Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Narrative, Emotion, and Cultural Meaning: Their Connection from the Perspective of Cultural Sociology, with Special Regards to Fiction

Thorn-R. Kray

Justus-Liebig-University Giessen

Giessen Center for the Study of Culture

Using the perspective of cultural sociology, this theoretical paper examines the circular interrelation between narrative, emotion, and cultural meaning. After introducing the puzzle of the emotion-narrative circularity, debates from philosophy and cognitive psychology of emotions are consulted since they have furthered positions more differentiated than those found in current sociology, especially with the issue of fiction. Yet, they underemphasize the important role that cultural meaning plays in understanding the relation between emotion and narrative. Hence, two empirical contributions from cultural sociology are considered as ways to close the theoretical gap. Using the results of Philip Smith and Jack Katz, the paper proposes a sociological narratology of emotions. In its preliminary outline here, it has three parts: the distinction between primary and secondary emotions, a criterion for narrative emotions, and new view on narrative as mechanism which synchronizes emotions and cultural meanings. After some empirical research questions are suggested to test the framework, the conclusion comes back to the issue of fiction.

Introduction: For a Sociological Narratology of Emotions.

Until today, sociologists have devoted much of their attention both to emotions (e.g. Kemper 1978,Hochschild 1979, Stets/Turner 2006,Schützeichel/Senge 2013) and – more recently – to narrative (e.g.Maines 1993, Franzosi 1998,Ochs/Capps 2001, Berger/Quinney 2005, Polletta et al. 2011, Longo 2015). Each of them has become an interdisciplinary field of inquiry in its own right. From the perspective of cultural sociology, however, what remains to be done is a proper account of the way in which the two are interrelated. This article tries to close that gap by providing a theoretical framework to conceptualize the link between narrative and emotion that might be called a sociological narratology of emotions. This approach is supposed to give a substantial foundation for understanding the circular connection between the ways we feel and the tales we tell. Additionally, by illuminating that interrelation, the framework is also prepared to make suggestions on how to answer an important question in contemporary narratology: “[W]hat makes stories (politically) persuasive“? (Polletta et al. 2011, 123)

However, the more general significance of building such a theoretical base is obvious. Narratives are amongst the premier means which all kinds of social actors use to make sense of their world(s), they are one of the most powerful “ways of worldmaking” (Goodman). No matter if we look at collective entities like religious communities (Geertz 2014), healthcare organizations ( Engel et al. 2008), business ventures (Smith 2012), educational institutions (Phillion, Fang He/Connelly 2005), political parties ( Alexander 2012), theater companies (Breger 2012), and match-makers (Illouz 2012), or at individual actors like priests, therapists, entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians, choreographers, and lovers – all of them build (upon) narratives. They all use stories – minimally defined as sequentialized accounts of events that obey the rules of causality and contiguity (Klein/Martinez 2009) – to preach, diagnose, manage, inspire, lead, entertain or seduce. With stories, actors construct their own identity or constrain that of others by. But besides these rather plain observations, one must ask the more complicated question: What fuels their narrative projects and prospects? Where does the energy to do all these things come from?

If you ask cultural sociology, the answer will most probably be twofold. Narratives and their inventor must draw on two different, yet interlinked resources to “make their point” (William Labov). The first resource is cultural meaning. Emphasizing this term means to follow a train of thought that starts (roughly) with Emil Durkheim, continues with Clifford Geertz and leads to Jeffrey Alexander and the Yale School of Cultural Sociology. Cultural meaning, in their sense, denotes dichotomies like sacred and profane or collective beliefs, ideas, values or moral codices. For example, most religious narratives operate with ideas of salvation just like healthcare organizations promote notions of well-being; politicians promise a better society in their stories of change and, similarly, technology companies legitimate investment decisions with tales of innovation and prosperity. By the same token, many narratives revolve around the creation of a particular material symbol (e.g., the crucifix) or the rise and fall of a famous leader (e.g., Christ). Cultural meanings constitute, in Clifford Geertz famous phrasing, “a web of significance we ourselves have spun.” ( Geertz 2000 [1973], 5) Narratives, if one sticks to the metaphor, are linearized knot-patterns in that same web.

The second resource that all narratives must draw from and strive toward is: emotion. Even though there is no standard definition of emotion yet ( Kleinginna/Kleinginna 1981, Izard 2010), emotions like anger, hate, jealousy, joy etc. are known to and experienced by most peoples of (at least) the Western world. As already mentioned, the analytical point of this paper will be to shed some light on the circular relationship between narrative and emotion. To understand what I mean by “circular,” consider the case of romantic love: If you come from a culture where the expressions of romantic love are no element of the emotional repertoire, it is more than likely you will not cry while watching Juliet awaken next to her dear dead Romeo. You need an initial familiarity with the cultural background or context to grasp the tragedy – and, eventually, cry. At the same time, narratives do shape the emotional repertoires that reside in and are a part of culture. Those repertoires are not eternally fixed, inert substances but historically changing, malleable processes, negotiated in sometimes fierce struggles. When you have seen a couple of similar plays, read a few dozen romantic novels and been (perhaps, forced) to your hundredth chick flick with sobbing people next to you, you may still not be able to fall in love straight away yourself. [1] But sure enough you will be able to empathize, or even sympathize, with Juliet. In short: Narratives, as they utilize cultural meanings, appeal to our emotional repertoires. On a larger scale, these same repertoires are changed over time by the installment of new meanings and/or fading out of old ones. New, altered versions of the Romeo and Juliet narrative emerge every year or so ( Illouz 2014). This phenomenon – in which emotion is the topic and resource of narrative – can be labeled emotion-narrative-circularity, and constitutes the main target of this article.

The problem is that cultural sociology has not yet addressed this topic with the same diligence two other disciplines have so far invested: the philosophy of mind and cognitive psychology. Therefore, in the first section, I want to discuss some of the findings from these fields concerning the circularity. In doing so, I am going to concentrate on accounts that deal with the connection between emotion and fictional narrative since they can serve as a paradigmatic case, and emphasize Ronald de Sousa’s concept of “paradigm scenarios” in the philosophy of mind and James Pennebaker’s “expressive writing paradigm” within psychotherapy. A second step will narrow down the focus to sociology by discussing two empirically saturated accounts that (differently) marry emotion and narrative in an exemplary way: Philip Smith’s book Why War? and Jack Katz’ study of Road Rage. These two accounts are highly complementary: While the first author chooses a text-based structuralist hermeneutics with a focus on narrative genres using emotion as a theoretical supplement, the second author examines the interactional microphysics of emotion ethnographically and understands narrative as a facilitating device for it. What both have in common is their emphasis on cultural meaning. This commonality will help to conceptualize the interrelation between the three terms and reach a more sophisticated theoretical understanding of the circularity.

The fourth section synthesizes these ideas into a boarder theoretical project: the alrady mentioned sociological narratology of emotions. Here, I want to present three of its parts: First, the distinction between primary and secondary emotions. Following but modifying Theodor Kemper’s account, the dichotomy can help overcome the positivist/constructivist-divide. It will, as a second step, assist in developing a criterion for deciding the seminal question which emotions do have a narrative structure and which do not. And finally, I will point out the analytical benefits thus gained by sketching the mechanism that synchronizes the relation between cultural meaning and emotion. Instead of a summarizing conclusion I will come back to the question of fiction and reject the common “production of culture” approach to make a plea for social scientists not to shy away from using fiction as a rich source for elucidating the emotional dimension of social life.

II. Two Disciplines Ahead: Philosophy & Psychology

II.1 Philosophy

Mostly, philosophers can claim to have thought about things before anyone else did. And usually they are right. The question of how emotion and narrative hang together is no exception to this rule. Today, it is hardly more than an intellectual apercu to say that Plato banned the poets and their stories/songs from his ideal state because he found them guilty of insulting the Gods and, like his teacher, corrupting the youth (for an overview, see Oxenhandler 1988, Price 2012). As philosophically educated scholars know, it is equally true – and belongs to about the same category of common knowledge – that this harsh judgment changed with his student, Aristotle. For him, tragedy was an educational tool to purge the soul of pernicious passions through terror and pity – portrayed and evoked by a story.[2] Aristotle’s anti-platonic point, though, mainly consists in the claim that fictional narratives hold even larger philosophical value than those of historians since historical narratives only contain the (f)actual while fiction strives for grasping the greater truth behind reality.

Contemporary philosophers are still influenced by this argument. Those who are interested in the interaction between emotion and narrative thus mostly study fictional ones. What they grapple with is the question: Why and how do we respond to fictional narratives with real emotions? (e.g.Lamarque 1981, Levinson 1990, Neill 1993) To comprehend this question properly, one has to see that for philosophers of mind emotions usually have three dimensions – the phenomenological one (“what is the feeling like to have a certain emotion”), theintentional one (“what is the (formal) object of an emotion”) and the epistemological one (“what is the belief the emotion is based on”). (Deonna/Teroni 2012, 1-6) This typology is quite valuable in its own right because it provides some conceptual clarity for what is meant by the (fuzzy) term ‘emotion.’ [3] Additionally, it makes apparent what the philosopher’s problem is: “emotion requires belief, and the reader of fiction does not have the beliefs required for emotion.“ (Currie 1990, 183, cf. Neill 1993) One not uncommon solution is to say that what we experience in fiction are “quasi-emotions.” We subscribe to a fictional pact by engaging “in a largely internal game of make-belief” in which “causal processes mirror the causal processes that would take place if this attitude was not make-belief but straightforward belief.” ( Currie 1990, 196f., cf. Walton 1993) This solution has the advantage to preserve basic principles of rationality. Even if we do not accept the (sometimes strange) logic of a fictional story, what yet remains are patterns of sense-making embodied in the ways we feel.

Ronald de Sousa has described these patterns – serving as a bridge between fiction and the life-world – as paradigm scenarios. “[D]rawn first from our daily life as small children and later reinforced by stories, art, and culture to which we are exposed to,” these paradigm scenarios define our emotional repertoire; we “acquire the capacity to talk about emotions in the stories that give rise to them.” (de Sousa 1991, 182f., cf. de Sousa 2004, Goldie 2012)

Once again, love is a wonderful example for how paradigm scenarios work; Martha Nussbaum’s work is most prominent in this regard. In her neo-stoic cognitive philosophy of emotions, she defines emotions as “appraisals or value judgments, which ascribe to things and persons outside the person’s own control great importance for that person’s own flourishing.“ ( Nussbaum 2001, 4) She argues that we can use fictional narratives of love to reflect upon our own life, thus discovering something new about us and our world otherwise concealed (cf. Deslandes 2004 ). Her second, more controversial claim holds that “emotions [in general!] have a narrative structure.“ (Nussbaum 2001, 236) Many (mostly cognitivist) philosophers of emotion share her view (de Sousa 1991, Rorty 2003, Voss 2004, Solomon 2004). But one may ask: Is this true for all emotion? This crucial question will be addressed in section IV.2. For now, we can to turn to the second disciplinary source of inspiration.

II.2 Psychology

Modern psychology is a science that (usually) does rely on “hard data” stemming from, for instance, questionnaires, experiments, or fMRIs. Emotion, and its measurement with these devices, has been an important topic since the days of William James and Carl Lange up to contemporary researchers like Jacques LeDoux (1996) and Antonio Damasio (1994). Narrative, on the other hand, never really enjoyed the same popularity amongst psychological investigators, possibly because the ‘traditional’ tools are hardly applicable in its domain. More recently, however, this neglect of narrative (fiction) and its strong connection to the emotions is fading (see Bruner 1986,Averill 2001, Hogan 2003,Fireman, McVay/Flanagan 2003, Oatley 2004, Mar et al. 2010, Angus/Greenberg 2011).

Keith Oatley, a major capacity in this young interdisciplinary field, has gone so far as to entitle a seminal essays of his Why fiction may be twice as true as fact. Herein, he refutes the “assumption that fiction is largely irrelevant to serious psychology,” (Oatley 1999, 101, 109) and argues that, even if fictional narratives may not be true in the sense of empirical correspondence, they do hold truth in two other ways: “as coherence in complex structures and truth as personal relevance.” ( Oatley 1999, 103) These truths, and especially the latter one, bear a profound linkage to our emotional life:

Emotions are at the center of literature because they signal situations that are personally important but that might be either inchoate or just beyond the edge of easy understanding. The simulations that are novels, plays, movies, and so forth can allow people to find out more about the intimate implications of their emotions. (Oatley 1999, 112)

Three psychological mechanisms, according to Oatley and others (Keen 2006, Djikic et al. 2009, Hogan 2010), are structuring the link: identification, sympathy/empathy, and autobiographical memory. With these mechanisms in place, fictional narratives are enabled to have a whole range of benefits for their readers and writers.

Besides the potential to elucidate previously uncomprehend emotional responses and facilitate understanding of others as well as oneself, narratives can also be used for the purpose of therapy. When the author is not a novelist but a patient who struggles with a difficult emotional experience, creating narratives can be a method to process those. Perhaps the most extensive/impressive results in this area come from the research group around James W. Pennebaker (Pennebaker 1997,Pennebaker/Chung 2011, Seih, Chung/Pennebaker 2011). Until 2009, over 200 psychological studies from around the globe have confirmed the salience of his expressive writing paradigm (Pennebaker/Chung 2011). He and his colleagues have shown that writing stories about emotionally traumatic experiences does have wide-ranging benefits: “[W]hen people put their emotional upheavals into words, their physical and mental health improves markedly.“ It is „critical for the client,” they conclude, “to confront their anxieties and problems by creating a story to explain and understand past and current life concerns“ because „a constructed story [...] is a type of knowledge that helps to organize the emotional effects of an experience as well as the experience itself.“ (Pennebaker/Seagal 1999, 1244, 1249, cf. Angus/Greenberg 2011)

Writing stories about traumatizing events does ease emotional suffering. Oatley’s inclination that narratives provide coherence for personally relevant emotional experiences turns out to be true for fiction and non-fiction – one time for the reader, and the other time for the writer. [4] Note how the emotion-narrative circularity underlies Pennebaker paradigm: Narratives help to organize the emotional experience and the emotional repertoire they rely upon. The question once more becomes: How are we to explain this curious circularity?

Before coming back to this question below, we need to discuss the second resource for it: cultural meaning. The sociological accounts will help sharpen this important issue which is mostly neglected by cognitive psychology and only touched upon by the philosophy of emotions.

III. War & Rage: Two Examples for the Narrative-Emotion Circularity

III.1 The Genre of War

Narratives are not only devices that novelists use to make people understand themselves better for their own sake and that of others; they are not only helpful tools for therapists to help patients manage their emotions. Also, on a less philanthropic note, narratives serve politicians to stir emotions that will buttress decisions to inflict pain and suffering on adversary groups, organizations, and nations.

Building on Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, Yale sociologist Philip Smith has developed a typology of narrative genres which explains the cultural logic behind the decision of civil societies[5] to go to war. His material comes from three conflicts: the Suez Crisis (1956), the Gulf War (1991), and the early stages of the War in Iraq (2003). Hundreds of newspaper articles and television sources help to compare the United States prevailing genre in each incident with that of the UK, France, and Spain. The different degrees of legitimacy build by these narrative genres, he argues, resulted in varying degrees of military engagement of each country in each conflict ( for a summarizing table, see Smith 2005, 206).

So what are these genres and how do they relate to emotion? The former part of the question is easy to answer while the latter will require the explication of a somewhat underdeveloped part in Smith’s model. Smith works with three genres: low mimesis, tragedy/romance, and apocalypse. Narratives that fall into the first category concern things that happen in everyday-life; minor mishaps, subtle turns, and ordinary twists dominate the plot. Tragedy and romance, on the other hand, aren’t satisfied with such trifles; only problems that pertain to the human condition, life and death, major sacrifice, and horrible cruelty can become their subject matter. Apocalyptic narratives, finally, focus on ‘act-of-God’-type situations; their dealings are, as the name suggests, with the destiny of human kind, its extinction and/or the battle against global destruction.

When public discourses switch (‘upwards’) from one mode of narrative production to the next, Smith calls it “narrative inflation” (21f.). Another purpose of this term is to capture the typical motivation of protagonists. In the low mimetic genre actors are typically motivated by “everyday emotions” (21), while tragedy (like the Aristotelian tradition teaches) “evokes powerful sentiments of moral empathy, pity, and terror.” (25) Smith does not specify what emotions are especially relevant to the apocalyptic genre. Yet, when correlated with the protagonists maximized agency and highly polarized meanings of “radical evil” or the “need of heroic interventions” (27), the relevant emotions lie in the range of epic bravery, merciless disdain, and desperate hope.

In sum, Philip Smith shows that we cannot understand the nexus between narrative and emotion properly without looking at cultural meaning. Furthermore, which emotions and their affectual intensities are evoked by a narrative depends on the its respective genre and the polarization of cultural meanings within that genre. But this polarization is not entirely fixed, and neither is the genre. Participants in civil society’s public discourse constantly try to manage, alter, and control people’s emotions by building different narratives in different genres with alternating cultural meanings which, consequently, provide varying degrees of emotional legitimacy for their decisions – to make peace or go to war.

III.2 The Meaning in Rage

The second example that shall be considered here to illustrate how sociologists think about the nexus between narrative and emotion comes from Jack Katz (2001). In his opus magnum How Emotions Work, Katz applies empirical methods like interviewing, participant observation, and videography to study different emotions and their expressions – such as laughter, shame or crying – as they “naturally occur” (8). Taking a phenomenological/interactionist stance, his (theoretical) efforts lie – compared to Phil Smith – on the other end of the micro-macro spectrum. At the same time, however, they share a keen sense of the aforementioned nexus. Katz primarily focuses on emotion and uses narrative as a supplement.

One key part of his study is the phenomenon of road rage.[6] His prime question concerns the “mysterious metamorphosis” (21) of peaceful citizens into enraged speedsters. To explain it, he says, we first have “understand how becoming ‘pissed off’ is not simply a ‘release of tension’ or some other negatively defined phenomenon but is a positive effort to construct a new meaning for the situation.” (24; my emphasis). To understand this meaning and its construction, we must get a sense of the “perception of asymmetrical awareness” (29) between drivers, i.e. the fact that they usually don’t have a face-to-face relation but perceive of one another as a “person-thing” or an “automobilized person.” (33) This status suspends interpersonal norms and, to a degree, dehumanizes other traffic participants so that they can become the object of insults, curses, disgust, and undeserving of sympathy, kindness or pity. One symbolic meaning attributed to cars to shield the driver from shame and guilt is that they function as “private living rooms.” (38) When drivers are ‘cut off’ by others on the road they become “cut off” from the symbiosis with their vehicles, and the comfortably it provides. To channel, cope, and finally ease the resulting rage, drivers embark on “a practical story-telling project.” (47; emphasis in orig.) In and through it they enact – and embody (!) – a tale of righteous revenge. According to Katz, this revenge-narrative usually has three phases: First, a moral meaning is attributed to the situation, for the driver cloths herself as an innocent victim. The meaning of the immediate situation is then generalized into a “transcendent significance […] most notably by the invocation of prejudicial stereotypes.” (48) Finally, drivers reverse their role and cast themselves as the now avenging hero with the communal task to restore order or, at least, balance on the road.

Road rage is more than simple anger; it involves “constructing moral dramas” wherein drivers “try to enact coherent multi-act narratives in which they regain the higher moral grounds vis-à-vis their driving enemies.” (61) The enraged driver’s “dramatization of a revenge scenario provides a publicly recognizable place in cultural space from which to savor the transformation of a rudely fractured experience.” (68) As a complex (and collective) emotional phenomenon, it presupposes a material and symbolic infrastructure like cars, streets, regulations etc. and, in turn, relies on the meanings attached to this “dispositif” (Foucault). That narratives can function as coping strategies for extreme emotions is a fact we know from psychological studies. But Katz shows how they utilize cultural meanings – in this case, those of victimhood, heroism, revenge, and justice – as building blocks, and the different phases of their embodiment.

What Smith and Katz contribute is, on a broader scale, an account of the dialectic between narrative, emotion, and cultural meaning. They show how cultural meanings are used to construct different narrative genres that stir different emotions and, on the other hand, how actors embody complex multi-phased emotions by their use of narrative, thus changing a situation’s cultural meaning, both for individuals and whole nation states. The next section will try to extrapolate and synthesize findings from all three disciplines to arrive at a more precise notion of the nexus between the three terms.  

IV. Toward a Sociological Narratology of Emotions: Three Elements

V.1 Primary & Secondary Emotions

To build a theoretical foundation for understanding the emotion-narrative circularity it is necessary specify the type of emotions which sociology should be most interested in. These, I propose, are so-called “secondary” or complex emotions. The distinction between primary and secondary emotions has a long history, and psychologist William McDougal was probably the first to introduce the dichotomy ( McDougall 1908, 1949 [1923]). Tying them to instincts, he understood primary emotions like fear or disgust as innate qualities that automatically lead to a certain course of action. Secondary or “blended” emotions like contempt, loathing, admiration, reverence or jealousy are more complex since they accommodate opposed qualities and motivations thus lacking the direct link to action. As combinations, they “cannot be enumerated.” (McDougall 1949 [1923], 331, cf. Averill 1984)

McDougall’s ideas were, of course, only the beginning. Since the turn of the last century many scholars of different branches of psychology – from behaviorism to affective neuroscience – have contributed and further developed the basic-emotions paradigm. And the debate is far from being closed (Russell, Rosenberg/Lewis 2011). Participants (still) disagree on which and how many emotions are basic, what makes them basic, and how this can be measured and explained (Damasio 1994,Izard 2009, Ekman/Cordaro 2011, Panksepp/Waat 2011, Scarantino/Griffiths 2011 ). A few things, however, seem quite certain: This type of emotion is qualified by its felt fastness and immediacy; they can be found in most cultures across the globe. In fact, “basic emotion theory has been and remains the major program for scientific research on emotion [in psychology].” ( Russell, Rosenberg/Lewis 2011, 363)

Sociologists can profit from these debates, I think, in the following way. We should not focus all too much on basic emotions but rather (a) maintain the distinction between them, and (b) concentrate more on the non-basic, complex or secondary emotions. These moves allow encircling the territory between psychology and sociology, to structure the positivist/constructivist-divide, and preserve the relative autonomy of culture in the realm of the emotions.

The most important thinker who has made good sociological use of the distinction between primary and secondary emotions is Theodor Kemper. Even though his article in the 1987 AJS is over 25 years old, it is still a brilliantly argued piece and has set the standard for many others since its first publication (e.g. Barbalet 2001, Scherke 2009,especially Turner 2007, Von Scheve 2013).[7] Surveying different psychological approaches to basic emotions (for an update, cf.Levenson 2011, Schmidt-Atzert, Peper/Stemmler 2014), he identifies four primary ones  (fear, anger, depression and satisfaction), which are – said to be – evolutionary developed, physiologically hard-wired, and cross-culturally identifiable. On the other hand, secondary or “social” emotions, as they are sometimes called ( Hareli/Parkinson 2008), are ‘socially constructed,’ i.e. products of “social definitions, labels, and meanings [attached] to differentiated conditions of interaction and social organization.” ( Kemper 1987, 276) Kemper’s central claim, then, is one of reduction: During socialization we learn secondary emotions. But as such, they still need to be grounded (somehow) in the experiences of primaries – guilt, to take his examples, in fear, pride in satisfaction, and shame in anger. Even though not all scholars may follow the reductionist strategy Kemper proposes, or his description of basic emotions as universal (Plamper 2012, Von Scheve 2013), it is uncontroversial that secondary emotions are linked much closer to narrative and cultural meaning than primary emotions are.

If we want to utilize Kemper’s argument for a sociological narratology of emotions, his account has to be modified and supplemented. First for the modification: One important questions which Kemper leaves unspecified, lies in the formal relation between primary and secondary emotions. What is the nature of their “linkage”? From the perspective of cultural sociology there is only one good answer: emergence (Krohn 1992, Sawyer 2001, Greve/Schnabel 2011). Inspired by the philosophy of mind, sociologists have used this term to point out two properties of social phenomena: They are not reducible to other kinds of phenomena, neither physical nor cognitive. Additionally, emergence means the creation of something genuinely new compared to the constituting parts. Applied to the relation between primary and secondary emotions, we get a strong argument for the primaries being the components of the ‘secondaries’ while, at the same time, preserving their non-reducible, i.e. relative autonomy as phenomena firmly grounded in the social realm and endowed with their own logic/profile. From this view, secondary emotions are – in Durkheim’s phrasing – social phenomenon sui generis.[8]

The supplement for Kemper’s account concerns the umbrella term “socialization” and his complaint that “observations of the actual social construction of the major secondary emotions are virtually non-existent.” ( Kemper 1987, 283). 1987 this may have been the case, but the situation has change since then. Today, we know very well what the device is through which the socialization of secondary emotions happens.

IV.2 A Criterion for Narrative Emotions

This device, I suggest, is narrative. Emotions, as Martha Nussbaum (1988, 226) said, “are taught, above all, through stories. Stories express their structure and teach us their dynamics.”

And in fact, socio-linguists have long investigated how narratives’ evaluating function helps to personally cope with and socially process, for example, dangerous situations and the feelings that accompany them (the classical study is Labov 1972).

However, Nussbaum and her colleagues infer from that all emotions bear about the same connection to narrative and, even further, are essentially narrative in structure. After discussing the distinction between primary and secondary emotions, the reader will easily notice that the cultural sociological view put forward here cannot stay content with the generality of such a statement. Therefore, I want to formulate an limiting objection which takes the form of a hypothesis; this hypothesis contains a criterion that might tell us which emotions have indeed a narrative structure, and which do not:

An emotion has a narrative structure if, and only if, a social actor needs to tell a story about it, which exceeds a simple stimulus-response schema, to make the respective emotion intelligible to herself and/or to others.

This hypothetical criterion appeals to the cognitive and intersubjective conditions of emotional comprehensibility. Behind it stands the idea that these conditions might very well differ from one emotional class, i.e. the primaries, to the other, i.e. the secondaries. For understanding primary emotions we do not need to tell a story that surpasses the mentioned stimulus-response-schema, while for secondary emotion we do. [9]

Although it needs to be tested empirically, this hypothesis might gain some plausibility since it would explain why secondary emotions have such strong historical conjunctures and such high degrees of cognitive and social complexity compared to their primary counterparts. For example, waiting for one’s lover has different emotional phases (Barthes 1978,Illouz 2012), just like grief will has different stages in coping with loss ( Nussbaum 2001, Butler 2004); secondary emotions take time to unfold, they are not easily explored in their nuances and phases like guilt or scorn ( Dostoyevsky 1956 [1866]). To experience complex emotions like shame can damage the self on a long term basis, and its experience is strongly correlated with norms of exclusion from one’s community ( Goldie 2012).

In sum my hypothesis claims that the need for a not-so-simple story in making sense of an emotional response warrants the narrativity of secondary emotions; only with narrative they become comprehensible, both for others and ourselves. This claim may very well explain a good portion of how the emotion-narrative circularity works, and where its limits may lie. Our emotional repertoires are subject to cultural and historical change especially where stories are required to make sense of complex emotional responses and processes. However, for such changes to be engendered, we must still try to say something about the synchronizing function of narrative mechanism. To theorize this function is crucial to understand the emotion-narrative circularity.

IV. 3 Narrative as a Mechanism of Synchronization

Cultural meanings are an important backdrop of the definition of emotions (Nussbaum 2001) inasmuch they provide the general value system based on which beliefs are formed and objects chosen. However, cultural meaning and emotion are located on opposite ends of the micro-macro spectrum. The former is commonly associated with the public sphere. In a way, such meanings are generic, “objective,” and endowed with aspirations towards universality. Emotions, on the other hand, are just the opposite. Adjectives like private, intimate, bodily, and subjective come to mind when we think of them. As deceptive as these intuitions may be sometimes, they do guide our everyday conduct and even a lot of (sociological, psychological, and philosophical) research. What narratives accomplish is to synchronize the macro-dimension of cultural meaning with the micro-dimension of the emotions. By virtue of their syntactical alignment into a particular combination of events, narratives allow cultural meanings to get attached to these events and become embodied, felt – thus making them descend from their abstract “heaven of ideas” into situational reality. Simultaneously, narratives aggregate emotions into what Ronald de Sousa called “paradigm scenarios” which then organize all their three axes into collective patterns of anticipated responses, “feeling rules” (Hochschild), historically identifiable “emotional regimes” (Reddy 2001), and changing “emotionologies” (Stearns/Stearns 1985) as they vary from one “emotional community” ( Rosenwein 2002) to the next. But since these “scenarios” have to be actualized time and again in order to be felt, since they are articulated by different actors and received by different audiences, every instance contributes to varying the previously established pattern. Stories translate impersonal cultural meanings into personal emotions, and vice versa. But since decent and ascent always happen at once, subtle changes are inevitable. Every actor brings his own sociocultural background, own interests, goals, and capacities to the material. These different conditions help to explain the changes in emotional repertoires. On a conceptual level, however, narrative suddenly becomes visible as a mechanism of synchronization. Philip Smith has shown how it works in and for different genres, and Jack Katz has explained how it works for different emotions. Both, however, have not realized the more general reason why (for Katz) emotions are not explainable without narrative and why (for Smith) cultural meanings can only be effectively told if they are felt.

Sociological narratology of emotions, then, explains why emotions and cultural meanings are always the resource and the topic for narrative at the same time. Additionally, it allows us to reformulate what it means that narratives fail and are unable to persuade recipients: they fail as devices for synchronization. If a narrative is unable to synchronize cultural meanings and personally felt emotions properly, it is very unlikely to persuade anyone – may it be to acquire a certain belief, entertain people, teach them something about the culture they live in, or take a new course of action.

If you add the concept of synchronization to the criterion of narrative emotions, it would be reasonable to expect that the translation process is different for primary and secondary emotions. It would be reasonable to expect that the cultural history of romantic love and of anger, for shame and disgust, for joy and hope, strongly differ if studied comparatively. It would also be plausible to expect that the same community builds structurally different narratives around the management of these emotion-types. However, all these questions must be left to future empirical research on the connection between narrative, emotion, and cultural meaning. This theoretical article cannot but be content with formulating these issues and, on an analytical level, contribute to a sociological narratology of emotions.

One of the distinctive features of this framework is its strong interdisciplinarity. Thus, one area where empirical findings might come from is the sociological study not only of factual but also of fictional narratives. Such findings would be of great interest, since they would work on a topic cultural sociology has long neglected: literature.

V. Beyond Production: The Challenge of Fiction for Sociology

As qualitative approach, the sociological narratology of emotions provides the opportunity for sociology to play catch-up with both philosophy and psychology. Like we have seen above, these two disciplines have managed to use fictional narratives to perceive of important parts of our individual and collective emotional life.

The sociology of literature has largely underestimated this potential by, for the most part, taking the so-called ‘production of culture’-approach. Scholars like Richard Peterson (1975) DianaCrane (1992), Wendy Griswold (1993), and Pierre Bourdieu (1996) have directed their attention on “how the symbolic elements of culture are shaped by the systems within which they are created, distributed, evaluated, taught, and preserved.” ( Peterson/Anand 2004, 311) Not only did emotion play a minor role, if any. Even worse, from this point of view it is a cluster of ‘hard’ socio-structural conditions like status, hierarchy, capital, power etc. that determines the ‘soft’ cultural content like experience, meaning, feeling, narrative, etc. This (often quantitative) research type – of which we had quite a lot in the sociology of art and especially of literature since the mid 1970s – gambles away too much of fictional narratives’ capacity to tell us something about the inner workings of social life and, equally important here, its emotional component. An urgent need has arisen for sociological accounts to reverse the order and treat cultural meaning as an independent rather than a depend variable (Alexander/Smith 2003, Alexander 2003, Eyerman/McCormick 2006) to explain how narrative and emotion go hand in hand.

However, there are scholars in cultural sociology and anthropology, who have build very intriguing cases which can serve as examples for powerful explanations using fiction as material and data. Let me just mention two of them. Ethnologist Warren Beatty (2010) contrasts “person-centered ethnographies” with illustrative scenes from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, James Joyce’ The Dead, and Primo Levi’s Auschwitz memoirs, thus showing how to properly portray emotional landscapes experienced in fieldwork. Eva Illouz explored how the codes, symbols and institutional organization of romantic love have changed over the last 150 years by combining empirical interview material with interpretations of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary she can show in what way “the romantic agony that both these women [i.e. the fictional protagonists] experienced has changed its content, color, and texture” form their time to ours. (Illouz 2012, 2 ) Of course, there could be other examples (Smith 2004,Eyerman/McCormick 2006, Giesen 2011, Kray 2013, Longo 2015).

Considering these cases and their common ground, it’s not entirely unreasonable to perceive them as strong indications of a changing trend we should welcome. I’d like to close with a call for cultural sociologists and other social scientists to take full advantage of fictional narratives as they lie stored in our culture’s collective memory and neatly ordered by diligent librarians. Chances are high that, by using fictional narratives as our material, we might dis- and uncover dense accounts of the emotional texture of cultural life.


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[1] Although, you might: Even sociologists fall in love (Jackson 1993).

[2] „A whole library has been written about this famous doctrine [of κάθαρσις]” ( Ross 1995 [1923], 295). Indeed, it seems that Aristotle’s thoughts on emotion have been a matter of interpretation for centuries (e.g. Twining 1812) and will continue to be just that (for more recent accounts, see e.g. Nussbaum 1996,Fortenbaugh 2002, Sokolon 2006, Kristjansson 2007). In these interpretations, there are, of course, also some remarks on their relation to narrative, especially interesting one’s come from Martha Nussbaum. But since Aristotle is just the starting point of the philosophical debate which in itself is a mere backdrop of my argument, I will leave this issue to the cited experts.

[3] Of course, this has been – and still is – a matter of fierce debate in philosophy (for a summary, cf. Rorty 2003) as well as in psychology (cf. Kleinginna/Kleinginna 1981, Izard 2010). In sum, the experts have not come up with standard definition yet. 

[4] The therapeutic value of fictional and non-fictional narratives is something that Marta Nussbaum has aptly emphasized in Upheavals of Thought. There, she tells the story of how her mother has died thus coping with this terrible event. At the same time, she describes how Marcel Proust’s great novel In Search of Lost Time wants to be a therapeutic experience by making the story an “optical instrument” through which the reader can see her own life.

[5] Civil society is, next to cultural meaning, perhaps the most central term for the Yale School of cultural sociology. With Durkheim and his distinction between sacred and profane as crown-witnesses, the conception of civil societies can roughly be viewed as an arena in which “struggles over meaning” (Smith 2005, 13) takes place. Binaries like, for example, active vs. passive, rational vs. irrational, calm vs. excitable etc. structure the discursive activities of the individual and collective participants (sometimes, without them knowing) thus giving civil public discourse a complex yet discernable texture. (For the general theory, seeAlexander/Smith 2003, Alexander 2003, 2006)

[6] Road Rage is a consistent topic in not only in sociology; for context, see e.g. Britt/Garrity (2006).

[7] Kemper is perhaps best know for his power/status-theory of emotions (Kemper 1978, 1987, 2011). For reasons of brevity and since it is not a core focus here, I will skip a detailed discussion of his now canonic approach and just allude to it when it’s necessary for my point.

[8] This would also, in part, explain why in Kemper’s examples of secondary emotions, they always contain a puzzling number of different primaries (and even other secondaries!) – like guilt for instance, which is frequently “accompanied by distress, fear, shyness, anger, surprise, and joy.” (Kemper 1987, 278) In addition, to include the idea of emergence also explains what the difference is between anger and road rage. The feeling of being (in) a car, the perception of, and interaction with, other drivers as semi-humans, the “rules of the road” – all work together and contribute to the transformation from simple anger in complex road rage.

[9] To be sure, I don’t want to imply that primary emotions are either not connected to cultural meaning or that they don’t happen in time – of course both is true of them as well. Yet, they have a less intimate connection to them. Primary emotions, although they contain an intentional and epistemological dimension like all emotions do, are more closely linked to a stimulus-response schema, just like Kemper has already argued (for the example of fear, see LeDoux 1996). Antonio Damasio, for example, has famously argued that secondary emotions are acquired only later in an individual’s development when systematic connections are identified between primary emotions and categories of objects and situations (Damasio 1994). Additionally, the primaries do have an universal core, even if it should not be as extensive as e.g. Ekman thinks ( Jack et al. 2012).