What have been the major contributions of sociological investigations into emotions? As part of your answer, critically evaluate one sociological study of how social interaction shapes an emotion or emotions


In sociology, emotions are still a novel topic. The mounting interest in the sociological study of emotions stems from the realization that people are not motivated only by rational and economic factors. Other variables such as affective commitments and emotional commitments have a significant impact on human behavior as well (Calhoun 2010). Sociological investigations into emotion try to explore the relationship between emotions and social norms, roles and interactions. The major contributions of such investigations can be looked at in terms of two broad levels, which include the macro-level (structural and cultural) and the micro-level (social and psychological) (Turner & Stets 2006). In sociology, the emotion is examined as both an independent and dependent variable. The aim of this paper is to discuss the main inputs of sociological analyses. A critical evaluation of one sociological study about how social interaction shapes emotions is also performed.

Major Contributions of Sociological Investigations into Emotions

Before delving into the contributions made by sociologists on the subject of emotion, there is a need to define emotion. There are numerous definitions of emotion; nevertheless, bulk of these definitions focus on the components of emotions (Fields, Copp & Kleinman 2006). In the literature, the main components of emotion include evaluations of situational contexts; alterations in physiological sensations; inhibited or free exhibition of expressive gestures/signs, and a cultural label associated with particular patterns of at least one of the first three components of emotions (Stets & Turner 2014). Moreover, it is imperative to note that all the four components should necessarily be present in order for emotion to be experienced. For instance, a person might be afraid without knowing why. Also, emotions can be differentiated from sentiments, moods, affects and feelings. Sentiments denote the socially constructed patterns associated with cultural meanings, expressive gestures and sensations regarding how a person relates to a particular social object. Examples of sentiments are patriotism, friendship and loyalty among others. Affects represent the negative and positive evaluations with regards to behaviors, ideas or objects (Stets & Turner 2014). Feelings denote the experience connected with physical drive states as well as emotional states. Sociologists presume that emotions are not just inborn biophysical occurrences. Evidence indicates that some basic facial expressions are universal across cultures; hence, they are likely innate. Elemental emotions such as the contempt, happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, fear, surprise and interest are likely to have evolved as specific physiological responses as well as expressive signals, because of their use for group and individual survival (Turner 2009). Nonetheless, significant differences exist between cultures with respect to the situational variables involved in regulating, displaying, experiencing and attaching meaning to emotions. Cultural and historical divergence suggest that emotions are socially structured and acquired. The contributions of sociologists towards the understanding of the concept of emotion are described in the subsequent paragraphs.

The first big effort made by sociologists relates to treating emotions as a dependent variable, which means that emotion is an outcome of social influences. Experts agree that emotion is a socio-cultural product (Turner & Stets 2006). Social construction theorists and symbolic interactionists maintain that emotions are influenced by the situation, location and time. In its string version, social constructionism does not believe in the existence of primary emotions, which implies that a universal patterned link between situational, expressive and physiological variables of emotion is inexistent. Based on this line of thought, all emotions are considered to be socially constructed phenomena. In its weaker version, social constructionism embraces the existence of primary emotions, although they are causally important (Stets & Turner 2014). The focus of social constructionists’ arguments is on illustrating the level of social construction of non-primary and primary emotions. On the other hand, symbolic interactions acknowledge the impact of primary emotions on the actions of people, although they still emphasize the importance of sociocultural variables in influencing emotion (Turner & Stets 2006). Symbolic interactionists presume that physiological changes that follow non-primary emotions are unspecific, which implies that events in the environment provoke generalized arousal that is in turn interpreted as a specific emotion based on the salient situational variables. By the same token, emotions are then considered to be a cumulative outcome of specific socio-cultural variables and the generalized arousal (Turner & Stets 2006). Socio-cultural factors refer to the definitions attached to the situation together with the cultural labels. A person may experience a similar arousal as anger or joy in accordance with the existing situational cues. Owing to the fact that emotional labels and situational definitions differ in terms of cultures and time, symbolic interactionists and social constructionists agree that emotions must also differ depending on culture and time (Stets & Turner 2014). In other words, the key factors that influence the emotional experience are sociocultural rather than physiological. As a result, it is possible for emotions to vary both between cultures and within a culture. The position held by sociologists regarding the links between the components of emotion (expressive behaviors, physiological changes and situational stimuli) is inconsistent with the views held by positivists, who maintain that emotions are determinate reactions to specific types of social stimuli (Stets & Turner 2014). In other words, positivists believe that certain types of stimuli in the environment elicit particular autonomic responses and expressive behaviors; as a result, they provoke specific emotions (Stets & Turner 2014). Sociologists question the variations in emotional experiences between structural positions, and the sociocultural factors and processes that affect a person’s understanding of his/her own emotional experiences. In addition, they query how this understanding contributes to the social change and stability.

Sociologists have attempted to explore the way emotional experiences are distributed across the various structural positions, both systematically and theoretically. For instance, because of the differences in gender socialization, women tend to be more loving and empathetic and less able to express emotions associated with anger (Fields, Copp & Kleinman 2006). This is contrasted with men, who tend to express (feel) less sadness and fear when compared with women. The distribution of emotional experiences in the status hierarchy has also been explored by sociology experts. In this respect, negative feelings are more prevalent in people from low status hierarchy, that is, less powerful ones. In contrast, positive feelings are more prevalent among higher status people (Turner 2009). To this end, these people such as the married, whites, men and people from higher socioeconomic status (SES) tend to be more satisfied and happier with their life because the frequency of positive emotional experiences exceeds the frequency of negative ones (Calhoun 2010). Overall, sociologists have made important contributions regarding the relationship between emotions and social positions but at the same time have not been able to elucidate how emotional experiences varies across cultures and within a particular one.

Another important contribution of sociology to the topic of emotion relates to beliefs regarding emotion. Sociologists maintain that subjective emotional experiences are not only affected by the emotion vocabulary of the society, but also its cultural beliefs with respect to emotions (Calhoun 2010). These are commonly referred to as emotion cultures, and comprise of the rules about what a person should or should not express (feel); beliefs about the emotions that can and cannot be controlled; periods at which one is expected not to express emotional conformity; shared understandings about the outcomes associated with emotional experiences; ideologies in relation to emotions such as parental love (Fields, Copp & Kleinman 2006). The concept of feeling rules is also an another important contribution by sociologists with regard to emotion cultures. Feeling rules, also known as emotion rules, denote the beliefs concerning the suitable duration, intensity and range of emotions or private feelings in particular situations. Sociological scientists have also explicated the role played by display rules (expression norms) – as a component of emotions culture – in influencing how people express their emotions (Calhoun 2010). Display rules tend to influence emotional behaviors and feelings.

The social antecedents associated with emotion have also been explored by sociologists in an attempt to further understand the dynamics of emotion (Fields, Copp & Kleinman 2006). Social antecedents refer to social situations that provoke particular emotions. Sociological studies have pointed out numerous emotion-eliciting scenarios. For instance, sociological adepts have reported inter-cultural consistencies in beliefs about the situations that provoke emotions. In this regard, happiness and joy have been linked to establishing relationships with friends, experiencing success, and reuniting with friends regardless of the culture. Grief and sadness has been established to be related to the death of a loved one and having problems with family members and friends (Calhoun 2010). Fright/fear has been concluded to be related to uncertainty, situations involving achievements and/or physical confrontation. Rage/anger has been confirmed to be related to others failing to conform to existing social norms. An aspect of emphasis by sociologists is that emotion-eliciting social situations are consistent across cultures. Sociologists have also found out that the status and power are emotion-elicitors in all cultures. They are crucial components of social relationships (Calhoun 2010). Status denotes the reverence, willingly given because a social agent has high regard for another agent. Power represents the compliance acquired using strong-arming or the threat of potential coercion. Sociologists point out that particular structural emotions are elicited in the course of interaction events, that is, when the relational status and power are either altered or retained (Calhoun 2010). For instance, having sufficient power can evoke feelings associated with security whereas adequate status brings out feelings affiliated with happiness. Guilty feelings are inherent in having perceived excess power whereas anxiety and fear are linked to perceiving inadequate power. Shame and depression are elicited with excess and inadequate status.

The antecedents associated with emotion can also be explained sociologically using the affect control theory developed by David R. Heise. This theory considers emotions to be subjective, transitory, and physical states determined by the current impression of the individual encountering the situation that elicits emotions (Stets & Turner 2014). An implication from this theory is that emotions are observable signals conveyed to others about the person’s acknowledgement of the event. In this way, the impression-formation process comes before an emotion is elicited (Stets & Turner 2014). In addition, apart from treating emotion as a dependent variable (influenced by social interactions), some sociologists view emotion as an independent variable, that is, emotion acting as a motivator that influences an agent’s behavior. For instance, some emotions such as embarrassment, guilt and shame can influence self-control. By assessing the reactions of others towards one’s emotions, social behavior is influenced (Stets & Turner 2014). Empathetic emotions such as pity, sympathy and empathy can influence pro-social behavior. Studies have shown that embarrassment and guilt can produce helping behaviors.

Critical Evaluation of a Social Study

Hess and Bourgeois (2010) acknowledge the difficulty of conceiving social interactions devoid of the expression of emotions by the interaction agents. They also agree that when and how emotions are conveyed depend on the socio-cultural norms. Hess and Bourgeois (2010) performed two studies with the aim of evaluating the effect of social and emotional context (using status and gender) on the expressivity of the speaker and mimicry of the observer in an interactive setting. Participants in study 1 comprised of 48 males and females paired aged 18-30 years. Study 2 used 72 pairs of mixed-sex participants. The findings of study showed that gender and status had an effect on the expression of emotion, specifically, women in both studies were more sensitive to the emotion. The findings of the experiment are consistent with the sociological view that status hierarchy has an influence on emotional behavior.


Sociological investigations have made important contributions towards the understanding of the concept of emotion. First, emotion is treated as a dependent variable in the sense that it is an outcome of socio-cultural processes. This means that social interactions influence the expression of emotions by a social agent. Sociologists have also provided insights regarding how social structures such as gender and status hierarchy influence emotions. The general agreement is that high status hierarchy is linked to positive emotions whereas low status hierarchy is associated with negative emotional experiences. Sociologists also maintain that cultural beliefs regarding emotions also influence the manner in which emotional behavior is expressed by social agents. The specific antecedents that elicit certain emotions is also an important contribution made by sociological scientists. Emotion has also been elucidated as an independent variable that influences the behavior of a social agent, and ultimately social outcomes.