Sociological Theory of Human Emotions

Jeff Florian

Turner, Jonathan H. and Jan E Stets. 2006. “Sociological Theories of Human Emotions.” Annual Review of Sociology. Vol.32, pp.25-52.

The analysis of emotions can now be seen as one of the cutting edges of theoretical work in sociology. There are five general theoretical approaches to understanding the dynamics of human emotions that  have emerged in sociology:

  1. Dramaturgical theories
  2. symbolic interactionist theories
  3. Interaction ritual theories
  4. Power and status theories
  5. Exchange theories

Some things are very hard to explain through science and each person experiences emotions differently and are triggered differently. Even though these theories are able to explain human emotions there is still some aspects that remain a mystery such as;

  • The nature of emotions, feeling, and affect. Things that happen naturally are not easily explained and just happen without explanation.
  • The degree to which emotions are biologically based or socially constructed. People may be getting happy in certain situations because that is how they know to be or should feel  according to societal norm, or to gain something from that emotion.
  • The gap between social psychological theories on emotions and macro structural theorizing. Studying  emotions in different ways often leads a gap between theories because the studying of something scientifically will not always match up with studying something socially and often just proves that some things cannot be solved or explained.
  • The relatively narrow range of emotions theorized, coupled with an equally narrow focus on the structural and cultural conditions producing these emotions. There are more than just the emotions that we often talk about such as sad, happy, angry, frustrated, gloomy, worried, arousal, love, ect. there are simply too many emotions to study and there are some emotions that we do not even have a name for and  there are feelings in-between those feelings.


Dramaturgical Theory

Dramaturgical theories emphasize the importance of culture in defining which emotions are to be experienced and expressed in situations. Individuals make dramatic presentations and engage in strategic actions directed by a cultural script. Dramaturgical theories also suggests that individuals must manage emotional displays when social structures and the cultural script associated with these structures generate discontinuity between what people feel and what they must express to others in their audience. The more powerful that the emotion culture is in a situation, the more individuals must engage in impression management of their emotions through expressive control of face, voice, and body and  use of physical props. People purposely express certain emotions in order to gain a certain response and emotions are not completely natural because of this and good actors or card players can take advantage of this and may feel the emotion they are expressing .

Symbolic Interactionist Theory

Symbolic interactionist theories see self and identity as the central dynamics behind emotional arousal. Self is a powerful motive pushing individuals to behave in ways that allow them to verify both trans-situational self-conceptions and situational role identities. , view self as composed of multiple identities. For each identity, there is a standard consisting of stored meanings that are used as a frame of reference to regulate behavior. control systems beyond a person’s cognitions about self to include cognitions about the identities of others, the role behaviors of others, and the setting in which identities are presented and roles played. We act and express certain emotions to reflect how we see ourselves or want others to view ourselves.

Interaction ritual Theory

The assumption in interaction ritual theory that individuals always seek to maximize their emotional energy in an encounter and that they try to increase their stores of cultural capital that can either be particularized or unique to particular groups, or be generalized or acknowledged and understood by all in a society. Two types of rituals: polite and transient rituals such as greetings that arouse low-intensity positive emotional energy, such as a simple hello, “how are you doing”,  handshake, wave, bow, nod, hug, ect. The other more enduring emotions that develop, mutual awareness and attention, a common focus, a shared emotional mood, rhythmic synchronization of conversation and bodies, a representation of the focus and mood with symbols, and a sense of moral righteousness. These rituals would be something like prayer, dance, a funeral, wedding, ect. In such interaction rituals, emotional energy is built upon and is sustained across encounters that are strung together in time and space.

Power and status theory

The basic generalization in this theory is that when individuals have power or gain power, they experience satisfaction, confidence , and security, whereas when they lose power, they experience anxiety, fear, and loss of confidence. If someone has power they will express pride, confidence, cockiness, satisfaction, and security. If someone does not have power they will experience anxiety, shame, shyness, and lack confidence. Those who are competent are given power and prestige, whereas those who are less competent receive lower levels of power and prestige. When power is gained so are the emotions that come with it and depending on how the power is gained might affect the emotions experienced. s when other segments of the population are perceived to be responsible for their lack of power, fear turns to anger, aggression, and fight responses. People of different levels of power or rankings will feel different emotions toward another based on the power gap and the standing.

Exchange theories

Exchange theories view humans as motivated to receive rewards or utilities avoid costs and punishments. individuals undergo costs and make investments in order to receive resources from other actors. Individuals behave in this way to receive a profit. Individuals experience positive emotions when payoffs exceed costs and investments. And when payoffs do not exceed costs and investments  individuals experience negative emotions.

Exchanges can be of four basic types:

  1. Productive when individuals must coordinate their behaviors to receive payoffs.
  2. Negotiated when individuals actively bargain over time with offers and counteroffers.
  3. Reciprocal when one party gives resources to another with the implication of receiving something in return.
  4. Generalized when individuals do not directly exchange resources and instead pass resources onto actors who, in turn, pass them along in chains of exchange that eventually work their way back to the individual.




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