An Emotions Lens on the World

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An Emotions Lens on the World

by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Major l9th century thinkers who took on the big questions of their age– Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Sigmund Freud – all touched on emotion. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1986), Marx spoke of the l9th century factory worker’s alienation from the things he made and from the work he did to make them. The worker had lost pride and joy that come with the idea “I made that.” In the Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1995), Emile Durkheim studied the religious rituals of Australian aborigines because he wanted to discover the conditions which inspired self-transcendent rapture. In the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (2001), Max Weber singled out fear and desire for love and approval – feelings an early Protestant believer felt toward God – for in these he detected the motivational source of the Protestant work ethic. To Freud (1960), emotion, especially anxiety, was central to his entire enormous corpus of work, although for him emotion was hard to distinguish from instinct and underwent many transformations with the development of his theory of the ego and superego. To all of these 19th century thinkers, we sociologists of emotion owe a great debt.
Indeed, the field of sociology of emotion might be said to have existed for a long time without the name. But during the 19th and first part of the 20th century, it was a confusing warren of conceptual tunnels and fascinating empirical observations without a sustained focus on emotion as something in and of itself. I first came to use the term “sociology of emotion” in an l975 essay entitled “The Sociology of Feeling and Emotion; Selected Possibilities” – while part of the early feminist movement and inspired by it to rethink the premises of sociology with the simple question: what would sociology look like if women had an equal presence in it? In popular culture of what was the recent past in l975, women were stereotyped as “over emotional”, “irrational” and focused on domestic relationships. In this way, women were portrayed as unfit for public life and cast to the margins of it. Feelings and emotions were, meanwhile, covertly linked to irrationality and talk about these was associated with triviality, gossip, private life. But it began to strike me that it was not that women were not emotional, it was that men are. If either appeared as “unemotional” in stressful situations, it may be that they are doing some form of “emotion work” to sustain that appearance to others and to themselves. This, then, was my point of entrance into the sociology of emotion (Hochschild 1973; 1975, 2-3; 1983).
The first challenge was to conceptualize the image of a feelingful self. At that time, sociology seemed to me caught between two images of self – one in which emotion was the instinctual engine that motivates us to act (this from Freud) and the other in which emotion is that which we outwardly show (this from Goffman). But, what seemed to me to be missing was a model of the emotional self, a self beneath display – a self capable of feeling Marx’s (1986) pride, Durkheim’s (1995) rapture, Foster’s (1972) envy (see “The capacity to Feel” in Hochschild 2003, 75-86).
In trying to develop this model, there were many contemporary works, in addition to those of the great masters, on which I could draw. I include them in the references here as gems from the fields of phenomenology, anthropology, psychology, psycho-history,1 and of special importance to me, and almost a field in himself, Erving Goffman. The anthropologists George Foster (1972) on envy, Robert Levy (1973) on the depressive emotions, the sociologists Kingsley Davis (1936) on jealousy, and William Goode (1964) on love, F. Gross and G. Stone (1964) on embarrassment, the psychoanalyst Geoffery Gorer (1964) on grief, and the philosopher Sartre (1948) on the nature of emotion – all these helped clear the way for a sociology of emotions.
The premise they all suggest is this: feelings are social. Joy, sadness, anger, elation, jealousy, envy, despair, anguish, grief—all these feelings are partly social. They are influenced by cultural ideas and images, and refracted through roles and relationships. Erving Goffman once wrote, “When they issue uniforms, they issue skins.” (personal communication 1979) And, we can add, two inches of flesh. We enact a new role (put on a new uniform) let’s say, and so speak with more authority, we change our emotive appearance. That’s what Goffman meant by “skin.” But, we ourselves engage our deep feelings in new ways – that’s what I mean by “two inches of flesh”. The “social” goes far deeper than our current images of self lead us to suppose. Social roles and relations do not simply reflect patterns of thought and action, leaving the realm of emotion untouched, timeless and universal. No, there are social patterns to feeling itself (Hochschild 2003, 86)
So just how is feeling social? For one thing, feeling is elicited by interactions that we experience, remember, or imagine having with people in our lives. For another thing, each culture provides prototypes of feeling, which, like differently tuned keys on a piano, allows us to hear different inner notes. For example, the Tahitians have one word—sick—for what in other cultures might correspond to ennui, depression, grief, or sadness. According to the Czech novelist Milan Kundura 1992), the Czech word litost, refers to an indefinable longing, mixed with remorse and grief, which has no equivalent in any other language.
Cultures lay out the possibilities for emotion and in that way guide the act of recognizing a feeling. Apart from what we think a feeling is, we also have ideas about what it should be. We say, “you should be thrilled at winning the prize” or “you should be furious at what he did.” We evaluate the fit between a particular feeling and context in light of what I call “feeling rules,” which are themselves rooted in culture.
Given such feeling rules, we may then try to manage our feelings. We try to be happy at a party, or grief-stricken at a funeral. In short, it is through our perception of an interaction, our definition of feeling, our appraisal of feeling and our management of feeling that feeling is social. If, as C. Wright Mills (1963, 1967) said, the job of sociology is to trace the links between private troubles and public issues, the sociology of emotion lies at the very heart of sociology.
This approach to feeling offers us a way of looking at all spheres of life, including work. When paid to do certain jobs, we do what I call “emotional labor”—the effort to seem to feel and to try to really feel the “right” feeling for the job, and to try to induce the “right” feeling in certain others. For example, the flight attendant is trained to manage fear at turbulence, and anger at cranky or abusive passengers. A bill collector is trained to manage compassion for debtors. Wedding planners (one of the sort of para-familial service workers I’m interviewing these days) often try to help clients find tangible symbols for the special moment of falling in love, as well as deal with jealous mothers, quarreling sets of parents, or what one planner called “grooms’ jitters.” Hospice workers, as the Japanese scholar Haruo Sakiyama finds, undo the taboo on death, opening up people’s right to feel whatever they feel. 1Alcoholics Anonymous, meanwhile creates a taboo, not felt before, on the desire to drink. Not all jobs that deal with feeling call for emotional labor, and not all emotional labor is stressful. But we are wise to put questions of emotional labor and its human cost on the table.
Over the last 40 years, the number of service sector jobs has rapidly grown all over the world. By my estimate, some six out of ten of those service jobs in the United States call for substantial amounts of emotional labor. This work falls unequally on men and women ; only a quarter of men, but half of women work in jobs heavy in emotional labor – as elementary school teachers, nurses, social workers, child and elder care workers. Emotional labor has rewards but also hidden costs, and given their different upbringings, both form a larger part of female experience than male.
Emotional labor is going more and more global. Increasingly, we’ve seen what I call a South-to-North “heart transplant” (Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2003). A growing number of care workers leave the young and elderly of their families and communities in the poor South to take up paid jobs “giving their hearts to” the young and elderly in families and communities in the affluent North. Such jobs often call on workers to manage grief, depression, and anguish vis-a-vis their own children, spouses, and parents, even as they genuinely feel—and try to feel—joyful attachment to the children and elders they daily care for in the North.
Emotional labor crosses borders in other ways as well. Through telephone and email, service providers in Bangalore, India, for example, tutor California children with math homework, make long-distance purchases of personal gifts, and even scan romantic dating service Internet sites for busy professionals. The growth of medical tourism in India has also expanded the number of poor women who “rent their wombs” to bear babies conceived from the egg and sperm of couples in the North. This service calls for the ultimate in emotional labor—the effort to remain detached from the baby given up.
Emotional labor has become more central to First World economies. After jobs in the industrial and administrative sectors are outsourced to such countries as India, China, Mexico, service jobs calling for face - to - face interaction are a higher proportion of those jobs that remain. Estimates of job loss vary greatly. High estimates predict that from 2003 to 2013, some six million manufacturing and (non-interface) service jobs may be lost from the U.S., while low estimates give the figure of 850,000.2 Primary among jobs that remain are those in what I call the emotional economy – i.e. jobs that offer face-to-face personal service and call for emotional labor.
This important trend opens up an entirely new area of inquiry within the sociology of emotions – the emotional dimension of commodification. I do a favor for you; I engage in an activity – and it is likely that after a while you will do a favor for me, or if not you will wish me well, and this is the pre-market “gift exchange.” I sell a service to you; my service becomes a commodity. As the market extends farther around the globe and deeper into our personal lives, more and more of the activities of the “life world” as Habermas (1985) called it, move into the “system world.” Life moves out of the unpaid realm of home and community into the paid realm of economy and state. Emotional labor – as fact, and idea – forms a bridge between these two worlds.
Commodification, as Marx (1983), Polyani (1957), Lukacs (2000) and others conceived of it, was a unitary phenomenon. For Marx, you commodified a thing or activity if you produced and sold it for the market. That was it. But emotionally speaking, there is actually a surface commodification, and a deep commodification. In surface commodification, the client pays the childcare worker, the birthday party planner, the wedding planner, the life coach. The emotion worker is paid. Money changes hands.
But at a deep level, much else goes on as well – much that accounts for the powerful draw – conscious and unconscious – of the market. A customer may have an empty marriage and precarious job, but at the mall, at least for a period, s(he) can bask in the aura that “The customer is king.” The customer may even derive a sense of constancy, trustworthiness, loyalty that s(he) seeks in real life in the things s(he) buys and service providers s(he) hires. S(he) may work three jobs, have two lovers, but the restaurant always serves the same menu, the hotel has the same color rug. Standardization is, we often say, de-humanizing, but it can also provide a curious constancy in an ever changing world. This need for a trusting relationship to a good or service is, of course, what advertisers increasingly aim for. As Marc Gobé explains in his book, Emotional Branding (2001), the aim of advertising is to form an emotional bond with a relationship-seeking customer.
In addition, the market world of goods and services presents itself as amazing. As she walks the aisles of San Francisco’s Macy’s or Nordstroms, or cruises through the multifold glass shops of the Frankfurt airport, the consumer may feel dazzled, awestruck, as believers once felt in the great cathedrals and palaces of Europe. These are feelings sellers hope to inspire. In a parallel way, service-providers draw on an awesome world of knowledge. Expert providers know more than we do about how to name, potty-train, educate, exercise and socialize our child. They know more than we do, it can seem, about “romantic chemistry” or about what makes us love or resent our spouse. They can get along well with our elderly relatives, and help us relate to them in a better way, too.
In the post-seventies era, personal life has become difficult in a strange way. The era of the long term career is receding. Up until 2008, most Americans could get a job; they just didn’t know if they could keep it, while now jobs themselves are harder to find. For increasingly jobs come and go with the rise and fall in supply and demand, unprotected by union or government constraint. Increasingly at work, people feel commodified.
Paradoxically, one thing service providers do, for a fee, is to help the client feel special, unique, de-commodified. A wedding planner, or life coach, may help a client feel “one of a kind.” One wedding planner, for example, asked her young clients to tell her how they decided to marry. In a casual way, the groom described how he’d asked his girlfriend what it would take to induce her to move from New York to California. “I’d move if I had a lemon tree”, she’d replied. So the young man sent her a lemon tree. The wedding planner then exclaimed, “ah. That was the moment of your commitment!” She made out cards, set at the place of each guest at the wedding luncheon, describing ‘the legend’ of the lemon tree. To the delighted couple, this act heightened – indeed created – the towering symbol of their union. A customer pays the planner a fee; that’s surface commodification. But at a deeper level, this wedding planner was using the exchange of money for service to render the clients marriage incomparable to any other, to de-commodify it. Insofar as we associate commodification with standardization, the wedding planner was in the surface sense, commodifying the wedding planning, but in the deep sense de-commodifying it.
On the other hand, a life coach may also help the client don the emotional armor needed to take the hard knocks of the marketplace. S(he) may teach a client to think of oneself as a brand, expect to bargain hard, to detach, and stay focused on the best market value in oneself, and others. (“I am a brand. I want high return on investment. I am the C.E.O. of my love life.”) The customer is helped to put oneself on the market, to commodify oneself while trying to avoid feeling hurt, lost or estranged.
All in all the sociologist stands before an ever more important interface, between the self, and commodification. In what ways, we can ask, do we try to embrace, absorb or resist the subtle and complex array of meanings hidden within “deep commodification”? I believe these issues – the social shape of feeling, emotional labor, commodification – go to the heart of the age in which we live and that, as a perspective, we can help lead the way in figuring out how to see them.

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