The Sociology of Emotion: Emotion as Both Social Object and Social Force




KathrynLively-printKathryn J. Lively, Department of Sociology, Dartmouth College

When it comes to studying emotion, one of the most enduring sociological insights is the degree to which it is inherently social. Over the last four decades, sociological research has made it increasingly clear that every aspect of emotion – from its constitution to its consequences – is influenced by and, in turn, influences the social contexts in which emotions are embedded.

Although this assertion is supported in and across all types of social settings, from day care centers (Leavitt & Power, 1989; Pollack & Thoits, 1989) to funeral homes (Cahill, 1988), I will focus my attention on the workplace. The workplace, similar to other hierarchically ordered institutions, offers clear insight into how social processes, and social forces alike, affect and are affected by the experience and the expression of emotion.

Emotions occur within the course of social interactions and within social settings. Whether more closely identified with the interactionist perspective – which holds that emotions are socially constructed (Shott, 1979) – or the structuralist perspective – which assumes that emotion is less malleable in nature (Kemper 1978, 1987) – most sociologists agree that emotional experience generally results from the meaning that individuals make of social interactions. Indeed, several formal sociological theories of emotion assume that emotions arise to the degree that our expectations are – or are not  – met.

These expectations may deal with how we anticipate to be identified or treated by others (Burke, 1981; Cast & Burke, 1992; Heise, 1979, 2007), how much power or deference we expect to enact or receive during a face to face interaction (Kemper, 1978), how much of a given resource we expect to get or to give in a particular exchange (Lawler & Thye, 1999), how decisions regarding the allocation of scarce resources are determined (Hegtvedt & Killian, 1999) and how we expect to be dealt with in the context of a long term relationship (Lively, Steelman & Powell, 2010).

Because work settings are hierarchically ordered, it is unsurprising that individuals at the top (be they surgeons, attorneys, or customers) tend to have their expectations met more often than those at the bottom (that is, nurses, secretaries, or face-to-face service workers; see Hochschild, 1983). It is also, then, not surprising that individuals occupying higher status positions are more likely to experience positive emotions than their lower status counterparts (also see Simon and Nath, 2004).

In her classic work, The Managed Heart (1983), Arlie Hochschild referred to the set of norms and expectations that protect higher status individuals from the displaced negative emotions of others as status shields. In addition to protecting higher status actors from the displaced negative emotions of others, they also shelter them from the expectations and demands of engaging in emotional labor. Attorneys, for instance, have stronger status shields than paralegals and secretaries; thus, they have more freedom to express negative emotions (Pierce, 1995). Attorneys also have the ability to demand emotional labor – often in the form of mothering, care taking, and cheerleading – from their paralegals and secretaries with little or no expectation to reciprocate (Lively, 2000). Although attorneys are expected to conduct themselves as professionals in their dealings with clients and other attorneys, they are seldom called upon to do the more onerous type of emotional labor – such as stifling anger or irritation – that is routinely demanded from secretaries and paralegals (Erickson & Ritter, 1999).

Along similar lines, Lively and Heise (forthcoming) reveal that all social role identities (including occupational roles) are associated with particular “characteristic emotions.” Drawing on insights from affect control theory (Heise 1979), characteristic emotions may be viewed as normatively regulated affective states that individuals try to attain during interactions involving specific identities (Lively and Heise, forthcoming; Heise 2002). These normative states – e.g. that nurses should feel compassion, that librarians should feel nostalgic or humble, that 1970s flight attendants should feel delighted or elated – are determined by culturally shared affective sentiments that reflect societally held understandings of how good, active and powerful these identities are (also see Lively, 2013). Notably, norms about which emotions one should experience depending on one’s position in the workplace are very similar to the well-known norms that regulate more transient social roles like being a mourner at a funeral or being a wedding participant (see Hochschild, 1983).

It is important to emphasize that emotion norms in the workplace are determined not only by occupational identities (e.g., physician or nurse), but also by the social identities of the specific individuals occupying each role (e.g., female attorney or Black attorney). For instance, the characteristic emotions of a female physician (i.e., affectionate, broad-minded, cooperative and compassionate) and a Black physician (i.e., perceptive, mature, optimistic, and wise) are different from those of physician unmarked by sex or race (i.e., independent, competent, confident and satisfied; see Heise, 2013). In most professional settings, unmarked roles tend to be held by men and or Whites, whereas unmarked roles within service and caring contexts tend to be held by women.

Ethnographic studies capture these differences as well. The jobs of female workers – ranging from flight attendants (Hochschild, 1983), to paralegals (Pierce, 1995), to police officers (Martin, 1999) – are often structured in ways that require them to engage in activities that require more emotional labor and, at the same time, to appear nicer, friendlier, and more available than their male counterparts. Similarly, African Americans – especially those working in historically white professions – are often subject to acts of subtle racism in their day-to-day interactions with white customers and colleagues that result in feelings of anger and frustration. At the same time, they feel pressure to do what they can to avoid cultural stereotypes about “angry black men” (Wingfield, 2010).

As evidenced above, our social arrangements and our cultural understandings give rise to particular emotions and to expectations about which emotions are appropriate. They also shape the degrees to which social actors are required to manage their emotions for the benefits of others, or are allowed to express their emotions freely. Although most sociological analyses focus on how social roles, social structures, organizations, and institutions affect emotional experience and its expression, it is important to remember that emotions also serve to reify these same social arrangements (Lively, 2000; Stacey, 2011) and have the potential to provide pathways for social change (Gould, 2009; Jasper, 2011).

One of the ways in which emotions can drive social change is when social actors begin to engage in emotional deviance (Thoits, 1985). Emotional deviance occurs when individuals are either unable or unwilling to feel the characteristic emotions associated with their social roles and/or social characteristics. While emotional deviance is likely to begin in interpersonal interactions (e.g. within the family), acts of affective deviance en masse can result in changes to social role identities and social characteristics (Lois 2012). Indeed, there have been numerous historical studies of how norms about how women ought to feel – particularly norms about love and anger – have changed over time leading to the major changes in the social role of women in the Western world (Cancian, 1990; Cancian and Gordon, 1988).

Emotion norms may change naturally, or their evolution may be shaped by social activism on a grand scale (Britt & Heise, 2000; Taylor, 1996) or by therapy on a smaller scale (Francis, 1997; Irving, 1999; Thoits, 1995). Both activists and therapists use interpersonal emotion management to change individuals’ perceptions not only about what is right to feel, but also about who they are and what they are capable of. Once these perceptions change, emotions can become a powerful driver for social change.

The bottom line is that, despite its seemingly individual basis, emotion is profoundly social. While this review barely scratches the surface of over forty years of sociological scholarship on emotion, it is clear that emotion is both social object and social force. From its constitution to its consequences, emotion is profoundly shaped by the cultures and social structures in which it occurs. It also has the potential to alter social roles, change organizations, democratize institutions, and, as the recent Arab Spring reveals, upend entire governments and systems of rule.


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