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Are Emotions Culturally, Interpersonally or Institutionally Defined?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3014 words Published: 18th Nov 2021

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Currently there is no universally agreed-upon definition of emotion in any of the fields that study this phenomenon. Emotions are considered to be strong feelings arising from one’s conditions, mood or relations with others (Mulligan, K., & Scherer, K. R, 2012). Many people believe that emotions are different for each individual and everyone experiences different emotions such as anger, laughter, happiness and other known emotions differently. However, from a sociologist’s point of view emotions are social.

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In sociology, it is assumed that many different emotions a person experiences would be the same if another individual was experiencing the same emotions which means there is not a universal sense of love, anger or any other emotion (thought there are degrees to this). Sociologists also suggests that many emotions are formed from social constructs and that if humans didn’t create certain ideas and accept these ideas within a society the emotion wouldn’t necessarily exist.

Emotions can also be deemed as biographical, meaning there is a pre-personal affect that occurs. This means that they have always stemmed from the social and are not ‘natural’ because they have been learnt from social and cultural patterns. Previous research has often underestimated the importance of social factors in the causation and formation of emotions.

In this essay, I question the assumption that emotions are personal or individual and investigate the fact that they are social. I attempt to demonstrate that many of the causes of emotions are culturally, interpersonally or institutionally defined within a social environment.

Sociology would argue that emotions certainly feel personal, but they are learnt, interpreted, performed and understood in the social world. Symbolic interactionism (SI) is believed to be a major reason for this, which is how humans interact with each other, we are an active and social species (Blumer, 1986). E.g. if you grew up in a room alone with no interaction at all, you wouldn’t have learnt about any of the emotions and how to be human since you have had no social interaction to learn and then perform the actions of a human.

For example, rare cases like ‘Genie the wild child’ who was kept in a basement for most of her childhood life, she could not talk and barely walk when found, but after some time showed dramatic improvement in learning and helped show that she could still form attachments with multiple individuals even after being kept in solitary confinement for 13 years after experiencing deprivation due to her parents claiming she was ‘mentally retarded’ from birth (Curtiss, 2014).

This phenomenal study demonstrates that she did not learn what emotions are despite forming some sort of attachment with people. Genie was unable to express her emotions since she could only make grunting noises and an attempt of saying words but could not carry out full sentences. This suggests that emotions are social and not personal to the individual.

This means that emotions are produced and experienced in the social world; we wouldn’t feel the emotion guilt if eating a box of chocolates every night was socially acceptable. Emotions are therefore thought to not be universal for every individual from different cultures and backgrounds. For instance, the emotion jealousy is believed to be a social construct. Jealousy can be described as having a fear that someone can take something away from you or the feeling of not being good enough, it should not be confused with envy which is when you want something that someone else has. If our society never invented the idea of monogamous relationships would there still be jealousy?

In other words, men throughout time have been told repeatedly you should be jealous and protect what’s yours otherwise you are seen as less of a man. It is believed in sociology that males learnt to be jealous to protect and satisfy their female partner to stop rival males taking their female and infidelity, so their genes were able to be passed down to the offspring. This assured paternity confidence that the child was his and not a rival’s so resources would not be wasted on another man’s child.

Females on the other hand learnt to feel jealousy because they required male protection and resources so her genetic lineage would pass on to the child, if the male redirected to another female the chance of survival for her child would be low. This has caused men to develop sexual jealousy whereas women have developed emotional jealousy (Hupka and Bank, 1996). Hence, the idea of social interaction challenges the belief that emotions are personal or individual.

Another view is that, emotions are believed to be formed by social constructionism. This is when a concept has been created by humans, this concept is then interpreted and accepted within the society, thus forming a label for a certain emotion (Liebrucks, 2001). People are born into a world where the conceptual frameworks and classifications used by the people in the society already exist, the emotions have already been labelled and the feeling has been associated with it.

Therefore, social constructionism argues that our ways of understanding the world do not come from the individual’s own objective reality but rather from other people, both past and present (Burr, 2015). Furthermore, Durkheim has been considered one of the ‘architects’ of the social constructionist approach to emotions (Scheff, 1983).

Durkheim supports the fact that culture and society have a strong influence on emotions. He conducted research on suicide and concluded that people commit suicide not because of how the individual feels about themselves but rather of how closely bonded they are to society. Therefore, the strength of the bond increases or decreases the risk of an individual wanting to commit suicide. Nevertheless, Durkheim still has received criticism because he does not really explain the idea of social constructionism, instead he uses suicide and religion as indicators as to why emotions are social and not personal (Day, 1987).

More precisely, the emotions are defined as socially established syndromes or social roles. A social role-theory does not reject the involvement of natural systems to emotional circumstances; however, it does imply that the functional importance of emotional reactions is to be found mostly within the sociocultural system (Averill, 1980).

The social role theory is devised to explain how individuals who have specific social positions are expected to act and how they expect others to behave. Role theory is centred on the observation that people act predictably and that an individual's behaviour is context‐specific, depending on their social position and situation in society (Hindin, 2007). This suggests that if individuals are acting as their social role that must mean that the emotions, they feel are from the role they are acting as. For example, if you are playing a game and you are selected as a prisoner you are likely to act very violent and the emotion you show is anger because you assume that is how prisoners behave and feel.

Similar to the social role theory is the expectation states theory aims to explain how status beliefs operate to maintain all social hierarchies. The theory begins with the assumption that status beliefs such as stereotypes or norms are widely shared cultural beliefs that express the status relationship between one social group and another within a given society (Ridgeway and Bourg, 2004). This is regardless of whether the members are from privileged or underprivileged groups, they still endorse the reality of the status belief within the society.

This suggests that if individuals have learnt and interpreted emotions that have been labelled in their culture, they are likely to expect those same emotions in other groups and will still go by their belief in society. As a result, all these socially constructed ideas show that emotions are not personal or individual.

Likewise, culture is believed to play a big role in the foundations of emotion. Different cultures have different emotions and emotional responses to different things. For instance, in western society, ‘gender’ is used to classify men and women into binary sections based on “social traditions along the lines of biologically based sexed identities” (Beasley, 2005). These separate categories have been stereotyped to act and feel emotion in different ways. Therefore, women are expected to convey a greater set of emotions than men, whereas men do not show a lot of emotion and are viewed as the provider and the protector within society (Eagly et al, 2000). However, there is cases where in other cultures women tend to be less emotional and men show more emotion. This means that gender is not the same everywhere, different cultures understand sexuality differently and the emotions that come with the gender associated.

Additionally, love is another interesting example to show how emotions are social, it can be defined as a strong feeling of deep affection. For Jackson (1993) love is not purely biological because it would be universal and ahistorical. It is a social construct; people are taught to love in various different ways regarding the social status of the individual. Love became an essential part of marriage in Western culture in the mid-1900s it has been tied within norms in society that ‘valentine’s day’ has been created for love to be celebrated.

Sociologists have identified that the idea that love is a necessary condition for marriage is a peculiarity of modern western societies. Most agree on the centrality of love in western notion of family and family ideology, namely its central role in maintaining heterosexual monogamy and patriarchal marriage. However, in other cultures many people have ‘arranged marriages’ where the two individuals do not meet beforehand and ‘fall in love’ to have a love marriage as the western ideology says.

Instead, they meet on their wedding day, get married and gradually as they live together, they begin to love. For example, a love marriage suggested three ideas at interest compared to arranged marriages , the principle of individual freedom to choose a lifelong partner; secondly, the new importance of romantic companionship within what had often originally been an economic and social structure; and third, the changing status of women, where love marriages are imagined as more grandly than simply being a source of domestic labour, political exchange or reproductive work (Black, 2017).

These differences between the western and eastern society display that depending on where you live and grow up, the way you view love is different it is not universal. This is because you are born into that specific culture and society, so you learn their norms and interpret them so hence perform those emotions. For example, if you grew up with wolves, you would have learnt how to act like a wolf, feel what they feel etc. Therefore, this demonstrates how sociology challenges the belief that emotions are personal or individual showing that culture plays a big role.

On the other hand, it is argued that sociological perspectives do not always disagree with the statements because to some degree emotions are personal and individual. For example, emotions are believed to be the products of natural selection. They are evolved adaptations, to help individuals survive and produce fertile offspring that will have their genes in the DNA (Prinz, 2004).

The evolutionary theory of emotions is thought to be ‘basic’ as they are said to be innate since there is ‘affects’ that are pre-cognitive and hardwired in the body such as enjoyment, shame, anxiety etc. For example, if you steal something you cannot control the fact that you go red and feel shame or the funny feeling in your gut when you have anxiety. These affects are considered pre-personal.

With emotions, we check the affects and then categorise the affect and label it which makes emotions social. Also, Mesquita (2001) compared emotions among Turkish, Surinamese, and Dutch participants using a qualitative method. She discovered that emotions were more individual experiences for the Dutch respondents who were more individualistic.

By contrast, emotions were more social incidents for the Surinamese and Turkish participants who were more collectivistic in their culture. Nevertheless, another method that directly tested lay theories of emotion, Uchida, Townsend, Markus, and Bergsieker (2009) found that for the Japanese respondents’ emotions often associated others, while for the Americans participants emotions mostly implicated only the self, consistent with Mesquita’s findings (Shaver, P. R., Wu, S., & Schwartz, 1992).

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A disadvantage of the research on the composition of emotion is that researchers frequently start with words that label emotions from the English language and translate them into other languages prior to exploring structural similarity. This method may exaggerate the degree of cross-cultural resemblance in structure, especially if some languages have words for emotions that do not have English counterparts.

The inclusion or exclusion of such indigenous emotions could severely change the structure of emotions. Therefore, this supports the fact that emotions are social as many of the emotions created are based off the English version which means that because of social interaction, they were able to understand the English words and then translate them into their own language to exhibit the same emotion. This indicates that even though to some extent emotions may be personal or individual sociology is able to question the belief and display how they are social.

Overall, the key argument of this essay has been that emotion is not just a personal meaning that indirectly surfaces in the social world but rather something that emerges directly through the medium of social interaction and social constructionism. It is apparent that emotions are somewhat biological because there are these ‘affects’ that are already hardwired in the body which cause a response when you feel a certain type of way. However, as many sociologists have discovered through intense research is that individuals cannot understand emotions without them being learnt, interpreted, performed and understood in the social world. This is due to social interaction and since we are an active species, we learn from each other (Blumer, 1986).

Furthermore, emotions are considered ‘man made’ since they have been socially constructed within society. The cycle continues because when people are born into this world the conceptual structures and categories used by the people in the society already exist, the emotions have already been labelled and the feeling has been associated with it.

Additionally, culture has a big impact in how emotions are viewed. Depending on where you have been brought up is how you perceive emotions. I attempted to present this by showing how gender and love are understood in different cultures such as the western society and the eastern society, primarily the Asian community. It was demonstrated that sociology challenges the belief to a high ordeal why emotions are social rather than personal or individual.


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