The Promise of Affective Science and the Sociology of Emotions18 min read

The sociology of emotions is a curious subfield. On the one hand, the recognition that the study of emotions (and their dynamics) overlap with nearly every single thing sociologists care to study suggests they deserve central casting in the myriad studies that fill journals and monographs (Turner and Stets 2006). On the other hand, the sociology of emotions remains stuck in neutral, waiting for the sort of “renaissance” experienced by cognition when cultural sociology “discovered” schemas (DiMaggio 1997) and dual-process models (Lizardo et al. 2016, Vaisey 2009). This sort of paradox makes some sense, for emotions, or what founding sociologists like Cooley called sentiments, have nearly always been a part of the discipline. Weber’s most important typologies included affectual action and charismatic authority; as early as The Division of Labour, Durkheim had emotions front and center in his theory of deviance and crime; and, the aforementioned Cooley premised his entire social psychology on pride and shame transforming self into a moral thing. But, simultaneously, the study or use of emotions in sociological analysis remained mired in false Cartesian binaries (see Damasio 1994) that propped up misogynistic commitments to dichotomizing cognition (masculine) and affect (feminine), while also being tainted by association with Freudian psychoanalysis.

The 1970s saw these old barriers erode, as social psychologists—especially symbolic interactionists of a variety of flavors—began to mine the emotional veins of self (Shott 1979), roles/identities (Burke and Reitzes 1981), situations (Heise 1977), structure (Kemper 1978), and performance/expectations (Hochschild 1979—for the sake of argument, I put Hochschild here even though she [so far as I know] nor I would really call her a symbolic interactionist). Over the course of the next few decades, the most important theoretical and empirical work explaining how and why solidarity between individuals, as well as between individuals and groups, is produced and maintained centered emotions (Collins 1988, 2004, Lawler 1992, Lawler et al. 2009, Turner 2007). These works drew from Durkheim and picked up threads of Goffman’s (1956, 1967) that “felt” more important than sometimes even Goffman let on, while often like Turner’s evolutionary work on emotions or Collin’s interaction ritual chains, borrowing from nascent brain science. But, beyond these, work in the sociology of emotions remained relatively the same as it had in the earliest innovative days while its contribution beyond the sociology of emotions was held back.

Omar and I (2020) have argued previously that one of the glaring problems is that the sociology of emotions remains rooted in the Cartesian separation of mind and body that haunts social science. Emotions are, generally speaking, treated as mediating variables—e.g., signals that one’s cognitive appraisal of a situation does not match the information received about the situation (Burke and Stets 2009, Robinson 2014)—or dependent variables—e.g., emotions are things to be managed through cognitive or linguistic work (Hochschild 1983). A third option, which also treats emotions as dependent variables, posits that relational patterns like superordinate-subordinate constrain emotions either by structural fiat (Kemper 1978) or via cultural beliefs about what incumbents in these positions should and can do (Ridgeway 2006). What if the next frontier for emotions scholarship considers emotions and affect (the sociocultural labels we learn and the neurophysiological/biological response to stimuli) as independent variables?

Some Important Facts

Studying an intrapersonal force or dynamic is not radical, as cultural sociology has largely accepted the fact that cognitive mechanisms are at the root of a theory of action (Vaisey 2009). Action is caused, at least in some way, shape, or form by cognition without doing violence to the social factors beyond the organism. Affect, however, remains on the sidelines despite several key facts.

  1. Affect, as a motivating force of motor response, is older than cognition (Panskepp 1998). Evolution appears to have worked heavily on the subcortical emotion centers in mammals to encourage both the active pursuit of life-sustaining resources and the avoidance/aversion to painful life-destroying resources. And, given the exceptionally enlarged emotional architecture in our brains (in comparison to our closest cousins, gorillas and chimps), it is plausible to suggest emotions played an outsized role in humans developing and expanding their cultural repertoire for language, kinship, social organization, and so forth. In other words, emotions have been causal, historically speaking.
  2. Undoubtedly, they are causal still today. First, the subcortical areas of the brain play an important role in memory (which is the root of a social self, for instance) (LeDoux 2000). Second, human brain imaging reveals that affect is not resigned to subcortical areas of the brain, but is actually deeply integrated with areas usually reserved for cognition (Davidson 2003). Emotions, then, can control our cognition and behavior, command it in some cases (e.g., a panic attack), and, at the very least coordinate with cognitive functions. Any theory of action that fails to account for affect is dubious is unable to realistically explain social or solitary behavior cognition (Blakemore and Vuilleumier 2017).
  3. Consequently, the vast majority of social psychological processes such as comparison, appraisal, or reflection as well as the vast majority of “causal” explanations sociologists employ like values, interests, or ideology are inextricably tied to affect. If we can no more make a decision about which toothpaste to buy without affect then we should not be surprised that comparing and choosing social objects requires affect as well.
  4. A point Lizardo and I make is that sociologists too often rely on cognitive appraisals of emotions, focusing on self-reports about valence (negative/positive), intensity, mood (longer lasting feelings), and psychologized language like loneliness. However, emotions are visceral, bodily things (Adolphs et al. 2003), and sociologists cannot only borrow from psychological research and methods on emotions.
  5. Emotions may be “social constructs” in so far as a given group of people produce and reproduce labels for different bodily feelings experienced in different situations and which carry different meanings about the (a) appropriateness of those feelings, (b) expectations for their expression or suppression, and (c) “rules” about the duration and intensity of situationally-triggered emotions. However, much of this applies to either highly institutionalized settings, like formal ceremonies (e.g., funerals), where ritual participants approach the “center” of the community and the center must be protected from moral transgression (Shils 1975) or routinized encounters where interaction itself is ritualized (Goffman 1967, Collins 2004). But the need for rules and expectations implies that affect, if left to its own devices, can wreak havoc. Moreover, it ignores the diverse array of solitary actions that consume a significant portion of our daily lives (Cohen 2015), as well as ignores the fact that emotions are often things others “use” as means of affecting others’ feelings, thoughts, and actions (Thoits 1996).


If my argument that emotion’s scholarship has largely stalled is correct, but emotions are central to individual and social life, what are we to do? Of the myriad directions one could suggest, I will emphasize four that feel most consanguine to sociological inquiry.

  1. The first suggestion picks up on a larger set of questions being raised recently by sociologists of youth and education around the largely abandoned conceptual process of socialization (Guhin et al. 2021). Once a central explanatory framework for understanding how a society “out there” could find its way inside each of us, socialization, like most bits and pieces of functionalism, was tossed out with the icky water. Prematurely, it would seem because it has not been replaced meaningfully, which has subsequently constrained a once-vibrant area of interest: child (and adolescent) development from a sociological perspective. Studying emotions and emotional socialization seems fruitful for so many reasons. For one, the rules and the patterning of emotions-behaviors is really only an adult trait. Childhood and adolescence is a period of unbridled affect, as anyone with a toddler knows well. How do we teach emotion regulation? How is this teaching process distributed across classic demographic and socioeconomic categories? How effective are social forces versus natural brain development for emotion regulation? What about teaching emotion dysregulation? Finally, the most interesting set of questions revolve around social emotions like guilt, shame, pride, and empathy (Decety and Howard 2013). At this point, sociology has ceded these culturally-coded emotions to psychological research, despite the unique methodological tools sociologists possess. For example, studying a high school’s ecosystem and status hierarchy seems an incredibly important pathway to understanding shame and pride, empathy and sympathy. Here, kids are learning, supposedly, the rules of the affectual game. Rather than reduce their experiences to DSM labels like anxiety or depression, why not expand the lens through which we view mundane and spectacular youth experiences?
  2. A second related, implication centers on what I would call emotional styles or biographies. Sociologists are familiar with these sorts of metaphors, as groups have “styles” (Eliasoph and Lichterman 2003) or biographies shaped by a collective memory. These sorts of styles or biographies shape many things like the ways parents and children interface with teachers and the educational system more generally (Lareau 2003). Research has suggested that different personality types appear to correlate with different affectual “styles,” which suggests there is something neurophysiological about doing emotions (Montag et al. 2021). My best guess is that there are social forces that play a role as well, but oddly, mainstream sociologists rarely bother to ask about emotions—likely a reflection of the ingrained Cartesian binary and not negligence on the part of social scientists.
  3. Shifting gears, a third implication builds on the dual processes models approach (Vaisey 2009, Lizardo et al. 2016) and the elephant-rider metaphor. The metaphor itself is designed to explain how implicit cultural knowledge (the elephant) is largely responsible for the direction the rider takes. Deliberate, conscious action is possible but less impactful. But, what guides the elephant? To date, the answer has largely been deeply internalized values or nondeclarative knowledge, but how do we acquire those? How does the brain sort through the variety of potential ideas, scripts, frames, or schema available? And, once internalized, how does the brain choose between different schema or knowledge? Emotions are part of the answer, as affectually tagged memories are most intensely, most readily, and quickly recalled (Catani et al. 2013). But, the rider’s level of effort in directing the elephant is no less shaped by affect. In fact, emotions appear to have a dual process related to deliberate, intentional action as well (Blakemore and Vuilleumier 2017). On the one hand, internal, affectual sensations can become associated with patterned behavior, That is, recognizable affectual sensations signals “action readiness [in order to] prepare and guide the body for action” (p. 300). On the other hand, there are preconscious motivation systems that evolved to seek positive resources and avoid their negative counterparts. A child touches a hot stove and does not need their parents to teach them never to touch that stove again. Whenever they get near a stove they will become more alert and cautious. Of course, these aversions can become pathological (and no less conscious), leading to all sorts of strange phobias and disorders. The point, however, is that emotions are causal in two different ways for the rider, which seems an important addition to the dual-process models perspective, as does the consideration of how affect coordinates, controls, and sometimes commands the so-called automatic cognition that is the elephant.
  4. The final implication speaks directly to the methodological tools we use. For the most part, emotions are measured through self-report (Stets and Carter 2012), which often conflate cognitive appraisals of emotions with emotions and affect. I would point the reader towards highly innovative efforts, like those found in Katz (1999), Collins’ (2004), and Scheff’s (1990) work, respectively. All of these use some form of ultra-micro methods that make employ audio-visual technology, careful observation, and in some cases, linguistic analyses. But, these are simply a starting point, sources of inspired analytic strategy. Ethnographic techniques are easily repurposed to include emotions and affect, as careful observation of bodily display, language, and situational cues are hallmarks of good ethnographic work (Summers-Effler 2009). Even users of quantitative methods should think more carefully about how to ask about emotions, even if that means including basic questions for the sake of explorative social science.

In short, emotions remain central to understanding and explaining how we think and act, but also remain mired in antiquated notions of mind-body, rationality-irrationality, and masculine-feminine. Moreover, old insecurities surrounding the differences between psychological and sociological social psychology—which are simply microcosms of broader insecurities writ large in sociology—have generally prohibited the conceptualization of emotions as independent, causal variables, delimiting the directions the sociology of emotion may go. The next frontier, arguably, is incorporating affective sciences into the study of emotions, and allowing brain science to speak to sociology and vice versa.


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