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Sociology and Emotions: Why We Need to Look Beyond the Surface

Have you ever stopped to think about why we feel the way we do? From happiness to sadness, embarrassment to anger, emotions are a fundamental part of our everyday lives. But have you ever thought about where these feelings come from?

From when we are kids, we are taught about different types of feelings: happy, sad, embarrassed, etc. Basically, think about the “When I Feel…” books by Cornelia Maude Spelman, which were a personal staple in my childhood. Those conversations about emotions just told us about what we feel and how to deal with it but not about where those feelings stem. What even are emotions? I believe if we learn about emotions past the surface level, we could balance them to improve the quality of our lives.

In 2022 I took a course on emotions in society and will share what I learned about emotions from a sociological standpoint. By delving deeper into the world of emotions, we can learn to balance them and improve the quality of our lives.

The Value of Understanding Emotions from a Societal Standpoint

It's no secret that emotions play a significant role in our well-being. But what's interesting is that, from a young age, we're only taught about emotions from an individualistic standpoint. We're told how to deal with our feelings but not where they come from.

Emotions are heavily influenced by societal norms, and it's essential to understand the value of emotions from a societal standpoint. By learning about emotions past the surface level, we can balance them and improve the quality of our lives.

Recognizing Emotions in Society

Do you believe emotions are heavily influenced by societal norms?

  • Yes

  • No

  • Unsure

It may be confusing as to why emotions matter on a societal level considering everything we learned about emotions is from an individualistic standpoint. It has been that our emotions are our responsibility.

When we are happy about something, it is our responsibility to be subtle about it or it come off as bragging, egotistical or narcissistic. When we are sad, it is important to keep it to ourselves because we don’t want to ruin people’s moods/vibes, they don’t want to hear certain things, and do you really want them to pity you? Also, if someone hurts you, it is your responsibility to heal because even though their actions were damaging, if you don’t heal then it’s your fault for continuously being unhappy.

What wrote above isn’t my thoughts but a reflection of what is the expectation from society. This can also be described as emotional norms. Emotional norms are from the society view and a lot of the time it isn’t what is aligned with how we actually feel.

Emotions in society are complex and can be viewed from both a universal and culturally specific standpoint. From a universal standpoint, there are eight primary emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, contempt, surprise, and interest. These emotions are universal and general themes can trigger them.

Culturally specific emotions, on the other hand, include guidelines on when and how to express our feelings, the language used to describe emotions, specific events that evoke specific emotions, and attitudes toward emotions. It's fascinating to note that emotions are always presented so individualistically, especially in the United States. Historically speaking, emotions weren't regarded as beneficial.

During the Age of Enlightenment, reasoning took a logical approach, and it quickly produced the "facts over feelings" culture in America. Emotions were not studied in sociology until Dorothy Smith (a feminist sociologist) argued that sociologists often left emotions out of their work because of implicit bias against women. She argued leaving emotions out reflects masculinist thinking on the part of the (male-dominated) field of sociology since emotions have long been associated with women and femininity. Alongside sexism, racism also plays a large role as well.

Different Approaches to Emotions in Society

There are four approaches to emotions in society: empirical, social constructionist, psychoanalytic, and affect theory. Each approach has its unique perspective on emotions.

The empirical approach believes that sociology can prove facts about the emotions of a population being studied. They believe that even though emotions are tricky to study, we can use the traditional methods of sociology to study them and prove empirical facts about the emotions of a society or group.

Ex: Robert Plutchik created the "wheel of emotions," which mapped out eight primary emotions and their opposites. He then designed a study in which participants were asked to rate how strongly they felt each of these emotions while watching emotionally charged movie clips. The study found that the emotions people felt while watching the clips correlated with their physiological responses, providing empirical evidence for the relationship between emotions and the body.

The social constructionist approach argues that society sets "emotion norms" that habituate our actual emotions. Sociologists believe that emotions themselves, while affected by social norms, are hard to pin down. However, studying the social norms of emotion is easier to discover with evidence.

Ex: When you get a new job- people expect you to feel happy to have that accomplishment and feel grateful that you have a source of income, but you can feel terrible about it because you want to work but doing work you enjoy and having a job that doesn’t allow you the flexibility makes you feel misaligned, trapped and stuck in misery.

The psychoanalytic approach draws from the theory of the unconscious mind first devised by psychologist Sigmund Freud. It argues that painful emotions are repressed while pleasurable ones are embraced. The view of this approach is that the emotions we repress then come back to us in other forms.

Ex: “The body keeps score” mentions trauma from a psychological base and uses the example of war. Like back then when there were more American involvement and boys – young adult males would be drafted, then once they come home to girlfriends/wives/ children, they would be so distant from their family or even worse emotionally/physically abuse their family and then the pattern of trauma continues.

The affect theory sees emotions as inherently shared and transmitted at a level below our consciousness. Drawing from studies showing that the brain's sensory/emotional systems take in more information than the thinking or "cognitive" brain can ever consciously be aware of, this group argues that we are "transmitting" feelings all the time.

Ex: When people say they have to be away from certain things and disconnect when they can because the heaviness of emotions disrupts their mental health.

What approach to emotions in society do you find most interesting?

  • Empirical

  • Social constructionist

  • Psychoanalytic

  • Affect theory

Issues with Studying Emotions

In addition to the four approaches, there are also four issues regarding studying emotions

  1. CULTURAL ISSUES OF TYPOLOGY: The categories and words for emotions differ from culture to culture.

  2. REPETITION/TYPOLOGIES EVEN WITHIN CULTURES: According to the quantum theory of the brain, a theory accepted by most neuroscientists, it’s impossible to have the same exact emotion twice.

  3. TIMING: Emotions are hard to pinpoint in the brain

  4. SEPARATION OF EMOTIONS: Emotions are extremely fluid, and when sociologists study something, they are studying something definite and easily measured.

Wellness, Emotions, and Society

In wellness, it's essential to address emotions from both an individualistic and societal standpoint. Most of the time, the societal point in wellness tends to be overlooked. However, understanding emotions can influence how we communicate with one another and could possibly build a better society.

In my intercultural communications class, we had to speak about the difference between "descriptive" and ‘evaluative" responses when we communicate. Evaluative responses are responses that judge someone-people respond negatively when we "judge” their thoughts or behaviors. Evaluative statements almost always begin with the word "YOU”. Descriptive statements usually begin with "I".

I shared a story about a time I had my emotions invalidated by a friend. I felt like something they said was very judgmental and in order to make the conversation more supportive they could’ve done something along the lines of “I know things like this are important for you to talk about, but I feel like it’s not good to still talk about people from your past because I learned in one of my psychology courses it can make you stuck in your personal development”.

Emotions are complex, and it's essential to understand them from a societal standpoint. By doing so, we can gain a better understanding of ourselves and our interactions with others.

Thank you for reading and if you have anything you want to see more of, be sure to comment with suggestions or email me. Remember to subscribe to my Youtube channel, and follow my Tik Tok, Instagram, and Twitter to connect and stay up to date. I am excited about my next blog post so make sure you come back. Until then, there’s a lot more content on my YouTube channel. I hope you have a good day, evening, or night.

Until next time,

xoxo Lay 💋

PSSST: Don't forget to check out my latest content

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1 Comment

Frank San
Frank San
Jun 03, 2023

Great post, learned a lot from this post that I didn't know about it. And even the theory as well. Thank you for sharing!

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