Priorities in Social Science

Strategies for the Social Science of Emotion                             


It seems to me that advances in our understanding of emotions will continue to be minimal until we have developed unambiguous definitions for particular emotions, rather than rely on current usage. The vernacular language for emotions in most languages is confused and confusing, especially English.


Many authors have noted that English is extremely broad and vague in its usage of the word love. A typical comment is by Solomon (1981, pp. 3-4):


Consider… the wealth of meticulous and fine distinctions we make in describing our feelings of hostil­ity: hatred, loathing, scorn, anger, revulsion, resentment, envy, abhorrence, malice, aversion, vexation, irritation, annoyance, disgust, spite and contempt, or worse, "beneath" contempt. And yet we sort out our positive affections for the most part between the two limp categories, "liking" and "loving." We distinguish our friends from mere acquaintances and make a ready distinction between lovers and friends whom we love "but not that way." Still, one and the same word serves to describe our enthusiasm for apple strudel, respect for a dis­tant father, the anguish of an uncertain romantic affair and nostalgic affection for an old pair of slippers…

In spite a steady stream of such commentary, most current social science studies of love do not define what they mean by love, using the vernacular word as if it has a singular meaning. Calling diverse relationships by the name of love could serve to disguise the separateness and alienation that is rampant in modern societies (Scheff, forthcoming).


The quote from Solomon also points to an extremely important, but much more specific issue in emotion lexicons. His catalogue of words for what he calls hostility (anger) implies the issue of inclusion in an emotion class.  Anger, he is saying, is signified by a large class of vernacular words. What is included and excluded is a vital issue for emotion studies.


For example, consider what is known as the valence of emotions: which are painful, and which are pleasurable? With some of the discrete emotions, the answer is determined almost entirely by language. For example, in English, subjects will respond quite clearly and emphatically that shame is a painful emotion. But if you ask a French-speaking subject, she or he might reply: which kind of shame, honte (disgrace shame) or pudeur (modesty)? In English, the positive variants of shame have different names that exclude them from the shame class, leaving only the negative variants. For this reason alone, in English shame is purely negative, but not negative in French and most other languages.


An example of research which trips over this issue are the studies in social psychology to determine if embarrassment and shame are separate emotions. There are several that find them to be separate, rather than related, emotions. The methodology is to ask the subjects the question, are they separate or related? The subjects of these studies, being English-speaking, of course respond that they are separate. But if one did the same study with Spanish speaking subjects, the opposite finding would result. In Spanish, the same word, verguenza, can be used to mean either shame or embarrassment. Most languages of modern societies differentiate between the two emotions, but most languages of traditional societies, don’t. Just as the broadness of the word love could serve as a disguise for alienation, the narrowness of the word shame might do the same, by covering over situations of embarrassment or shame by using less painful words (Scheff 2003).


I propose that the main task in the social science of emotion currently is pre-scientific. The scientific approach to problem solving is organized in terms of theory, method and data, but there are situations in which the basic issue is the formulation of the problem and the concepts, before theory, method, and data can be moblized.


Many examples have occurred in the history of physical science. Brahe, the Danish astronomer, spent his adult life trying to determine the orbit of Venus. He made stunningly accurate observations of the position of the planet during his lifetime, but he assumed, like everyone else at that time, that the planets revolved around the earth. For this reason he was unable to solve the problem. His formulation was basically flawed, because his conception of the planetary system was erroneous.


Kepler, Brahe’s assistant, took on the problem after Brahe died. For years he continued to find the problem unsolvable. In his exasperation, Kepler developed a bizarre model in which orbits were determined by transparent solid polyhedrons. The model itself was useless, but in his flight of fancy he had accidently placed the sun, rather than the earth, at the center. Although Kepler’s observational and mathematical skills were far inferior to Brahe’s, he quickly solved the problem in light of the new conceptualization (Koestler 1967).


Investing virtually all research resources in method and/or data might be called the Brahe error. The modern disciplines of history and linguistics present one version of this errror, to the extent that they focus entirely on descriptive data. Modern psychology presents another version, to the extent that it focuses entirely on experimental method. Economics and the theory wing of sociology, on the other hand, make what might be called the Kepler error, to the extent that they focus on fanciful theories of economic or social systems, as if Kepler had stayed with his polyhedrons.


It seems to me that to this point, most studies in the social science of emotions are based on either the Brahe error or the Kepler error. Before using refined methods like experiments, scales, and still photos, or abstract theories like evolution or exchange, we need to clearly define the discrete emotions.  




Koestler, Arthur. 1967. The Act of Creation. New  York: Dell


Scheff, Thomas. 2003. Shame in Self and Society. Symbolic Interaction. 26: #2, pp. 239-262.


­­­­­­­­­­­­­­------------------   Forthcoming. Attachment and Attunement: Defining Love.


Solomon, Robert. 1981 Love : emotion, myth, and metaphor. Garden City, N.Y. : Anchor Press/Doubleday.


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