THE CAPACITY TO FEEL
An image on the movie screen, a passage in a book, the look in an eye can move us deeply. But what in us is moved? How does culture help do the moving? How do sociologists understand the role culture plays? In this essay I look at what sociologists and psychoanalysts have to say before proposing in this and the following four essays a sociological way of seeing feeling.
By “emotion,” I should say, I mean the awareness of bodily cooperation with an idea, thought, or attitude and the label attached to that awareness. By “feeling,” I mean a milder emotion. So very basic are emotion and feeling to our social lives that it is remarkable how little attention sociologists have paid to them. Why would that be? It’s not because the people we study do not take as real the “fact” that they feel. Nor is it because a person’s job, sex, age, ethnic background, or religious experience is known to be unrelated to how he or she feels in certain situations. It is not, in other words, because we lack evidence. And it is not because sociologists in their work have completely ignored how actors feel. Ethnography, experimental social psychology, and qualitative sociology generally touch on the concepts of emotion and feeling in the process of explaining why people do what they do and think what they think. What we haven’t done is put feelings front and center and think out a sociological way of seeing them.
Perhaps the main reason why not is that, as sociologists, we are members of the same society as the people we study. We share their feelings and values. Their culture divides thinking from feeling and defines thinking—cognition, intellect—as superior to feeling, and so does ours. Significantly the terms “emotional” and “sentimental” have come to connote excessive or degenerate forms of feeling. Through the prism of our rationalist culture, then, we are led to see emotion as an impediment to getting things done and to seeing the world as it really is.
But even if we do discredit emotion as a dimension of experience—and I do not—why would sociologists ignore it when they study plenty of other discredited things?11 believe the answer lies in the discipline’s attempt to be recognized as a “real science,” an attempt dating back to the naive aspiration of Auguste Comte, the so-called father of sociology, to make sociology
a social physics. For this misguided quest permits us to study only the most objective and measurable aspects of social life. This coincides with the values of the traditional “male” culture, to which academic women have, by exclusion, been somewhat less exposed. But if we are to bring sociology closer to reality, we will do it very poorly if we close an eye to feeling. We must open the other eye and think about what we see.