THINKING ABOUT FEELING
We need a sociological way of understanding emotion. The thinking we need is scattered around the social sciences and tucked into various approaches to the links between social structure and emotion." In the first approach (associated with the image of the conscious, cognitive self), the social context and thinking about emotion are linked, but a focus on conscious feeling is missing. In the second approach (associated with the image of the unconscious self), unconscious emotional phenomena and social structure are linked but again conscious feeling is omitted. In die third approach, the relation between sentience and its labels is analyzed, but the social context disappears from view/
The first approach to the sociolog)’ of emotion is to study what and how people think about emotion and feeling. This is the concern of attribution theorists who study actors’ ideas about the causes of behavior/ Experimental psychologists have studied how actors use these ideas in their attributions of causality. The anthropologist Robert Levy also exemplifies this focus. Among Tahitians, he notes, the emotional response to the loss of someone dear is attributed to “illness.” They link romantic love with extreme jealousy and consider both “crazy”—abnormal and bad.1’1 In a somewhat related way Alan Blum and Peter McHugh focus not on emotion but on motive. A motive is, for them, a way of conceiving of, social action. To the radical ethnomethodologist, the “way of conceiving of social action” is no small matter, since they believe that’s all social action is.11 Even if we accept this view of social action, we need to know the actor’s view of his or her inner affective life—sentience—in order to learn the assumptions on which he or she is basing explanations for things. For example, in the study of sex roles it would be interesting to explore sex differences in the motives peo – pie give for why they do what they do. “I quit graduate school because I fell in love with your father” was, through the 1960s, a common and acceptable thing for a middle-class woman to say, while its counterpart for men (“I quit graduate school because l fell in love with your mother") was not. Today a woman saying this would be questioned, doubted, and put on the spot, and so would a man.
The second approach, corresponding to the unconscious emotional self, takes us to Freud and the applications of his thought to social science. While work by such diverse theorists as John Dollard, John Seeley, Philip Slater, Geoffrey Gorer, Margaret Mead, Erik Erikson, and Bronislaw Malinowski provides enriching integrations of what are—or were—fairly differentiated fields (psychoanalysis and sociology, say), it still often glosses over the sentient self.1 – Tins results in studies with a simultaneous focus on the unconscious and the social, with conscious feeling edged out now by two sides rather than one. Dollard, for example, uses the emotion word “frustration” to refer to observable behavior resulting from situations in which expected acts are prevented from occurring.13 Between inducing situation and consequent behavior, Dollard gives only a casual glance at the individual’s conscious experience of frustration, and at her or his response to that experience. The “it” of frustration that gets displaced from one issue to another, the “it” that is socially caused and in turn causes behavior, remains mysteriously out of view. We learn more from Dollard on the situational side than on the response side. His research nonetheless suggests how aggression—once we make clear what it like to the aggressive person—can be “displaced.” (This is the central concern of the section of his essay called “Feeling and the Politics of Aim” and of the essay “Love and Gold” in part 4.)
І he third approach, based on the image of the sentient self, leads us to map the inner world of feeling against the cultural world of labels. This is done either by holding experience constant and examining variations in labeling, or by holding labels constant and examining variation in experience, or by looking at the interrelationship, holding neither constant.1^ An example of the last approach is Robert Levy ’s study of what he called transschematic experience and cultural schema among Tahitians. In a list of 301 words describing feeling in the missionary dictionary, 47 referred to angry feelings and 27 to pleasurable states. To the Western eye, some feelings (e. g., anger, shame, fear) were well discriminated, while others (e. g., loneliness, depression, guilt) were poorly discriminated.
In the study of sex differences we might determine whether and how the same labels refer to different experiences for men and women. For example, Kephart found that college women reported more “infatuations” than did college men. He reasoned that for women looking back, “love affairs are related to infatuations… and are remembered merely as passing fancies.”15
Because women are the upholders of the monogamous ideal, he reasoned, they tend to relabel or re-remember past love as “mere infatuation.”
Associated, then, with the first image of the conscious cognitive self and the second image of the unconscious emotional self, we have two lines of inquі і у that tend to bypass conscious feeling. But starting from an image of the sentient self, we have a line of inquiry that relates feelings to a rich array of cultural understanding o‘ them. We can develop this line of inquiry in the direction of depth psychology (drawing from Dollard, Erikson, Freud, and Chodorow) and in a cognitive direction (drawing from Blum and McHugh). Sociologists have also pointed to the social causes and consequences of a great variety of emotions and sentiments."’ On the causal side, authors such as the historian Herbert Moller and the philosopher C. S. Lewis in their studies of love deal with the grand historical picture, while others, such as Edward Gross and Anthony Stone in their study of embarrassment, deal with the immediate interactional setting.17 On the consequence side, some writers such as the anthropologist George Foster in his classic study of envy analyze the customs and institutions that function to avert envy by devaluing, hiding, or symbolically sharing the envied object.1N For Foster, inequality naturally causes envy, which is ihen averted through various social customs. In an equally classic essay on jealousy, Kingsley Davis questions the naturalness of sexual jealousy. Rejecting the position of tine family historian Edward Westermarck, that adultery “naturally” arouses jealousy which in turn causes monogamy Davis suggests that the cause of |eal – ousy lies in the expectations set up by the institution of monogamy, which then make adultery arouse jealousy. He focuses on the jealousy of men over their wives, who are conceived of as property. This property can be borrowed or lent without jealousy, as occurs in some traditional societies. It is only when their property is stolen or trespassed upon that men get jealous."1
Thus, feelings take on their meaning and full character only in relation to a specific time and place in the world. And each context has a normative, an expressive, and a political dimension.
The normative dimension of a context refers to our sense of what feels appropriate or right. It points our attention to the relation between feeling and feeling rules. So we might say, “This situation makes me happy but I shouldn’t feel this happy” Both feelings and feeling rules are socially induced, as is the potential conflict between the twro. The expressive dimension of any context has to do with the relation between a person’s feelings and other people’s understanding of and response to those feelings, that is, with the issue of communication. Here we’re dealing not with the wrongness oJ feelings, but with the inferred truth or falseness of them, l he political dimension concents the relation between a person’s feelings and the target of those feelings. It focuses on the aiming of affect at those higher or lower, more or less powerful, than oneself. The first dimension tells us about
judgments on feeling, the second about communication of feeling, and the third about the aiming of feeling. It is the image of the sentient self that draws our eye to these three aspects of feelings.
Keeling rules define what we imagine we should and shouldn’t feel and would like to feel over a range of circumstances; they show how we judge feeling. Feeling rules differ from expression rules. A feeling rule governs how we feel whereas an expression rule governs how we express feeling. We can think of feeling rules as the underside of framing rules—rules governing how it is we see situations. Together, framing and feeling determine how it is we deeply grasp the situation before us. Feeling rules are also often deeply internalized, though this is obviously less the case for children, the insane, and the traumatized than for normal, emotionally healthy adults.
I explore feeling rules in the next essay (“Working on Feeling”), but let me flesh out the general idea here. When we judge a feeling as inappropriate, we actually apply one of three measuring rods we can see as types of appropriateness: (a) clinical appropriateness refers to what is expectable for normal, healthy persons (the person may think her/his anger “healthy” even if it’s morally wrong); (b) moral appropriateness refers to what is morally legitimate (the person can get furious at a helpless child, but this may be morally inappropriate); (c) social-situational appropriateness refers to what is called for by the norms specific to the situation (e. g., to feel effervescent at a party). These three types of appropriateness correspond to the roles of the clinician, the minister, and the etiquette expert, and in practice these three senses of the term often—though not always—reinforce or fuse with each other.
Let’s take the example of envy, the feeling of wanting what another has. Societies generate envy when they create winners and losers, and devalue losers for being losers. ’0 While the moral injunction against envy applies to winners and losers alike, envy is unequally distributed among winners and losers. More of those who feel they are losers or think others think they are losers feel envy. So the socially induced feeling (“I envy you”) and the socially established rule (“I shouldn’t envy you”) are at odds. This disjunc – ture might be strongest for the religious poor (for whom both envy and the prohibition against it are fostered) and weakest for the irreverent rich (for whom both might be less). I say “might” because the ultimate situation is always unique to the individual.21
The discrepancy between socially induced feelings of envy and envy rules may result in a number of social customs and institutional arrangements which handle this discrepancy. The anthropologist George Foster suggests that the experience of envy is a result of (a) notions about the limited or unlimited supply of desired “goods” (money, love, honor, security), (b) their distribution, and (c) the principle of equivalence (the tendency to equalize goods) .** He suggests several social devices that deal with envy—
concealing or denying possession of that which is coveted and truly or symbolically sharing it. The great and recently increased extremes of wealth in the United States, the ethic of “equal opportunity,” and individualism together create a general susceptibility to envy. Surely, the widespread popularity of TV game shows and “marry a millionaire” shows—programs that convey the idea “someone like me can get rich quick”—are a form of symbolic sharing. But how, we can wonder, do individuals pick up where culture leaves off?
Just as feelings are linked to rules in a normative context, so feelings are linked to expressions in a context of expression. Just as we appraise our experience in a context of rules, so too do we judge the emotional expressions of others in an expression context. In mapping rule to feeling, the actor judges whether a feeling is appropriate in the clinical, moral, or situational sense. In mapping expression to feeling, we judge whether the expression is true or false, partly or fully meant. We try to tell whether it corresponds to a “real” subjective experience. When I smile at you, l offer a sign of my inner feeling: say, liking. When you see me smile, in a flash, you make an inference, correct or not (“Does she really like me or is she just being polite? Is this expression fake or real?”). Quite apart from the judgment about the appropriateness of my liking or yours, there is the task of inferring from my smile what it is I really feel.
The many small decisions that lead us to discount or take seriously an expression rest on a variety of factors: our style of interpreting, our knowledge of another’s smiling habits, our knowledge ol events prior to the encounter, and so on. These elements also operate within a larger social context in which some expressions are by custom scarce and others abundant. The genera] “market” of expressions thus influences the value we impute to a particular smile as well as the probability of perceiving it as true or false.
We can see emotional expressions as a medium of exchange. The translation between expression and experience can be seen as analogous to the translation between a paper dollar bill and what it symbolizes. Like paper money, many smiles and frowns are in circulation. They are symbolic with reference to certain taken-for-granted agreements as to which gesture goes with which meaning in which context. Like money, expressions work on a basis of trust that this expression (e. g., a clenched fist) corresponds to that range of inner experience (e. g., anger, exuberant bravado). So our trust in a gesture rests on a public trust in the general validity of such expressions, their general link to inner experience.
The more bureaucratized our society, the more standardized, commodified, and depersonalized are public displays of feeling, and the more discounting we do. The “have a nice day” buttons, the waiter’s “hope you enjoy your meal,” the receptionist’s smile—all these are so abundant that we
almost cease to imagine that they correspond to anything real. Still, such commercialized niceness is enormously important as a form of needed reassurance that in the midst of many strangers we are safely out of harm’s way. Like the arable soil on the earth, public goodwill is life-sustaining, needs maintenance, and is vulnerable to erosion.
In a commercialized society, positive expression is more “inflated” than expression, say, of envy, anger, or resentment. There are more phony dollars in circulation. So a slight expression of anger is trusted to correspond to felt anger in a way not generally true for an expression of liking. Expressions of anger are more “serious” and more likely to be sensed as “true.”21
Within the general market of expressions, there are particular markets associated with regional subpopulations or strata. Within the expression market for anger in southern Italy, for example, anger is “cheaper” than it is among Maine Yankees.25 Moreover, sex-role socialization may render an ger expressions more scarce and “serious" for women than for men. Daphne Bugental and her coauthors show that, compared with men, women are more likely to smile while angry or frustrated.2fi In his study of facial expressions, the psychologist Paul Eckman found women more likely to mask (quickly cover up) anger, while men more often mask fear.27 A study of affect display in children’s stories might show girls to be portrayed as more expressive of fear than of anger, while for boys die opposite is probably true. In any case, the translation from outer expression to inner feeling and vice versa is set against different expectations about anger expression in women from those for men.
Feelings are linked not only to rules (in normative contexts) and to expressions (in expression contexts), but also to sanctions (in political contexts). Here we can explore the relation between power28 and sanction, on one hand, and the target of feeling and expression, on the other. Whereas the first two levels deal with conscious feeling and thought (the sentient and cognitive self), this third level deals with what is often unconscious feeling.
The relation between sanction and feeling varies for different feelings. Insofar as anger is deflected at all from its “rightful” target, for example, it tends to be deflected “down” into relative power vacuums. So anger is most likely to be aimed at people with less power and least likely to be aimed at people with more power. Anger runs in channels of least resistance. The pattern is clearest in the case ol the expression of anger, but I think in a milder way it is there also for the very experience of anger.
This general pattern parallels the hierarchy of joking observed by Rose Coser. Analyzing conversations in which humor occurred during three months of staff meetings at a mental hospital. Coser concluded, “Those who were of higher status positions more frequently took the initiative to use
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humor. More significant, still, the butt of the joke, if he was present, was never in a higher authority position than the initiator.”29 Insofar as jokes with a “butt” are a benign cover for hostility, they reflect the pattern in this way.
Contrariwise, more positive feelings tend to run up the sociopolitical hill (e. g., kissing the hand of the pope, bowing before the queen, shaking hands with the president). Under the governance of socially organized і ear, there is both the downward tendency of negative feelings and the upward tendency of positive ones toward powerful parental figures.3,1 When deflected, anger and resenunent tend to get deflected down. But, needless to say, not all anger is deflected down. Revolutions erupt. Ideologies that challenge the elite and ignite the masses grab hold. Still, much about American culture, at least, trains our channels of identification up and our disdain and anger down. And die powerful can buffer themselves (via doormen and secretaries) against exposure to hostility, a buffer that powerless people less often enjoy. While anger can be aimed up, and the rule against envy suspended, as in die case of revolution, it is astonishing how rarely this has occurred in the United States.31 Here among the dispossessed the emotional aspect of “false-consciousness”—feeling content with an unjustly dealt fate—is more die rule than the exception. Why? How does the mass media or the political apparatus “organize” and channel discontent and inhibit challenge? Surely we have to understand the politics of aim to knowr.
This up – and downstream pattern has enormous consequences for the emotional worlds we inhabit. Those near the bottom of power hierarchies tend to bear a disproportionate amount of displaced anger. A woman, for example, receives not only her husband’s frustration displaced from the office to home, but also the anger of other women who are similarly displaced upon. If a woman takes her anger down (to children) and occasionally across (to odier women), she, by the same token, becomes the less powerful target of both men’s and women’s anger. The least powerful become the targets of a wide variety of hostility. In a sense, they become the complaint clerks of society. For those on the bottom rungs of the political ladder, the world more often feels a hostile place.
Contrariwise, powerful people not only get a disproportionate amount of money and prestige, they also enjoy more emotional rewards. For the dwellers at the top, the world more often feels like a benign place. I Tie more hierarchies one is at the top of (class, race, gender), the more this is probably true. One reason people wrant power, honor, and glory is precisely because they want protection from hostility and exposure to awe and liking. Thus, powerful and powerless people enjoy different emotional as well as social and physical worlds.
All this has implications for the study of gender. We might quite seriously examine the proverbial case of the boss who blows up at the worker, the
worker who blows up at his wife, the wife who gets angry at her children, and the children who kick the dog. The very first task would be to explore the conscious feelings of people at each juncture in this series of emotional waterfalls. The second task would be to detenu і ne what anger seems to be “displaced” and what not. Who, we can ask, gets how angry at whom and for what? When a slightly burned chicken draws a raging response from the husband, and when a child’s small miscalculation about continence draws a storm of reaction from the mother, we can make a guess about displaced anger, the idea being that each is “really” angry’ or “also” angry at something else. But in order to develop such a guess, we would need to inspect the background expectations of both the people in the “anger-chain" and the sociolo
gists studying them.
The “social” goes far deeper than our current images of self lead us to suppose. Social roles and relations do not simply reflect patterns of thought and action, leaving the realm of emotion and feeling untouched, timeless, and universal. No, there are social patterns to feeling itself. Our task, as sociologists, is to invent both a magnifying glass and a pair of binoculars that permit us to trace the many links between a world that shapes people’s feeling and people who can feel.