Social Psychological Aspects of Emotions Essay

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The sociological study of emotion rests on a two-stage theory. The first stage is an internal state of biological arousal, and the second is a reflexive process using situational cues to interpret or identify which emotion is an appropriate response in that situation (Rosenberg 1990: ”Reflexivity and emotions”). There may also be a third process of negotiation with others as to the emotional definition of the situation.

The sociology of emotions literature demonstrates many analytical and theoretical differences common to much of sociology as a whole. The most important theoretical or analytical differences are as follows: determinism vs. constructionism, cognition vs. emotion, structure vs. interaction, biology vs. socialization or political economy (e.g. gender), the social control of emotions vs. emotional forms of social control, and physiology vs. phenomenology. Similarly, the chief methodological debates center on questions of quantitative vs. qualitative methods of analysis, and prediction vs. description. A convenient way to characterize the sociology of emotions is in terms of symbolic interactionist and social psychological approaches.

Traditional sociological examinations of the self have generally left open the question of emotion. Emotion has been mentioned in passing, relegated to the discipline of psychology, or carefully skirted in treatises on motivation or motive. Social psychological research on emotions had until recently focused extensively on the use and recognition of physiological cues connected to emotional states, primarily under experimental conditions.

Through internalization of emotion norms in early socialization, individuals learn what emotions are appropriate to types of situations, and are therefore equipped to manage situated emotional identities. The development of the ”looking glass self” (Cooley 1902) allows the growing social actor to experience sympathy or empathy, which may be a prerequisite for the adoption of the ”role-taking” emotions of pride, shame, or envy.

A figurative or virtual audience, which Mead (1934) might have identified as the ”generalized other,” serves an internal regulative function similar to that provided by the literal social audience. Feeling rules and the consequent emotion work are the media through which the self learns to control his or her own behavior and feelings (Hochschild 1979: ”Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure”). Shott (1979: ”Emotion and social life: a symbolic interactionist analysis”) asserts that emotional social control becomes articulated in adult society as emotional self-control. In 1962, Schachter and Singer (”Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state”) injected their subjects with substances that stimulated states of physiological arousal for which there were no affective cues in the situation. Subjects were then provided with cognitive cues toward one or another emotion. Schachter and Singer concluded that situational cues or definitions indicated the appropriate emotion label for the participants.

Gross and Stone’s (1964) pioneering article on the emotion of embarrassment proposed a theoretical justification for the treatment of embarrassment (and, by association, emotions in general) as a social phenomenon. Gross and Stone contributed two key ideas. First, they commented on the social nature of embarrassment, that certain situations are more prone to the effects of embarrassment than others (i.e., situations requiring ”continuous and coordinated role performance” (1964: 116) ). Second, certain situated identities are more precarious than others, and are therefore more prone to embarrassment, such as the identity of the adolescent.


  1. Cooley, C. H. (1902) Human Nature and the Social Order. Scribner’s, New York.
  2. Gross, E. and Stone, G. P. (1964) Embarrassment and the analysis of role requirements. American Journal of Sociology 70 (July): 1-15.
  3. Hochschild, A. R. (1979) Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure. American Journal of Sociology 85: 551-75.
  4. Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self, and Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  5. Rosenberg, M. (1990) Reflexivity and emotions. Social Psychology Quarterly 53: 3-12.
  6. Schachter, S. and Singer, J. (1962) Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review 69: 379-99.
  7. Shott, S. (1979) Emotion and social life: a symbolic interactionist analysis. American Journal ofSociology 84 (6): 1317-34.

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