those who use affect control theory in their analysis) use them more specifically. For these sociologists, affect means "any evaluative (positive or negative) orientation toward an object" (Robinson, Smith-Lovin & Wisecup, 2006, p. 181). These evaluations can fall into three areas: objects are judged as good or bad, strong or weak, and active or quiet. Sentiments are culturally shaped affective reactions to symbols, while emotions are "the labels…that are applied to the ways we feel after an event has occurred" (Robinson, Smith-Lovin & Wisecup, 2006, p. 183). Moods are longer-lasting emotional states.

Many sociologists believe that emotions can be divided into primary emotions, those that are universal (appearing in all cultures), and secondary emotions, those that are more culturally specific (and do not appear in all cultures). Most theorists believe that three negative emotions — fear, anger, and sadness — and one positive emotion — happiness — are universal (Kemper 1987, Turner & Stets, 2005). The idea that some emotions are universal goes all the way back to Charles Darwin, who believed that emotions had evolutionary significance and were therefore common to all humans (Turner & Stets, 2005).

How do Emotions Develop? Emotional Socialization

Work on emotional socialization and emotional development examines the processes by which actors learn emotion and display rules. Johnson (1992) developed a theory describing stages of emotional development. She proposed seven stages of emotional development, tied to experience rather than age, and argued that the emotional self could not develop without interaction with others.

  • Stage 1 of development is a pre-emotional stage, the feeling of sensations and response to tactile, visual, and auditory contact in which children feel stimuli and respond.
  • Stage 2, mutual affective reciprocity, is where emotions first begin to develop. The basic emotions of joy, fear, anger, and surprise emerge as children understand that others will react to their actions. This means that cognition and affect are linked in the individual development of emotion, as children cognitively understand the cause and effect behind evoking motions in others.
  • Stage...

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