Welcome to Emotions and Society, a new stage on which to try out emerging ideas and debate the mysterious ties between emotion and society. Such new work can begin with a few general premises shared by many experts in the field, the first being that emotion and feeling – a term I use to refer to milder emotions – are the very foundation of social life. So it is not emotions and also society, but rather emotion as the great orchestra playing the ongoing music – dissonant or harmonic – of society.
Second, we can start with a critique of the old assumption that we are either rational or emotional, for most emotion scholars now assume that we are always both. When we are in the grips of strong emotion, we simultaneously think about the object of our emotion – an issue nicely dealt with by the sociologist Jack Barbalet (2002). As the psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman (1984) also note, when we feel an emotion, we are also appraising a situation, often unconsciously, and that appraisal is based on thought.
Third, the works of such theorists as Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Norbert Elias, George Simmel, Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, Jean Paul Sartre and Erving Goffman, offer us an exciting set of starting points – but only that. Recent contributions – much of it galvanized in 2004 by the Emotions Network of the European Sociological Association – has come from innovative researchers in such countries as Germany, Holland, Denmark, the UK, Australia, Israel, the US and Scandinavia. In Theorizing Emotions: Sociological Explorations and Application, Debra Hopkins and her co-editors, (2009) offer a rich survey of recent advances in the field, as do Gillian Bendelow and Simon Williams (1998) in their earlier edited volume. Many methods are also available for exploring emotion, as Helena Flam and Jochen Kleres (2015) carefully lay out in their edited volume, Methods of Exploring Emotion.
Emotions are social in so many ways. Our social station – our social class, race, sexual orientation, religion and national identity – clearly shapes our emotional experience. For example, the president of the American Sociological Association, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, chose the theme “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Racialized Emotions” for the Association’s 2018 annual meeting. In whatever way we are placed in a racial order – at home, in our community, church, workplace, social movement, political party – we feel it.
But what is it about any given feeling that is social? For one thing, our criteria for selecting the moments – within the ongoing flow of experience –we wish to focus on and name. What emotional dictionary do we have at hand? Do we hastily pass over a great blur of depressive feeling but fastidiously focus on and endlessly dissect moments of joy? How, in other words, do we cognise – and recognise – feeling? For another thing, we can observe the tacit feeling rules that we apply to feeling. Does it seem ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to feel sad at a party or relieved at a funeral? Does our feeling fit the feeling rule we apply to it? And with whom are such rules shared? How do we manage our feelings – evoking joy here, suppressing disappointment there? And at work – as caregivers, salespeople, flight attendants, bill collectors, prison guards, police officers, teachers, actors – what kinds of emotional labour do we do (Hochschild, 1983)? These are a few questions we can ask about the connection between emotions and society.
Emotions and politics
Until recently, my own explorations in emotion have focused on those felt and expressed in the family and workplace, but in recent years I’ve turned my attention to politics. My research for Strangers in Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right (Hochschild, 2016) began in 2011, when I realised that the US was becoming bitterly polarised, and that I was living in one (Democratic, liberal) political bubble while many Americans were living in a radically different (Republican, conservative) bubble. So I decided to get out of my coastal urban bubble of liberal Democrats in Berkeley, California, and entered the life of Tea Party Republicans in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a bubble of conservative Republicans.
My method was to take off my own emotion-based alarm system, and cross over an empathy wall into the lives of others in the other pole. Over five years, I visited and sometimes re-visited some fifty supporters of the Tea Party. I visited the hospitals where they had been born, the schools and church they had attended and ponds they swam in. With a few, I played cards, went fishing and visited their ancestral graveyards. One man named Mike Schaff, a white, older, Catholic Cajun, one of seven children of a plumber, for example, drove me in his truck through a sugarcane field where his childhood home once stood, and took me fishing in a bayou not far from where he worked for a company that designed the rigs that drilled for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
Through this immersion, I began to see at play among Tea Party supporters – and later enthusiastic supporters of Donald Trump – their feelings and feeling rules, and became more aware of my own. Mike seemed to share my ‘emotional dictionary’ but he seemed to me to tacitly measure his own experience by more stoic-and-hedonic feeling rules. He deeply admired a man who could endure long hours at work overriding pain and ennui, and then ‘live it up’ and, as the Cajuns say, ‘laissez les bons temps roulez’. Enjoyment had a quality of victory over hardship.
Like others I came to know, Mike felt entitled to more respect than he felt ‘coastal elites’ granted men like him. As a man who had grown up poor (“we didn’t know we were poor”), worked his way through college, worked hard at a variety of jobs in the oil fields, he was appalled to see CNN commentators imply licence for contempt for Southern white men such as himself. They assume we are “ignorant, racist, homophobic, Bible-thumping rednecks,” he said, “and don’t think twice about saying so.” So he attached resentment to the idea of contemptuous ‘coastal liberals’ and braced against their social class prejudice. So he enjoyed a kind of ‘shame-reversal’ in which he shamed the imagined – and real – shamer. (Trump supporters I came to know did not just feel victims of contempt; they disparaged ‘coastal liberals’ too, seeing them as pampered, fragile ‘snowflakes’ unable to withstand the stresses of adult life. “Many liberals needed to get care dogs to handle the stress of losing the election, one woman told me.”
Stoicism and respect: while Mike and others championed those they saw as stoic, he had scant sympathy for able-bodied non-workers or the illegal migrants and refugees championed by ‘bleeding heart’ liberals. He expressed his feeling rule through analogy. About refugees, Mike explained, “During the Civil War, the North burned fields and poisoned wells. The women got raped. The men got shot or injured. But they didn’t run. They stood their ground.” In the same way he felt Syrian refugees should tough it out in Syria. His feelings reflected a right-wing ‘sympathy margin’ like those illustrated by American sociologist Candace Clark (1997) in her book Misery and Company: Sympathy in Everyday Life – a line beyond which he didn’t think it right to feel sympathy. We might conceive of such margins as a part of larger emotional maps tacitly guiding the feelings of left and right.1
People expressed the strength of their feelings on hot button issues in various ways. One woman declared, “Don’t get me going” on liberals and taxes. Any praise of government regulations, another told me, “puts a burr under my saddle!” About the right to abortion, another said, I get “all riled up”. Others attached actions to their feelings – or those of relatives. “My husband has a weak heart,” one woman explained, “so when President Obama came on the TV, I switch the channel.” For many, the idea was “That’s how we all feel around here.” In other words, that’s our – community-wide – feeling rule.
One way to get to feeling is through the story to which it is attached. Deep feelings are linked to a deep story. As I use the term, a deep story is a narrative based on a core metaphor evoking a given range of emotions.2 As in a dream, it is based on a telling scene. We take facts out of the deep story. We take moral ideals out of the deep story. What remains is the evocative power of the deep story itself—the objective correlative of given deep feelings. Right and left, everyone has a deep story.
In the deep story of the American right, a person is standing in line, as in a pilgrimage, facing up a hill at the top of which is the American Dream. The line hasn’t moved in a very long time and the feet of the waiter-in-line are tired. As an older person, proud of a lifetime of hard work, the waiter-in-line feels he finally deserves his part of the American Dream. In his eyes, he bears no one a grudge. Then he sees some people cutting ahead of him in line. Who are they? Blacks and women who, through federally mandated affirmative action policies, are finally given access to jobs historically reserved for whites and men. Also cutting in line he sees undocumented immigrants, refugees and highly paid (as he sees it) public sector workers, followed by the protected, endangered brown pelican (“Liberal environmentalists care more about animals than they do about people”). With each new line-cutter, the person waiting in line is, as he feels it, pushed back.
In another moment of the deep story, Barack Obama – whose job is to impartially supervise the line – seems to be waving to the line-cutters. “Oh,” the waiter-in-line thinks, “Obama is their president, he’s ignoring me. And isn’t he a line-cutter too? (How did Obama’s mother, a poor single mother, afford to pay for his Harvard education? Must be something fishy.)” In another moment, someone in line closer to the American Dream, turns around – a highly educated liberal from a large coastal city, say – and remarks to the patient waiter-in-line, “You backward, prejudiced, redneck!” Insulted, depressed, angry and estranged, the waiter-in-line says to himself “I’m a stranger in my own land.”
I derived this deep story by first listening at length to strongly expressed views, and singling out the assumptions on which they rested. I then chose a metaphor that corresponded with and organized those assumptions. Finally, I asked those I’d come to know to respond to the story. One said, “You read my mind,” Another said, “I live your metaphor.” Others added to it (“the line-waiters pay taxes that benefit the line cutters”) or altered it.
At a 2016 primary rally in New Orleans, Donald Trump spoke to thousands of excited conservatives. Like other charismatic speakers, Trump’s talk shifted despair to hope, depression to elation and shame to pride. Many conservatives feel personal shame for their failure to reach the American Dream, and for the ridicule they suffer from “coastal elites.” Almost daily Trump enacts a semi-conscious three-part de-shaming ritual, I think. a) He does or says something transgressive. b) Public commentators rebuke him for it. c) He defiantly rails against the rebukers —a gesture which symbolically eliminates shame— and which his followers find cathartic.
To the student of emotion, the invitation is out. New work can explore the emotional life of crop-pickers, maids, prison guards, those on the margins as well as those in the middle and top of their social worlds. It can take us into the double worlds of the Honduran refugee living in a tent at the Texas border and the truck driver facing the automation of trucks who is holding a gun to keep her out. It can take us into the double emotional worlds of the coal tycoons whose industry accelerates climate change and that of the farmer tilling parched fields or the coast dweller facing rising tides – and more. We can study many kinds of deep story. I look forward to exciting new journeys and answers in the future pages of Emotions and Society.
Conflict of interest
The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.
Barbalet, J.M. (2001) Emotions, Social Theory, and Social Structure: A Macrosociological Approach, Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bendelow, G. and Williams, S.J. (eds) (1998) Emotions in Social Life: Critical Themes and Contemporary Issues, London/New York: Routledge.
Hochschild, A.R. (1983) The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, Berkeley/Los Angeles: The University of California Press, Appendix B, pp 233–43.
Hochschild, A.R. (2013) So How’s the Family and Other Essays, Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, chapter 3, Empathy Maps.
Hopkins, D. , Flam, H. , Kuzmics, J. and Kleres, J. (2009) Theorizing Emotions: Sociological Explorations and Applications, Frankfurt: Campus Verlag.