Reconceptualising emotional capital and intimacy using a sociological lens: the Authentic Revolution

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Andreea NicaWestern New Mexico University, USA

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Sociologists and public health scholars have called attention to the rise of social isolation and loneliness in the US. Considering these developments, it is vital to extend the sociological imagination to better understand the forms of meaningful connection and social relationship characteristics sought by individuals. The growing Authentic Movement represents a series of decentralised social groups in the US and abroad that focus on Authentic Relating and Circling Practices. This ethnographic research combines semi-structured interviews and participant observation techniques to examine how these groups promote and allow for participants to explore concepts of emotion intimacy and alternative ways to form authentic connections with others in psychologically safe and (semi-) structured environments. In addition, the research aims to explore how these communities specifically address the rising trends and social problem of social isolation and limited meaningful (emotional) connection with others.

Abstract

Sociologists and public health scholars have called attention to the rise of social isolation and loneliness in the US. Considering these developments, it is vital to extend the sociological imagination to better understand the forms of meaningful connection and social relationship characteristics sought by individuals. The growing Authentic Movement represents a series of decentralised social groups in the US and abroad that focus on Authentic Relating and Circling Practices. This ethnographic research combines semi-structured interviews and participant observation techniques to examine how these groups promote and allow for participants to explore concepts of emotion intimacy and alternative ways to form authentic connections with others in psychologically safe and (semi-) structured environments. In addition, the research aims to explore how these communities specifically address the rising trends and social problem of social isolation and limited meaningful (emotional) connection with others.

Introduction: research aims

Sociologists and public health scholars have called attention to the rise of social isolation and loneliness, and its negative impact across health factors, as well as the core causes and implications driving this trend (McPherson et al, 2006; Holt-Lunstad et al, 2015; 2017). Helliwell and Putnam (2004) have emphasised the importance of social structure (comprising social capital and social networks) to wellbeing, as well as social structures’ diminishment over time in the US context. According to a recent Cigna report (Polack, 2018), two in five US citizens surveyed felt that they lack companionship (43 per cent), that their relationships are not meaningful (43 per cent), that they are isolated from others (43 per cent), and/or that they are no longer close to anyone (39 per cent). The survey report also highlighted that Generation Z and Millennials tend to experience increased loneliness and social isolation and claim to be in poorer health than older generations.

In light of this social problem, this research aims to fill a gap in the body of literature in the sociology of emotion and wellbeing. Research has examined how individuals operate in, interact with, and are embodied by the social fabric of emotion norms and ideology. Emotion-focused scholars emphasise concepts such as emotion management, labour and capital to explain conformity to the social and cultural expectations of emotion norms across contexts and interactions (Nowotny, 1981; Lively, 2008; Hochschild, 2012; Cottingham, 2016).

In this study, I examine an emotional subculture, the Authentic community, which focuses on the practice and acquisition of a specific set of emotion intimacy skills. In subcultural theory, there is a recognition of the distinct boundaries between mainstream culture and subcultures, in that those defined as Other (that is, the subcultures) conform to local but distinct norms and generally deviate from dominant norms, although fluidity may also occur between mainstream culture and subcultures (Haenfler, 2004; Fine, 2012; Kolb, 2014).

The community investigated in this study is an emotional subculture built around aspects of emotional intelligence that promote a minority view regarding emotional interactions, norms and ideology. Thus, I conceive of this emotional subculture as ‘the other’, but, more specifically, as promoting an emotional minority view in the community’s approach to the practice of emotion intimacy skills through relational activities. The mainstream (emotional) culture, in this conceptual framework, holds what I conceive as the emotional majority view – that is, it tends to place lesser social value on the practice and acquisition of emotion intimacy skills, as proposed in this study. From this standpoint, what makes the Authentic community unique is that it identifies itself as an emotional minority subculture that is constructed around its opposition to the emotional majority. Thus, the Authentic community doesn’t just support an emotional subculture, it also promotes opposition to the emotional majority and guides people in how to pursue that opposition. This research further aims to understand how these communities address the growing problem of social isolation, limited meaningful connections and loneliness through the practice of emotion intimacy.

Previous literature and theory: sociological approaches to emotion

Much of the work in the sociological exploration of emotion concepts such as emotional capital, labour and management has been confined to specific areas and topics, such as nursing, gender, education, family socialisation and service-centred work (Reay, 2004; Chaplin et al, 2005; Colley, 2006; Gillies, 2006; Cottingham et al, 2015). Some researchers have explored emotion concepts such as authenticity and romantic intimacy in a sociological context (Duncombe and Marsden, 1993; Vannini and Williams, 2009). In addition, sociological explorations of empathy have been recently documented, although the concept has long been considered a psychological variable (Ruiz-Junco, 2017). Emotional intelligence has also been a popular psychological concept in recent decades, particularly in business and the workplace (Mayer and Salovey, 1997). Further, while institutions such as the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and the education and the healthcare sectors have promoted the social value of some emotion intimacy skills, such as mindfulness (Durlak et al, 2011; Bostic et al, 2015; Landrum, 2016; Burton et al, 2017), these skills are sociologically underexplored. This study contributes to the literature by applying a sociological approach to emotion intimacy skills, recognised as a reconceptualisation of emotional capital, practised within an emotional subculture that emphasises minority views of emotion ideology and norms.

Conceptualisations of emotional capital

Emotional capital has been interpreted by scholars in particular ways; however, they generally use Bourdieu’s conception of economic, social and cultural capital as a framework. Allatt (1993) proposes that emotional capital is a set of resources and skills encompassing love and affection, time, attention, care and concern. Nowotny (1981) highlights that emotional capital is linked to affective social ties primarily located in the private sphere. Both Allatt and Nowotny provide a gendered perspective, specifically that women have been the carriers of emotional capital. Nowotny (1981) conceives emotional capital as having less direct convertibility or lesser social value in the public sphere, compared with other forms of capital. Some scholars argue this is a consequence of emotional capital’s primary utility in the private sphere; however, contemporary explanations for emotional capital argue its interplay with and transmission to cultural, social and economic capital (Reay, 2004).

For instance, cultural capital, as cultivated in the private arena, interacts with social and economic capital and is an accumulative relational concept, which can be transmitted across social systems and interactions (Bourdieu, 1986; Lamont and Lareau, 1988; Scheer, 2012). Also important is the notion that there is an assigned social value and status in accordance with what the dominant classes deem as the most valued cultural capital (Giroux, 1983). Reay (2000) further outlines how cultural and emotional capital are transmitted through the family, and specifically through the mother’s role, and are often linked to social (dis)advantages. For instance, Reay (2000) found that lower-income mothers had a more challenging time providing emotional capital that translated effectively to their children’s education compared with middle-class mothers.

Cottingham (2016: 454) uses ‘emotional capital to refer to one’s trans-situational, emotion-based knowledge, emotion management skills, and feeling capacities, which are both socially emergent and critical to the maintenance of power’. Further, Cottingham (2016) examines primary and secondary socialisation in the context of emotions and men in the nursing profession. The researcher demonstrates how resources of emotional capital (that is, empathy and compassion) were acquired in primary socialisation (for example, family and early education) and accumulated over time. In addition, those emotional assets learned in primary socialisation were compounded in occupational settings – secondary socialisation. Thus, while the family and education spheres have been documented as being influential in early socialisation due to habitus or dispositions, as conceived by Bourdieu (1990), secondary socialisation appears to also contribute to emotional capital accumulation. In this way, emotional subcultures can also be understood to assist in secondary socialisation of emotional capital accumulation.

While some research highlights particular conceptualisations of emotional capital, which argues its lesser social value outside the family, the psychological concept and application of emotional intelligence has reached wider audiences (Goleman, 1995; Schutte et al, 2001; Hughes, 2005). ‘Emotional intelligence concerns the ability to carry out accurate reasoning about emotions and the ability to use emotions and emotional knowledge to enhance thought’ (Mayer et al, 2008: 511). The study in this article takes on a sociological lens to explore how an emotional subculture applies a deconstructed view of emotional intelligence – a specific set of emotion intimacy skills – which benefits individuals by reducing social isolation and loneliness and enhancing social relationships.

To coalesce this literature, emotional capital has been conceived as basic emotion concepts (for example, love, affection and care) mainly cultivated in primary socialisation linked to the mother’s role and social (dis)advantage. While emotional capital has been extended to secondary socialisation processes (for example, occupational) and emotion concepts such as empathy, it has been limited to general approaches to emotion management skills and feelings capacities. Additionally, while emotional intelligence has connected cognition to emotions, it has been mostly confined to psychological perspectives and thus does not consider deeper structural and systemic dispositions of emotional capital.

Emotion concepts and subcultures

Structural approaches to the sociology of emotion are broadly premised on emotion management, emotion work / labour, emotion norms and social structure. Specifically, Hochschild (2012) developed the concepts of feeling rules and display rules. Thoits (1989: 322) argues that ‘feeling rules, or emotion norms, refer to beliefs about the appropriate range, intensity, duration, and targets of private feelings in given situations’. Feeling rules are usually marked by statements of what one ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘ought’ or ‘have a right’ to feel, and are governed by social expectations of internal feelings, whereas display rules or expression norms are relegated to the public display of emotion (Thoits, 1990).

Social actors assess which feelings are (in)appropriate to a specific social setting, a practice that is typically learned in primary socialisation. Individuals are called to practise emotion management and / or emotion work to conform to emotion norms and display rules embedded in social structures. Both Thoits and Hochschild argue that individuals feel the tension between feeling and display rules and their authentic emotional experiences, which contributes to negative emotions greater than the initial emotion(s) felt (as cited in Turner and Stets, 2006). Thus, emotion work and/or emotion management, in Hochschild’s (2012) and Thoit’s (1990) view, require, in part, altering or suppressing certain feelings to avoid social consequences or the labelling of emotional deviance if one does not conform to emotion norms, which in turn has critical implications for social categories within subcultures.

Kolb (2014) asserts that social categories may influence feeling and display rules; however, subcultural emotion norms can also intersect with multiple social categories. Fields et al (2006) further argue that social arrangements (across gender, race, class) reproduce social inequalities through meaning-making processes linked to emotion ideology that disadvantage certain social groups and privilege others. For instance, Froyum (2010) found that emotional capital and emotion management skills were transmitted to low-income, young Black women by adult staff in an after-school programme that was intended to offer guidance in resisting racism; however, their approach promoted emotional strategies and ideologies (in this case, emotional deference) that further reinforced inequalities across race, gender and class. Individuals thus experience and express emotions through group membership, which in turn is linked to the emotion norms and ideologies established within (sub)cultures (Bericat, 2016).

By examining emotional subcultures in the Authentic community, all of which emphasise the cultivation and practice of specific emotion intimacy skills, I propose to increase understanding of the significance and reconceptualisation of emotional capital. Here, reconceptualisation includes how emotional capital is accessed and utilised, as well as a clearer analysis of the analytical tension between the emotional majority and minority views, and the wider implications. In this way, I provide a more nuanced explanation of how these views function on both structural and interpersonal levels and how these views are associated with and co-construct one another.

Research methods

This ethnographic design combined semi-structured interviews and participant observations. Observations involved face-to-face sessions in the Austin, Texas, area, group-affiliated social media (local and nationwide), and nationwide online sessions. I also conducted a brief online analysis of the Authentic Revolution website – a broader online platform serving Authentic community members. This methodological approach is suitable for this research as ethnography focuses on a search for patterns and themes from the observations and interviews of lived experiences with individuals in the communities (Angrosino, 2007). Ethnography and participant observation also allow the ethnographer and observer to occupy both subjective and objective participatory roles in the lives of those in the community studied (Dewalt and Dewalt, 2002; Angrosino, 2007). Participant observation and informal discussions with members across the subcultures provided a methodological advantage of discerning cultural meanings within the groups and members’ motivations and experiences (Dewalt and Dewalt, 2002).

I used an interpretive description approach, which often involves multiple data collection strategies to offer contextualised interpretations of facets of phenomena and involves working beyond the preliminary conceptual framework to engage in inductive reasoning towards ‘constructed truths’ to highlight phenomena in novel ways (Thorne et al, 2004; Thorne, 2008). An interpretive description approach is used to explain more holistically a social phenomenon linked to multiple and complex constructed realities that ‘addresses causality or essence’ and tends to emphasise ‘explanation and variation’ (Sandelowski and Barroso, 2003). Further, interpretive description assists in the avoidance of obscuring distinctions between qualitative approaches and has underpinnings in theory emerging from the data (Thorne et al, 2004). A combination of thematic analysis and interpretive description was especially useful for a study examining intricate emotion concepts in dynamic communities.

I gained access to the groups through informal participation and observation and found that both the hosts and participants were willing for me to participate as a researcher and a co-participant. I recorded audio notes after the conclusion of each field visit. This included thick descriptions of the events, emotional exchanges and interpretations of the meanings in the cultural settings (Geertz, 1973). The interviews are a purposive sample, stratified to include both leaders and members across three groups (n = 11). Each (online and offline) community-based session spanned approximately 10–30 participants. The research plan consisted of developing a set of tentative results through my initial observations, which I then explored more deeply with the informants in the semi-structured interviews. This helped ensure the credibility and trustworthiness of earlier findings via member checking (Lincoln and Guba, 1985).

While this emotional subculture represents a growing movement, I served as a participant-observer in the following local subcultures: Authentic Relating, Listening Lab and Integral Circling. A brief description of each community is below (see Table 1). During preliminary observations, I found a specific set of emotion intimacy skills was activated through a variety of community-based activities, including workshops, retreats and in-person and online sessions (see Figure 1). To note, these skills changed slightly after data analysis of interviews, further discussed in the Findings section.

Table 1:

Subculture descriptions

Listening Lab Source: PACE Listening Guide (https://www.listenly.co/post/pace-listening-guide)
  • PACE: every listening session is different and moves at its own pace.

  • What’s real in this moment? How does your body feel? (Present)

  • Are you saying what’s real, or what you think the other wants to hear? (Authenticity)

  • Follow your thread of curiosity, not assumption. (Curious)

  • Explore how you can show up [display empathy] for someone even when you do not agree with everything they say. (Empathy)

Authentic Relating Source: Authentic Revolution website (www.authrev.org) Authentic Relating practices create a safe, intentional space – rooted in play and supported by clear boundaries – to create meaningful and enjoyable connections to self and other. By learning Authentic Relating skills, you can drop your conditioned relational habits, and learn to relate with yourself and others from a deeper more authentic expression of your truth
Circling Source: Integral Circling Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/745166005990800/about/) Circling is an organic, in-the-moment interpersonal process that’s equal parts art form, meditation and group conversation – all designed to allow a visceral experience of connection and understanding of another person’s world, celebrating who and where they are right now. It’s practicing using our genuine curiosity to better understand and become a connoisseur of another person’s world though present moment awareness while breaking through the assumptions and projections we have about each other.
This is the emotional minority framework developed during preliminary fieldwork observations in the emotional subcultures where a specific set of emotion intimacy skills were identified, including vulnerability, mindfulness, authenticity, empathy, curiosity, and compassion. These skills contribute to meaning making in enhancing social connection. Note, these skills slightly changed after data collection and analysis. See Table 3. for details.
Figure 1:

Emotional subcultures: emotional minority framework

Citation: Emotions and Society 4, 1; 10.1332/263169021X16260553458069

Research questions

  1. What are the motivations of members participating in the communities?

  2. How are the emotion intimacy skills in the emotional subcultures practised?

  3. What are the social consequences and benefits of residing in the emotional minority?

Data analysis

I used thematic analysis to identify, analyse and interpret themes that emerged in the data. Thematic analysis is used as a method to systematically identify and offer insights into patterns of meaning across a data set (Braun and Clarke, 2012; Braun et al, 2018). Themes also capture the essence of meaning across the data that might otherwise appear disparate or occurring in multiple contexts, as well as implicit and explicit meanings in the data (DeSantis and Ugarriza, 2000). The audio fieldnotes and interview recordings were transcribed. Themes were identified and coded using Dedoose software.1 Participants were anonymous and pseudonyms were used. While preliminary fieldwork significantly contributed to the framework for this study, the data presented is primarily from the interviews, although observations are also included. Further, while the interviews were completed before the COVID-19 pandemic, post-interview fieldwork continued for approximately one month as communities launched sessions online.

Interview participant demographics are organised by gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, education and age (see Table 2). It should be noted that the interview data is not necessarily representative of participant demographics in the Authentic community across the US and abroad. While interviewees consisted of mostly White participants with an educational background of a college/bachelor’s degree, this is fairly representative of the demographics in the Austin, Texas, area (US Census Bureau, 2019). Austin, Texas demographics tend to be white and educated and not representative of the US in general. The local subcultures observed are generally male-inclined, both in participation and facilitation. However, in nationwide online sessions, sociodemographics varied. Further, the social class or socioeconomic status of the interview participants were not probed, given the specified aims and scope of this research.

Table 2:

Participant demographics

Category Descriptor n = 11
Gender Female 3
Male 7
Non-binary 1
Race / ethnicity Other 1
Latino/Latinx1 1
White 9
Sexual orientation Heterosexual 9
Pansexual 2
Education Bachelor’s degree 8
College 1
Professional school / other 2
Age Mean 37

Latinx is an emergent gender-neutral, pan-ethnic label used to describe the Hispanic population. For more informwation if necessary: https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2020/08/11/about-one-in-four-u-s-hispanics-have-heard-of-latinx-but-just-3-use-it/

Results

Findings include mainly narratives from participant interviews, along with participant observations from in-person and online sessions and social media/online evaluation. First, motivations for joining the communities spanned across social isolation / loneliness (used interchangeably), social anxiety and relating. In the second theme, after analysis of the interviews, emotion intimacy skills differed slightly from the preliminary fieldwork (see Table 3). The third theme, the social consequences and benefits of participating in the communities, as well as advocacy perspectives on extending emotion intimacy skills outside the community, are discussed.

Table 3:

Themes

Main themes Sub-themes Description of main themes
Motivating factors
  • Relating

  • Social anxiety

Motivations for joining subcultures
Social isolation / loneliness
Emotion intimacy skills
  • Listening

  • Compassion

Skills participants learned and practised in the communities
Authenticity
Attunement
Empathy
  • Mindfulness / presence

  • Noticing / witnessing

  • Vulnerability

Social
  • Benefits

  • Consequences

  • Advocacy

Social consequences and benefits in subculture participation in relation to wider society / participants’ wider communities

Motivations

Ken, a participant of the Circling community, shares his motivations linked to relating:

‘A pull to better understanding myself. A pull to understand myself in relation to other people. A pull to understand other people. And ... the meditative aspect, like meditating with other people is a really powerful experience.’

Layla also comments on the relating-focused motivations for joining Listening Lab:

‘I think the biggest one for me has been recognising the limitations of connecting with people through just intellect. I’ve valued a lot of my relationships based on the quality of the conversation. But the quality I’ve been measuring is like how smart or how clever or how much knowledge do you have around philosophy and literature ... but I think the failure to connect to people as whole beings … I really think it inhibited all forms of relationships. Like romantic, family, friends. People are more than just the intellect they can bring to a conversation.’

Devon, a facilitator of Circling and Authentic Relating, sums up how these communities assist in deepening relating to others through practice:

‘There’s a limit to one’s capacity to learn about Authentic Relating and Circling in isolation. You can read all the books about it, you can journal, you can reflect, but if you really want to learn this stuff you need to go and be in connection, in community, in relationships and get feedback. And then take the feedback in and apply it again, and then get more feedback from people. I think the community aspect is really central to learning this. There’s something interesting about the various AR [Authentic Relating] and Circling communities that have popped up around the world in that I kind of think of them as semi-transient training grounds for learning how to connect and relate deeply.’

During online and face-to-face sessions, participants spoke of how prior to joining these communities, their conversations and relationships felt limited by measures of knowledge accumulation or ‘intellect’, or casual engagement regarding topical issues, ‘pulling’ them to better understand themselves and others in a different way. That is to say, members did not feel an authentic connection to the ‘whole’ self, which appears to encompass the (awareness of) self in relation to others. Further, as Devon highlights, there is a learning process to deepening relating with others and this is best achieved in community practices. This hints at the idea that the skills valued in these emotional subcultures are learned and that, to varying degrees, prior conditioning (such as suggested in Layla’s narrative), is unlearned or, at least, is attributed lesser social value in these communities, given common descriptions of how previous relating practices limited their connective experiences.

Casey speaks of her social anxiety as a motivating factor to becoming a leader and participant in Authentic Relating:

‘[I]t was freeing, and then it also gave me a space to expand and explore both my communications with other people and leadership. I have pretty high social anxiety, and so usually I can get by just by being energetic, but when I’m not energetic, it’s very, very difficult for me to interact with people, and it gave me spaces where I could feel safe to interact … also, creating a community with the facilitators … and just the quality of friendship and interaction with the other facilitators was so fulfilling. I felt safe and seen and mentored as well […]’

Carl, involved in Circling and Authentic Relating, speaks of social isolation as a motivator to joining:

‘I think that there’s something going on in a way that society in the United States, and maybe modern Western society … it seems like there’s, in my opinion, less opportunity for meaningful connection with people in our daily lives. We live very isolated lives and where we feel like maybe we have to put on a mask to be accepted in the world, to be accepted in our jobs, even in our families. And I’m thinking that maybe the communities that I’m a part of are responding to a need that people have voiced or just have felt and so creating these spaces where people can explore coming out from behind the mask and trying to feel into what is authentic for them, what’s a more aligned way of being for them. I don’t know that those ideas apply to every culture in the world.’

Devon explains how loneliness and the desire for deeper connection draw people to the community:

‘I think people are drawn because they want to have more connection in their lives – or people – they don’t want to feel the pain of loneliness that they’re feeling. They want to avoid pain and they want to feel the pleasure of love and closeness and effective relationships. I would say that those are, like, the two main motivations for the vast majority of the people who come: want to avoid pain, want to feel pleasure through the medium of connection and relationships and emotional intimacy.’

Members often shared feelings of social isolation, loneliness and even social anxiety before discovering these emotional subcultures. Through their participation, they began to feel more closeness and ‘emotional intimacy’ with others. In Casey’s instance, her social anxiety was reduced because the perceived quality of her relationships in the subcultures were enhanced through feelings of safety in being ‘seen’. Being ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ are common expressions in these communities, referring to subcultural emotion norms and work that encourage individuals to deepen understanding and exploration of themselves and others through learning and practising a set of emotion intimacy skills.

The ‘mask’ that Carl refers to demonstrates a critical aspect of the function of the perceived emotional majority view, whereby the mask is an expression of an inauthentic self or a suppression of parts of self. To further explain, in the Circling community observed online and in-person, there is a general belief that the self is made up of ‘parts’; and, so, in wearing a mask to feel accepted in wider society, to community members, means a suppression of parts of the self which feel ‘alive’ or authentic. Thus, ‘coming out from behind the mask’ relays the implicit idea that if parts of the self are suppressed, it limits deeper connection with the other, thereby increasing feelings of social anxiety, loneliness and social isolation.

Emotion intimacy skills

Tom, a facilitator of Listening Lab and participant of Authentic Relating and Circling, shares listening as a skill:

‘We’ve even had couples, husband and wife, that have come through a listening lab and then at the end of it, their feedback was, we can’t remember the last time we really listened to one another like this, like maybe never in 20 years of marriage. I don’t know if we ever actually listened to each other. And so, it’s kind of an aha moment where it seems so simple, but people don’t realise that deep listening is a thing. And then when you actually do it, you’re like, oh, of course this is a thing, where has this been all my life? But again, the experience feels to me like not realising you’re thirsty because no one had ever told you what water was.’

Tom further explains:

‘[L]istening to yourself and then listening to the other and I think in any kind of interpersonal or business interaction, being able to really understand what it is that the other person’s saying, where they’re coming from, and kind of their background and all of the other factors that are going into their internal emotional space, the better you are at comprehending that, the easier it is to navigate the world. I really do think about these skills as a navigational tool kit that I use when I’m dealing with other people.

The facilitator expresses how ‘deep listening’ or in the words of other participants, ‘active listening’, is a skill to be learned. The process of listening is an intentional attempt to understand the other’s ‘internal emotional space’ while also listening to yourself. Additionally, participants resound Tom in expressing that deep listening is a skill wherein its effects or impacts are unknown, to varying degrees, outside the community. The example of the married couple demonstrates a lack or limitation in the form of an unawareness of a skill that can strengthen interpersonal relations. The idea that people are ‘thirsty’ but ‘no one had ever told you what water was’ is a descriptive reveal of what is limited in the emotional majority view – the skillfulness of deep listening that contributes to deeper connections.

Steven, leader in Authentic Relating, comments on skills authenticity and vulnerability:

‘I would say the most impactful thing about the Authentic Relating community is the idea that I could vulnerably show up and share myself authentically. When I’m experiencing my authentic self, my genuine self, this part of me that’s scared to share – “Oh, being with you I feel attracted, or aroused,” or “I feel caring,” or “I feel sad.” And being able to share those parts and being met with the vulnerability of that moment of whatever is alive for that person. And bring that, what we call intimacy, and / or withhold, depending – sometimes we withhold that too – because we are scared of how it’ll impact the relationship. What negative can come from that?’

The skills of attunement and compassion were also discussed. Gabriel, facilitator in Circling and Authentic Relating, shares:

‘[A]nother big skill feels like attunement and compassion for other people. Learning to be in the space of practising, really seeing all of the things that people really struggle with, and what’s happening in their mind, and what they feel in their body, and getting to show up with them in that without needing to fix them, or change them, or coach them, or give them advice, or whatever it is. And that’s been a deep practice of having compassion and holding space and being with someone else.’

Gabriel further expands on empathy and listening as practised skills:

‘[S]ome of the most basic and really profound skills [are] active listening or empathy. Just being able to listen to somebody and to repeat back what they said and to really not add my own interpretation or my own context or embellish whatever it is that we were learning how to listen. And then how to reflect back to somebody without adding anything to it. You feel like – there’s other things we’re trained that involve communication and different things, but it was a community where you had to practise that over and over again.’

There are two main points Gabriel captures in the community. First, the learning of these skills is an iterative process. There is an implicit acknowledgment that different emotion norms and labour are unlearned and often discarded in order to learn the new emotion norms and labour that are necessary to perform emotion intimacy skills (well). For instance, the need to ‘fix’, ‘change’, ‘coach’ or ‘give (unsolicited) advice’ appear to be norms outside the community, which call for an iterative unlearning process. Second, while prior social training appears to exist with regard to communication and some understanding of emotion concepts, it is not practised ‘over and over again’ in a community setting. The latter extends to the notion that these concepts are linked to an individual aptitude and are not simply feelings or basic concepts. Rather, they are competencies of social value, which require craftsmanship in the community with the purpose of achieving optimal effects in generating social and emotional profit.

Angela, a participant in Authentic Relating, weaves together mindfulness, noticing and witnessing as integral skills:

‘[…] I think relating is listening, noticing and receiving. Allowing myself to be open to the impact of the other person’s conversation and their emotions and really being able to be present with the other person in a way that previously, maybe, I would have deflected in different ways. Being more mindful of being in the presence of somebody. I think noticing is one of the most tremendous skills. And I mean, you can call it mindfulness, you can call it witness consciousness, but really noticing is a nice, easy, understandable word, because it brings attention to how it is that you’re feeling anxious. And sometimes, anxiousness and excitement can feel the same exact way physically and it’s really the story we’re telling ourselves that is causing distress or excitement. So, noticing that feeling and going, “Oh, well, this could be excitement if I change the story a little bit.”’

Devon builds on the concept and process of vulnerability:

‘I think rapport is the idea that as we connect more – the more time we spend together, the more safety we feel in connection with each other, the more we get positive reference experiences of, like, I share something that feels vulnerable, and you react positively. You don’t shame me, you don’t check out, you don’t ignore what I said. You respond with some vulnerability of your own and feel an appreciation for my vulnerability.’

Randall, participant in Listening Lab, speaks to the underlying facets of vulnerability in the context of sharing emotions:

‘I can captain a sailboat like nobody’s business, but lead a conversation? I’m from a generation that’s not terribly familiar with emotions. And so, when people start speaking emotionally, it encourages me to go there. I was raised to sort of ignore them [emotions] – raised to think, that’s a women thing and a children thing. Men don’t do that. So, it’s nice, you know? It’s nice … a young man who’s about 30 years old, he definitely went into his emotions. And okay, okay, raised differently. Let’s go there. Let’s talk emotions. It was nice. Because I wouldn’t have volunteered.’

Participants discuss how they managed emotions prior to joining the relating communities, some of which were rooted in generational differences. In their description of feeling and display rules, members highlight a former awareness and conformity to emotion norms, such as ‘deflection’, ‘shaming’, ‘ignoring’, ‘checking out’. Some, such as Angela, also expressed how a positive reframing of emotional experiences contributed to improved emotion outcomes, highlighting the different forms of emotional labour and management found in the subcultures. Interview participants echoed the notion that this skill set requires training done in connection with others in order for the skills to convert into an asset. An emotion concept such as vulnerability, for instance, is processual in that vulnerability as a skill is an emotional exchange that calls for appreciation to give it value in social interactions.

Social consequences and benefits

Steven highlights the emotional management of straddling the social boundaries of subculture participation and mainstream (emotional) culture:

‘[T]here are members of the community that are welcoming of you revealing your full self and helping you to have conversation with other members of the community… And they’re willing … to be in discomfort, uncomfortable situations where most societal norms are trying to avoid discomfort. […] it’s like avoiding difficulty, difficult emotions, negative emotions, emotions or experiences we want to have less of. Society tends to minimise those or say that you’re not normal because of those. I have them regularly … I also share often now, that I’m happy. And that’s something society also misses.’

He goes on to say:

‘We don’t tend to hear that people are actually happy or excited about their day. And so, “Oh, good, fine,” for saving face and having cordial interactions, rather than being genuinely authentic and fully express.’

Casey shares her experience:

‘It’s gotten to make things tougher, in each of my family relationships, in the short term, it made communication a lot harder. In the long term, it’s given me better relationships with every one of my family members than I ever had before. But there was usually a year or more in every one of those interactions, where we were just having communication breakdowns, because I was starting to want different things and not know yet how to ask for them, or if I asked for them, I’d get a bad response from the other person.’

She goes on to say:

‘[…] I don’t know if the self-awareness sometimes has downsides. I feel like, in some ways, my depression has gotten worse, since doing Authentic Relating, because I have more of a dialogue with myself, I feel it more in my own body. I’ve seen this happen before with people who have physical disabilities, even, where there’s more self-awareness and so that can be more painful.’

Angela provides insights into how the emotional majority and minority views function differently:

‘[T]here’s a blanket permission in the community that this is a safe container to feel your feelings and that people are okay with you feeling your feelings. I think outside of the community there’s a sense that most people are not okay if they’re feeling a lot of feelings. There’s rejection, denial, withdrawal, if you’re really feeling a lot of feelings. But, within the community, there’s a lot of support; everybody is there to help you, support you, while you’re feeling feelings.’

‘Societal norms’ were commonly discussed, namely, in how participants felt dissatisfied with the majority view of emotion norms and the emotional management / labour required to reinforce their performative value. Specifically, participants’ dissatisfaction with a ‘rejection’, ‘denial’, ‘withdrawal’ of a perceived expression of ‘too many feelings’. Or, in some instances, disingenuous interactions or general avoidance of ‘difficult emotions’. I witnessed members reveal their social challenges in knowing how to share what they need in emotional exchanges from others outside these subcultures suggesting a difference in interactions. Participants also expressed stigmatisation from friends and family members, even in romantic partnerships. Further, in a group-affiliated social media post, a member enquires to the community: ‘How do you build intimacy with ‘normal’ people?’, where numerous comments were shared on members’ experiences negotiating tensions between emotional majority and minority views in managing emotional expectations in social relationships related to wellbeing. Overall, many members share a strong view that the acquisition of emotion intimacy skills contributed to more meaningful connections in and outside the community.

Advocacy perspectives on how emotion intimacy skills may be extended outside the community were also shared. Randall expresses:

‘I wish there were more groups like this … I wish that listening was a skill that was taught. You know, we have speech class, we have composition class. I grew up just hearing, “This is how you express yourself.” Nobody said, “This is how you receive the expression of others.” Which would be awesome. I think things would change dramatically for the better. And it’s been a great thing. Our culture – Western culture, particularly American culture – is so individually oriented.’

Aidan, participant and facilitator in Authentic Relating and Circling, shares:

‘[…] I would honestly love to focus on [helping] these communities not be so insular. I think that once this stuff spreads and people take it on, in whatever their version of it is, I think that it will get more intimacy needs met by people that I don’t think are getting their intimacy needs met, and they’re filling it with … addictions, like TV shows that dare to have fake characters that are being vulnerable. And people watch it, and they’re like, “I can finally feel because I don’t feel any place else in my life.” Think that would do a lot of healing and bring society as a whole up to the next stage of development.’

Interview participants appeared passionate when discussing how emotion intimacy as cultivated in these communities have social advantages when extended to other sectors. Many shared how they utilised emotion intimacy skills in their workplace, with family members, romantic partners and friends, and how they noticed their relationships deepen in meaningfulness and emotional connection. Comments regarding the US culture being ‘individually oriented’, and how other cultures might vary in the social value of emotion intimacy points to an awareness of this skill set in a global context. Overall, members in these emotional subcultures shared a common value of promoting relating practices in mainstream emotional culture and its positive effects on wellbeing.

Discussion

This research explored how emotion intimacy skills were cultivated, practised and acquired across three emotional subcultures. The local community-based groups under examination – Authentic Relating, Integral Circling and Listening Lab – demonstrate how members use these skills and how it affected their personal lives, social relationships and wellbeing. This research provided deeper insights into the reconceptualisation of emotional capital and its wider implications for the acquisition of emotion intimacy skills.

Ethnographic research, including participant observation, in-depth interviews and online analysis, provides descriptive details of participants’ lived experiences in these communities. An ethnographic approach based on the lived experiences of individuals engaged in emotional dynamics in community settings is also an effective way to interpret what is occurring in these groups, and can be extrapolated to a wider audience and linked to a deeper public view of emotions (Ellis, 1991). Further, the ethnographic method and interpretive description approach assists in the development of a theoretical model in an emergent area. Although a theoretical disadvantage of participant observation is low reliability, observation techniques tend to have high validity (Bernard, 1995).

In this study, the reconceptualisation of emotional capital is premised on moving beyond the primary socialisation processes linked to the private sphere, as well as advancing the definitional parameters of emotional management skills, feelings capacities and basic emotion concepts. This study has extended emotional capital to the examination of emotional subcultures, revealing a specific set of emotion intimacy skills practised through community-based activities. These skills expand basic emotion concepts or feelings and are linked to an individual aptitude and competencies of social value (transferability and convertibility). Further, this reconceptualisation of emotional capital demonstrates different operative functions of emotional management and emotional labour found in the emotional majority view; mainly, in activating an authentic relational process that promotes wellbeing.

This research highlighted analytical distinctions between the emotional majority and minority views. This was showcased in the participants’ narratives regarding which emotion norms and ideologies are (un)learned and acquired, and how emotional capital (reconceptualised as a specific set of emotion intimacy skills) is converted into assets through community practices. This finding makes useful additions to the literature regarding investigations of emotional capital’s social value (convertibility and transferability) outside the private sphere and primary socialisation, compared to other forms of capital (Nowotny, 1981; Allatt, 1993; Reay 2000; 2004). The narrative constructions related to the skills provide details into the relational and emotional layering of the emotional majority and minority views, and promotes future empirical and theoretical examinations of reconceptualising emotional capital.

Many participants in the study found it less meaningful and more socially challenging to engage with the feeling and display rules learned in the majority view of mainstream emotional culture. Specifically, community members demonstrated how the suppression or avoidance of certain emotions requires labour in order to avoid stigma and emotional deviance. These findings offer support to Hochschild’s (2012) and Thoits’ (1990) perspectives regarding feeling and display rules and emotional deviance linked to social conformity. Thus, at least in part, results suggest that social anxiety, loneliness and isolation are socially reproduced in wider society via the limited access to the practice of emotion intimacy skills, which has important wellbeing implications (Holt-Lunstad et al, 2017; Polack, 2018).

As discussed in Cottingham’s (2016) study, secondary socialisation can be influential in emotional capital accumulation. In this way, the emotional subcultures investigated in this study afforded members the opportunity to acquire different emotional assets, which generated emotional and social profits and improved wellbeing. However, as previously mentioned, forms of increased self-awareness derived in the subcultures may also contribute to negative wellbeing outcomes. While research has examined how particular conceptualisations of emotional capital interact with social, cultural and economic capital (Reay, 2004; Cottingham, 2016), this study offers a more nuanced picture of emotional capital and its utility, accessibility and value in and outside the subcultures.

Cottingham (2016) also speaks to the use of emotional capital as ‘socially emergent’ and ‘critical to the maintenance of power’. While power relations are not directly probed in this study, participants spoke of the social disadvantages of limited social learning of emotion intimacy skills in wider society. Interviewees found it beneficial to extend their learnings to the workplace, education, business ventures and external social relationships. However, many reported that in doing so, they, at least initially, received some form of stigma from their external social relationships and / or sector’s established emotion norms, which may have critical implications for how power relations link to the emotional majority / minority views; specifically, in the context of how (emotional) subcultures tend to operate outside the boundary of mainstream culture (Haenfler, 2004). Further, while diversity and inclusion were not examined in this study, some facilitators on a nationwide group-affiliated social media platform shared resources centred on anti-racism, the ethical use of power, consent culture and sliding-scale tools to address systemic economic issues, pointing to future research explorations of how emotion intimacy skills can address diversity and power. Additionally, Authentic Relating has expanded to supporting incarcerated individuals (see Realness Project2). Nevertheless, there is a general recognition among members that diversity could be further expanded in the community.

Some participants highlighted cultural and global potential differences in emotion intimacy and relating practices, providing scholars with new research ventures. Respondents in the study also spoke of how there are more men in the (local) community and how the men were, as one participant shared, “much more comfortable with their raw and tender emotions that might cause tears or show their vulnerability”, offering different viewpoints from previous research on gendered perspectives of emotional capital (Reay, 2000; Cottingham et al, 2015). Participants further explained how their involvement in the community assisted in their social relationships with the opposite gender and with members from different age groups, pointing to another promising direction for future research.

Conclusion

This is a critical area of timely research, which addresses the growing trend of social isolation, anxiety and loneliness linked to social relationships and networks in the US context. It is essential that we understand the theoretical and practical causes of the social problem, as well as examine solutions. In addition to practical solutions there is potential to further understand whether learning emotion intimacy skills can be an answer to a growing problem in a rapidly changing social and emotional landscape. By showing how the reconceptualisation of emotional capital defines and nuances this picture, I address a serious gap in this literature. With social isolation, social anxiety and loneliness on the rise in the US, sociologists and public health researchers have emphasised the importance of meaningful social connections as related to social networks and social capital (Helliwell and Putnam, 2004; McPherson et al, 2006; Holt-Lunstad et al, 2017; Polack, 2018). In this research, I explored how emotion intimacy skills and relating practices could contribute to meaningful social connections and wellbeing.

This study has the potential to lead to a roadmap for practised and experienced empathisers to make more empowering contributions to the meaning interpretations of emotion-based marginalised positions and increase awareness for the cultivation of emotion intimacy skills across social institutions. On a wider scale, social and emotional learning and mindfulness is gaining traction in schools and other institutions, which hints at the possibility that systems can change as the people within them change their perspectives (Durlak et al, 2011; Bostic et al, 2015; Burton et al, 2017). Individuals conform to social and emotion norms and shaping those norms can be a significant force for promoting emotion intimacy skills and potentially reducing social isolation and loneliness.

Notes

1

Dedoose web application (version 8.0.35) for managing, analysing, and presenting qualitative and mixed method research data (www.dedoose.com).

Funding

This work was supported by the Western New Mexico University Faculty Research Award.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • Bourdieu, P. (1990) In Other Words: Essays Towards Reflexive Sociology, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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    • Export Citation
  • Braun, V., Clarke, V., Terry, G. and Hayfield, N. (2018) Thematic analysis, in P. Liamputtong (ed) Handbook of Research Methods in Health and Social Sciences, Singapore: Springer, pp 84360.

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  • Burton, A., Burgess, C., Dean, S., Koutsopoulou, G.Z. and Hugh‐Jones, S. (2017) How effective are mindfulness‐based interventions for reducing stress among healthcare professionals? A systematic review and meta‐analysis, Stress and Health, 33(1): 313. doi: 10.1002/smi.2673

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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D. and Schellinger, K.B. (2011) The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: a meta‐analysis of school‐based universal interventions, Child Development, 82(1): 40532. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x

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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fields, J., Copp, M. and Kleinman, S. (2006) Symbolic interactionism, inequality, and emotions, in Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions, Boston, MA.: Springer, Boston, pp 15578.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fine, G.A. (2012) Group culture and the interaction order: local sociology on the meso-level, Annual Review of Sociology, 38(1): 15979. doi: 10.1146/annurev-soc-071811-145518

    • Search Google Scholar
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Andreea NicaWestern New Mexico University, USA

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