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The relationship between emotions and culture has been discussed ever since there was interest in what it means to be human, and since then that relationship has been contrastingly characterized as either inimical or reconcilable. Culture can be understood as the defining values, meanings, and thoughts of a local, national, or supranational community. When emotions are conceived in terms of psychological feelings and physical sensations, then they appear inimical to culture. This is because such a perspective suggests the involuntary nature and disorganizing consequence of emotions.
The majority of sociologists and anthropologists and large numbers of psychologists and philosophers who have written on emotions since the 1980s believe that emotions are constructed by cultural factors. The constructionist position holds that emotional experiences depend on cultural cues and interpretations, and therefore that linguistic practices, values, norms, and currents of belief constitute the substance of experience of emotions. Biological and even social structural factors are irrelevant for this approach. A corollary of constructionism is that persons can voluntarily determine the emotions they experience, that the cultural construction of emotions entails emotions management. The constructionist approach has enlivened discussion of emotions and drawn attention to the ways in which emotions are differentially experienced across societal divisions and through historical time. The object of any emotion will be influenced by prevailing meanings and values, as will the way emotions are expressed; thus what is feared and how people show fear, indeed how they may experience fear, will necessarily vary from culture to culture. The strength of this perspective is demonstrated by the fact that emotions attract cultural labels or names. In this way emotions become integrated into the broader conceptual repertoire of a culture and prevailing implicit cultural values and beliefs are infused into the meaning of named emotions. Thus the notorious difficulty of translating emotion words from one language to another.
The role of emotions in the construction of culture points not only to the composition of emotion but also significantly to its function. Emotions alert individuals to changes in and elements of their environment that are of concern to them, provide focus to situations in which these things are integral, and facilitate appropriate strategies to normalize these situations. That is, emotions both define the situations of persons and indicate what their interests are or intentions might be within them. It is a short step from this statement of the function of emotion to one concerning the emotional contribution to culture. The cultural regulation of emotion occurs through elaboration of cognitive-situational feelings. It is likely that this process can be understood as emotional reaction to emotional experience, and that much cultural variation can be understood in this way. Jealousy, for example, is a widespread if not universal emotion. But in ”traditional” or ”Mediterranean” societies people are proud of their jealousy, whereas in ”modern” or ”western” societies people may be ashamed of it. Even the apparent absence of certain emotions from particular cultures can be explained in this way, as with Simmel’s ”blase feeling,” the emotional antidote to self-regarding emotions under conditions of metropolitan life.
- Barbalet, J. M. (1998) Emotion, Social Theory, and Social Structure. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Turner, J. (2000) On the Origins of Human Emotions. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.