Not only ordinary people, but most social science seems to assume that human conduct is so simple that it can be understood in commonsense terms



Thomas J. Scheff

Abstract: Most social science assumes that human conduct is simple enough that it can be understood in ordinary language. But language reflects culture: it carries a baggage of assumptions and ambiguities. The single thread that unites all of Goffman’s work is his attempt to define new concepts in order to escape cultural entrapment. This problem is first discussed with reference to three general ideas: alienation, irrationality, and context. The main purpose of this essay is to use the domain of emotions and affects as an example of how one might begin to establish clear definitions of basic concepts. Some of the main emotion words are reviewed, suggesting that there is little agreement about their meaning. As in the case of the general ideas above, many emotion/affect words are either residual categories or they confound relational and dispositional elements, and cognitive and emotional ones. One approach to overcoming these problems would be to develop definitions of concepts that are either highly structured or one-dimensional. Tentative conceptual definitions of love and of self-esteem provide examples of this approach. 

At this time scholarship and research in social science is more dependent on vernacular words than on clearly defined concepts. Most research is entrapped within a cultural web of words. Any specific theory, method or data set is dominated by the vast cultural web in which it is encased. For this reason, our technical explanations are little better than laypersons’ understanding. To arrive at an understanding of terrorism, or any other topic, it might be necessary to first develop a set of clearly defined concepts.

Although the vernacular language of any society can convey valuable insights into human conduct, it is also a repository for preconceptions and ambiguities. For example, ordinary usage in the English language, tied as it is to the first urban/industrial society, emphasizes individuals much more than relationships, and cognition much more than emotion. Traditional societies, to the extent that they are small, localized, and static, make different assumptions: relationships are more important than individuals, and emotion is just as important as cognition. This essay will seek to show how these and other assumptions reflected in ordinary language becloud social science.

Perhaps the first task facing social science is conceptual, and therefore, pre-scientific. The scientific approach is organized in terms of theory, method and data. But these tools are virtually useless until concepts have been clearly defined, because scientists, like everyone else, live in the assumptive world of their own culture. The ocean of assumptions that each culture reflects and generates is virtually invisible to its members. Unless these assumptions are avoided, the tools of science may merely uphold the cultural/social status quo, rather than breaking new ground. In Mannheim’s sense, they are ideological, rather than utopian.

Metaphors vs. Concepts

The way that cultural assumptions impede science has been nicely caught by the philosopher Quine:

The neatly worked inner stretches of science are an open space in the tropical jungle, created by clearing tropes [metaphors] away” (1979, p. 160).

That is to say, it usually happens that ­before scientific procedures are applicable, a ruling trope has to be overthrown. Quine’s formulation captures the radically intuitive element necessary for scientific advance. Tropes are linguistic/mental routines that both reflect and hide cultural assumptions.

Erving Goffman’s work may be a model in this regard, since it seems to have deconstruction of tropes as its main goal (Scheff 2003). Each of his studies can be seen as an attack on lay and social sciences tropes, rather than establishing theory, method or data. His favorite target was the Western individualized idea of the self. The self or person, he proposed in many different contexts, can just as easily be seen as a social arrangement.

He also attacked the tropes of established social institutions, such as “mental illness” and gender roles. This goal would explain why he seemed to start afresh with each work. “Look,” he could have said, “We need to construct alternative universes. That’s why I start anew with each study, ignoring even my own earlier work.” His work, in this regard, is much like the best science fiction. It is an attempt to see one’s cultural tropes from the outside, like a person from another galaxy. Goffman invented a special language that allowed him to reach escape velocity from the pull of the cultural status quo.

The history of physical science reveals many examples of obstructive tropes. Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer, spent his adult life trying to determine the orbit of Venus. He made accurate observations of the position of the planet during his lifetime, but he assumed, like everyone else, that the planets revolved around the earth. For this reason he was one frustrated scientist.

Kepler, Brahe’s assistant, inherited the data after Brahe died. For years he made no progress. In his exasperation, Kepler developed a bizarre model in which orbits were determined by transparent solid polyhedrons. The model itself was mere fantasy, but in his play he had unthinkingly placed the sun, rather than the earth, at the center. Although Kepler’s scientific skills were far inferior to Brahe’s, he quickly solved the problem (Koestler 1967).

Similarly, Einstein began the theory of relativity with a joke concerning persons passing each other on trains, trying to determine their speed relative to each other. He realized intuitively that this situation challenged the ruling trope that time and motion were absolute. Although he had a doctorate in physics, Einstein knew little mathematics. He had to get help to put his anti-trope into mathematical form.

Quine’s formulation captures the primitive, intuitive element necessary before scientific methods can be applied. Scientific method, no matter how scrupulously applied, is helpless in the face of ambiguous or empty tropes. Since social science often is based on  tropes, rather than precise definitions, we have a long way to go.

Alienation as Metaphor

This discussion will begin with a brief commentary on three commonly used ideas in social science: alienation, irrationality, and context. I have been unable to find a viable conceptual definition of any of these three words.

Although there are many standardized alienation scales, there have been few attempts to decide what they are supposed to be measuring.  There are also many theories involving alienation, but none provide conceptual and operational definitions. Until definitions are agreed upon, we won’t know what these theories mean, or how to test them.

In his review of the uses of the idea of alienation, Schacht (1970) has shown that the more this idea has been used, the more ambiguous it has become. Starting with Hegel and Marx, he shows that each subsequent author has used the term in a different way. Schacht concludes with twelve issues that need to be resolved before a clear meaning of alienation can be defined. So far as I know, none of these problems has since been addressed by later authors, much less resolved.

Several years later, Seeman (1975) came to a similar conclusion from his review of alienation studies based on standardized scales. His analysis revealed six different meanings[2].

1.   Powerlessness

2.      Meaninglessness

3.      Normlessness

4.      Cultural estrangement

5.      Self-estrangement

6.      Social isolation: exclusion or rejection.

Each of these categories, in turn, is somewhat ambiguous. Powerlessness, for example, can mean a relational element, lack of actual power relative to other people, or a dispositional element, the feeling of powerlessness, whether grounded in comparison to others or not. Five of the six dimensions can refer either to relational or dispositional elements, but #5, self-estrangement, is solely intrapersonal. Similarly, five of the six dimensions can refer to both emotional and cognitive elements, but #2, meaninglessness, can refer only to cognition.

Furthermore, two of the six meanings implicate the emotion of shame. The exclusion or rejection of social isolation is a correlate of shame, as is the feeling of inadequacy that may accompany powerlessness. Seeman’s study suggests many dispositional/relational and cognitive/emotional confounds.

Although this study was published almost thirty years ago, no progress seems to have been made toward defining alienation, or creating specialized scales that measure only one dimension. Nor did his study slow the creation of new, general alienation scales, or studies using standardized scales. As far as I have been able to determine, his study has had zero impact.

Irrationality and Context

Many key concepts in social science are ambiguous in a somewhat different way. Alienation, and as will be discussed below, self-concept, confound a relatively small number of independent dimensions. But irrationality and context are mere residual categories, empty boxes. Psychiatry has long sought to define specific types of irrationality, and irrationality in general. But an inspection of current diagnostic categories shows gross confounding of behavior, thoughts, feelings, and dispositions. Diagnostic categories, for the most part, are based on lay and professional folklore, rather than clearly defined concepts and/or empirical studies.

The idea of context provides another example. Like irrationality, this idea seems to be another residual category. In the humanities, at least, it is portrayed as infinite: “Everything is the context for everything else.” Most usage seems to make this assumption.

In an unpublished paper, I have argued (2004) that the otherwise puzzling book by Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (1974), can be read as an attempt to unpack and define the structure of context. Goffman implied that context is a recursive assembly of premises, of frames within frames. Although this idea is so complex that it may require mathematical notation to express it, it is not infinite. Unlike most qualitative researchers, Goffman doesn’t merely criticize acontextual studies, but also attempts to provide a definition that would clear the way for systematic research.

The idea of self-esteem, both in its vernacular and research usage, seems also to confound cognitive, emotional, dispositional, and relational dimensions. With David Fearon (2003), I have suggested that a conceptual definition of self-esteem is needed. We focused on the cognitive/emotional confound, but is also clear from our analysis of subjects’ discourse about self-esteem scale items that there is also a relational/dispositional confound.

Concepts such as alienation, love and self-esteem involve several potentially orthogonal meanings, such as the individual, relational, cognitive, and emotional dimensions already mentioned. According to current understanding, scales are valid only if they measure a single dimension[3]. To the extent that scales confound independent dimensions, to that extent they are not valid.

As already indicated, other key concepts, such as irrationality and context, are residual categories, conceptually empty boxes, because they encompass the enormously wide variety of different kinds of things that remain after their polar opposite has been explored in detail. By comparison, concepts such as alienation, love and self-esteem are much more orderly, since they seem to involve only several dimensions. Assumptions of simplicity hide both kinds of enigmas.

The Emotional/Relational World in Modern Societies

Western societies have conquered in the material and intellectual worlds, and even in outer space. But inner space remains a profound mystery and a secret. Just as much as the material world and free intelligence were mysteries for traditional societies.


In small traditional societies, such as the Maori in New Zealand, the emotional/relational world (the E/RW) was at least as important as any other (Metge 1986). Indeed, there were only a few competing worlds. But in modern societies, there are so many duties, opportunities and distractions that the E/R W is increasingly dim in Western imagination.


Modern societies focus almost exclusively on individuals and thought, traditional societies on relationships and feelings. In the Japanese language, the extent to which it focuses on relationships is suggested by the infrequent use of personal pronouns and names. Even in the family, relationship terms are used: older sister, younger brother. In traditional societies, relationships stand out, individuals are virtually invisible.


The psychological status quo in traditional societies emphasizes relationships/feelings to the point that individuals and intellect lead a shadow life. Modern societies focus on individuals and thought to the point that relationships and emotions hardly exist. Traditional societies subordinate individuals to relationships, and thought to feeling. Modern societies subordinate relationships to individuals, and emotions to thinking.


Both types of societies tend toward profound alienation. In Western societies, individuals are alienated from each other. Mobility and the quest for achievement make it difficult to connect with others. In traditional societies, individuals are alienated from self. Loyalty, conformity, and subordination of intellect to feeling lead individuals to give up vital parts of self, even creative innovation. The status quo in both types of societies is so taken for granted as to be invisible to its members, but they nevertheless maintain it in everyday practices.


The hiding of the ER/W in Western societies begins with the avoidance and disguise of feelings. There seem to be three main lines of defense against emotions:


  1. Ignoring them. Most discussions in lay language, and in the social and psychological sciences as well, don’t mention emotions. Objects, behavior, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, images, and perception are discussed, but not emotions. This is by far the most prevalent defense. Until recently the social sciences had no sections devoted specifically to the study of emotions. Even after such sections had been established, they remain small enclaves lost in the almost continual denial of emotions.
  2. When emotions are mentioned, as they are beginning to be, the references are usually at so abstract and general a level as to amount to dismissal. The word emotion and terms like feeling, emotional arousal or upset, refer to such a variety of states as to be mere residual categories. Just as the idea of “the rational man” in legal discourse leads to a dismissal of the vast domain of irrationality, so the use of residual category emotion terms dismisses the realm of emotions.
  3. The final line of defense is that even words that seemingly refer to specific emotions are wildly ambiguous and/or mask one emotion with another. The discussion below outlines some of these usages, with specific reference to grief/sadness fear/anxiety, anger, pride, shame, embarrassment, and love.


Understanding the realm of emotions in the West is beset by an elemental difficulty: the meaning of words that refer to emotion are so ambiguous that we hardly know what we are talking about. Virginia Woolf said it succinctly: “The streets of London have their map; but our passions are uncharted” (Jacob’s Room). Compared to maps of the material world, and the social science of behavior, thoughts, attitudes, perception, and beliefs, the realm of emotions is terra incognita.


Both lay and experts disagree on almost everything about emotions. For example, several studies have pointed out the lack of agreement on which emotions are basic. Ortony et al (1988, p.27) show no agreement on this issue among twelve investigators, some leading experts in the field. Even the number of such emotions, much less the specific emotions, is in contention; the fewest proposed is two, the most, eleven. There is not a single emotion word that shows up on all 12 lists. (Plutchick 2003 also shows wide ranging disagreement: see the table of 16 theorists on p. 73).


This disagreement involves emotion words in only one language, English. The comparison of emotion words in different languages opens up a second level of chaos. Anthropological and linguistic studies suggest that just as the experts disagree on the number and names of the basic emotions, so do languages. Cultural differences in emotion words will be mentioned here, but it is so large an issue that it will also be taken up in another paper.


The supply of emotion words in the West, particularly in English, is relatively small. Although English has by far the largest total number of words (some 600,000 and still expanding), its emotion lexicon is smaller than other languages, even small languages like Maori. In addition to having a larger emotion lexicon than English, its emotion words are relatively unambiguous and detailed compared to English (Metge 1986).


Emotion Words


As indicated above, in Western societies, emotions are seldom even mentioned. Or if mentioned, only abstractly, avoiding specifics. The last stage of defense is that even when specific emotions are mentioned, usage of these words helps to confirm the emotional/relational status quo. Some examples.


Grief: In this case, ambiguity might seem to amount only to the choice of words. Most authors use the term grief to refer to the emotion of loss. But there is a very large literature on attachment in which the authors use the term distress instead. Since distress sis much  broader than grief, and implies consciousness and behavior more  than grief, the choice of the word distress can have serious consequences.


For reasons that he doesn’t make clear, Silvan Tomkins (1962) seems to have started the use of the word distress. In the first three volumes of Affect/Imagery/Consciousness (1962; 1963; 1965; 1992) the word distress is used frequently, with the word grief occurring only on page 6. However, In V. 4, there is a sharp change, distress disappears, its place apparently taken by grief on many pages.


In the first three volumes it is fairly clear what he means, because he connects distress to loss and crying. In IV, he makes this connection using only the word grief. What happened? As far as I know, there has been no published response to this dramatic change in nomenclature.


The original studies of  facial expression of emotion followed Tompkins first  usage: neither Ekman and his colleagues nor Izard refer to grief. However, later works, such as Harre’ and Parrott, refer only to grief, never to distress. Plutchik (2003) also refers only to grief. Others use the word sadness, rather than distress or grief.


I have found only one explicit discussion of the relationship between distress and grief, in Izard (1977). What he proposed, that grief is an affect of which distress is only one ingredient, seems to me the exact opposite of the majority understanding: grief is a primary affect.


Sill another direction is followed by V. Volkan, in his terrific book n collective conflict, Blind Trust(2004). He elides around both grief and distress, by referring only to failure to mourn. It would seem that anarchy rules in the naming of the emotion associated with loss and crying.


At a mass level, there is widespread misunderstanding in Western societies about the nature of grief. Even in societies that maintain collective rituals of mourning, grieving the loss of a close attachment is apt to be lengthy and consuming. But in Western societies the person in mourning is usually given little time. After a few weeks, expressions of grief are not encouraged, if not actively condemned: get a grip, take a pill, see a shrink. In modern societies it is difficult to tolerate the necessarily long siege of grief and mourning. The Western conception of grief and crying as a brief response to loss seems unwarranted and unwise.


Disgust: This emotion name provides another example of what seems at first to be merely a matter of choice of terms. The majority of writers use it, but many others use the word repugnance instead, or even the still softer term, aversion. As was the case with the word sadness, there may be a slight difference: the latter two words may imply more consciousness than the word disgust.


Pride: In this case, ambiguities are more flagrant. This word has two distinct and confusing meanings in current usage in English, one positive, the other negative. The dominant one is negative, as in the Biblical “Pride goeth before the fall.” This usage confounds the positive meaning, authentic or justified pride, with arrogance, egotism or self-centeredness. Negative “pride” may even be the opposite of genuine pride, since it may be a defense against shame. This basic contradiction creates problems of many kinds. One will be discussed below: the meaning of self-esteem.


Fear/anxiety. Before Freud, fear meant the emotional signal of physical danger to life or limb, and anxiety was just a more diffuse kind of fear. But after Freud, the meaning of these words began to shift. Anxiety became broader, enough to include many kinds of diffuse emotion, but not as broad as “emotional arousal.”  Current vernacular usage is so enlarged that fear can be used to mask other emotions, especially shame and humiliation. “I fear rejection” has nothing to do with danger of bodily harm, nor does “social fear” or “social anxiety.” These terms refer rather to the anticipation of shame or humiliation. (When I explain this nicety to my students, their eyes glaze over.)  Anxiety may be moving toward becoming an abstract, pliable word like emotion or arousal.


Anger: the confusion over the meaning of this word seems to be different than any of the above problems. It involves confounding the feeling of anger with acting out anger. We don’t confuse the feeling of fear with running away, the feeling of shame with hiding one’s face, or the feeling of grief with crying. But anger is thought to be destructive, even though it is only a feeling.


The feeling of anger is only an internal signal, like any other emotion. It is one of the many pain signals that alert us to the state of the world inside and around us. In itself, if not acted out, it is instructive, not destructive. The condemnation of emotions as negative in Western societies is another aspect of the chaos of emotion words. Normal emotions, at least, are not negative, since they are brief and instructive.


When anger is expressed as a verbal explanation, rather than acted out as screaming or aggression, it is constructive. It explains to self and other where one is, how one is frustrated, and why. Both self and other need to know this information. The confounding of anger expression with acting out can be a seen as a way of justifying acting out, rather than expressing anger, and the prevalence of acting out, as in spousal abuse and road rage. “I couldn’t help myself.”


Shame: In contrast to the pliability of the word love, as discussed below, current usage of shame in English involves only one meaning, and an extremely narrow one at that: a crisis feeling of intense disgrace. In this usage, a clear distinction is made between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment can happen to anyone, but shame is conceived as horrible. Embarrassment is speakable, shame is unspeakable. This usage avoids everyday shame such as embarrassment and modesty, and in this way sweeps most shame episodes under the rug.


Other languages, even those of modern societies, treat embarrassment as a milder version of shame. In Spanish, for example, the same word (verguenza) can be used to mean either. Most languages also have an everyday shame that is considered to belong to the shame/embarrassment family. For example, the French pudeur, which can be translated as modesty, or better yet, a sense of shame, is differentiated from honte, disgrace shame. If you ask an English speaker is shame distinct from embarrassment, they will answer with an impassioned yes. But a French speaker might ask “Which kind of shame?”


One European language seems to be moving toward the English language model of denying everyday shame. In contemporary German, since the word for disgrace shame (schande) is seen as old fashioned, the word for everyday shame (scham) is being used in its place. This usage is probably making shame less speakable, as in the English language model. A similar phenomenom may be happening with pride. The negative version (hochmut) is now seen as old fashioned, so that the positive version (stolz) is confounding a positive feeling with a negative one.


Love: in current usage, love is so broad as to include almost any kind of positive feeling, including extremely dysfunctional ones. The title of the best selling Women Who Love Too Much illustrates this usage. Women who are so pathologically passive and dependent as to allow their husbands to abuse them and/or their children explain that they don’t leave because they love their husbands too much. Love, a positive word, is used to deny a highly negative relationship.


Current usage also confounds genuine love, which surely means loving someone that we know, warts and all, with infatuation, which deletes warts and any other blemishes in favor of an idealized fantasy. Infatuation is often based on appearance alone. In this way, the word love may be used to hide a failure to connect.


The Emotional/Relational Status Quo


All of these confusions and limitations help maintain the status quo in the ER/W: individualism and the subordination of feeling to thought, and outright denial and suppression of emotion. The broad use of the word love, and the narrow meaning of the word shame may be central to this end.


Referring to all kinds of slightly positive or even negative relationships with the positive word love helps disguise the miasma of alienation and disconnection in modern societies. Similarly, defining shame narrowly, as only disgrace shame, helps mask disconnection. Since this latter idea is not obvious, it will be necessary to discuss it further.


Suppose that just as fear signals danger of bodily harm, and grief signals loss, shame signals disconnection. In modern societies, since connecting with others is infrequent, we can hide that fact. Instead of saying that we were embarrassed, we say “It was an awkward moment for me.” It was the moment that was awkward (projection), not me that was embarrassed (denial).


In English especially, there is a vast supply of words that can be used as alternatives to the s-word (Retzinger 1995). She lists more than a hundred vernacular codewords that may stand for shame, under six headings:


Alienated:  rejected, dumped, deserted, etc.

Confused:  blank, empty, hollow, etc.

Ridiculous:  foolish, silly, funny, etc.

Inadequate: powerless, weak, insecure, etc.

Uncomfortable: restless, tense, anxious, etc.

Hurt: offended, upset, wounded, etc.


The broadening use of fear and anxiety seems to be another way of disguising shame. To say that one fears rejection, or to use a term like social anxiety, is to mask the common occurrence of shame and embarrassment.


We can also disguise the shameful pain of rejection by masking it with anger or withdrawal and silence. Similarly, the negative version of pride can be used to mask a defense against shame as too much pride. Studies of stigma and of indignities, even though these words signify shame, seldom take note of the underlying emotion, concentrating instead on thoughts and behavior.


Apologies suggest another instance of the masking of shame with another emotion. The ritual formula for an apology in the English language is to say that you are sorry. But the word sorry (grief) serves to mask the more crucial emotion of shame. ”I’m ashamed of what I did” is a more potent apology than the conventional “I’m sorry.” (Miller 1996).


The process of industrialization and urbanization has been influencing spoken English longer than any other language, since it began first in England. I propose that modernization has led to the downplaying of emotions and relationships in spoken English to a greater degree than in any other language, in favor of emphasis on thought and individualism. As this process continues, the emotional/relational world seems to be vanishing from awareness in English speaking countries, and to a somewhat lesser degree, in other Western societies.


The banishment of emotions from discourse and thought in modern societies both reflects and generates alienation. One way of countering this trend would be to acknowledge and define emotions, rather than denying them. Rediscovery of the lost world of emotions and relationships might be a path toward a new understanding of the enigmas of human conduct and experience.

On the Complexity of Social Relationships

The present paper has, like Goffman’s work, a deconstructive/reconstructive goal with respect to love and to self-esteem, to define them conceptually as a first step. Both are vernacular words whose meanings are ambiguous. They appear to confound, at the least, cognitive and emotional elements, on the one hand, and dispositional and relational elements, on the other. This investigation will begin with the latter confound, leading to an analysis of the meaning of love and other secure bonds.

The issue of the structure of social bonds has come up in the literature of experimental social psychology. Leary and Baumeister’s (2000) widely read analysis of what they call “the sociometer” implies that some self-esteem scale items measure social relationships rather than dispositions. In order to even begin the search for a solution of the problem of confounding dispositional and relational dimensions, a brief discussion of types of social relationships will be necessary.

Like other languages, English has a large vocabulary for formal relationships: father, wife, nephew, cousin, stepson, mother-in-law, etc. However, English is impoverished in comparison with other languages when it comes to discussing the quality of a relationship. As it evolved from the oldest urban/industrial society, England, emphasizing mobility rather than place and relationships, English increasingly focused on attributes of individuals, and gradually dropped most of the attributes of relationships.

For this reason it is difficult in English to even imagine relational dimensions, because most of the attributes we might use are themselves extremely ambiguous. For example, what does a “loving” relationship mean, when the word love in English is wildly ambiguous? There are more than twenty separate definitions in unabridged dictionaries, almost all of which refer to types of relationships.

The word love is English is a blank check. In order to give an idea of the complexity of vernacular words, I will pursue the meaning of love at length. I have tried to deal with this problem by defining love much more narrowly and stringently than the vernacular, but more broadly than the main schools of thought about love. Although there is a vast scholarly literature, most of the entries can be placed in one or the other of three approaches

The Meaning of Love

There are three main schools of thought in current scholarship. Two of them define love in physical terms: attachment, on the one hand, and sexual attraction, on the other. There is a large body of literature on attachment, a mammalian drive shared by humans and social animals. Some commentary, such as a recent study of “limbic resonance” (Lewis et al 2000) defines love as entirely defined by physical attachment. Undoubtedly, physical attachment is an important component of any relationship: do we miss the person when away, and grieve when they are lost? But it is not the whole story.

There is also a very large literature on the sex drive. Some commentary sees love, or at least romantic love, based entirely on sexual attraction (Fisher 1992). Fisher and many others picture attraction as by far the most important component of romantic love. Of course, sexual attraction, especially in the early stages of romance, is a crucial component of romantic love. But once again, there is more to be uncovered.

A third literature considers love to be a cognitive/emotional matter. The most sophisticated version of the third perspective is by the philosopher Robert Solomon. He defines the central feature of love to be shared identity (Solomon 1981,; 1994, p.235): “ …love [is] shared identity, a redefinition of self which no amount of sex or fun or time together will add up to….Two people in a society with an extraordinary sense of individual identity mutually fantasize, verbalize and act their way into a relationship that can no longer be understood as a mere conjunction of the two but only as a complex ONE. “

The key idea implied in Solomon’s definition is not only shared identity but also shared awareness: love is not merely attachment and/or attraction, but involves knowing the other person well enough to know some of what they know. Because Western societies impose an intense belief in self-contained individuals, the idea of shared identity and awareness is a hard sell, but yet necessary to understand the complexity of love relationships.

One immediate implication is to rule out most infatuation (“love at first sight”) as genuine love. To love someone, you need to know them well enough to accurately imagine, at least on occasion, their thoughts and feelings. And to realize that just as you know that they know, they also know that you know, etc.

As Solomon also indicates, in passing, you can be too invested in the identity of another person to love them. If you lose yourself in the other, then you are engulfed or obsessed with the other, not in love. Genuine love requires a balance between investment in one’s own identity and that of the other, no more, but no less. Genuine love implies both unity, at times, and individual autonomy at other times. This is a complex idea that has still not been adequately worked out.

This idea is caught in a poem by Marge Piercy, To Have Without Holding:

Learning to love differently is hard,
 It hurts to thwart the reflexes
of grab, of clutch; to love and let
go again and again, as we make and unmake in passionate
diastole and systole the rhythm
of our unbound bonding, to have
and not to hold…

Most of the writing in each of the three main schools of thought on love has little to say about any the other two schools. Although the attachment and attraction literatures, since they both are entirely physical, contain mentions of each other, neither refers to the cognitive/emotional school, and vice versa. Each school oversimplifies the meaning of a complex idea by referring to what I consider to be only one component of love.

My own definition of romantic love requires all three components (Scheff 2004). Family and other kinds of love is constituted by two of the three, attachment and attunement (shared identity and awareness). Romantic loveincludes all three “A’s”: attachment, attraction, and attunement

If one considers the levels of identification/awareness with the other, and attachment, this table represents the different types of non-erotic “love”:

Table 1: LOVE and its Look-alikes (Non-erotic “Love”)

Attunement (shared identity and awareness)

Self-focus                              Balance                                  Other-focus


1. Isolated obsesson

 2. LOVE





4. Isolated interest

5. Affection


With sexual attraction added, a similar table would represent romantic love and it’s look-alikes. In each of the six-fold tables, only one cell represents genuine love: #2 above and in a similar place in the romance table, #8. Genuine love in both cases requires attachment and a balanced identification between self and other. This definition eliminates ten of the 12 types of relationships as “look-alikes” rather than genuine love.

My definition complicates and limits the meaning of love in a way that vernacular usage does not, but may be necessary if we are to study it systematically.

Self-esteem as Trope

Reviews of the vast corpus of studies based on self-esteem scales suggest that these measures are not valid. At this point, there are probably over fifteen thousand such studies, using one or another of the two hundred standardized scales that are available. These scales have been shown to be reliable; that is, they repeatedly get similar results. But it is not clear what these scales measure, and therefore what the results signify.

For this vast amount of labor, what have been the results? According to reviews of the field, they have been trivially small. The average effect size for predicting behavior over the last forty years has been under 3% of the variance, and doesn’t seem to be increasing. With 97 per cent of the variance unaccounted for, the field is treading water. If the instruments are not valid, then reliability means merely repeating error.

What is the problem? One possibility already mentioned is that the scales confound cognitive and emotional, and dispositional and relational elements. With respect to cognition and emotion, they repeat an ambiguity in the meaning of the English word self-esteem, casting doubt on the validity of the scales.

According to dictionaries, self-esteem has both cognitive and affective components.

               1.Pride in one’s self; self-respect. (American Heritage Dictionary. 2000)

        2.Holding a good opinion of one's self; self-complacency. (Webster's Revised   Unabridged dictionary.1998)

        3.A feeling of pride in yourself [syn: self-pride] 2: the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect [syn: dignity, self-respect, self-regard] (Princeton University Wordline. 1997)

Two of the three definitions (1 and 3) offer a definition in terms of an emotion, pride. Definitions # 1 and 3 also suggest other synonyms that, if not emotions, are at least mixtures of feelings and thoughts: respect, regard and esteem. These two definitions stress the affective components of self-esteem. If we assume that shame is the emotion opposite to pride, then two of the three definitions suggest that high self-esteem involves pride proneness, and low self-esteem, shame proneness. In addition, the scales seem to also confound the actual receiving of respect and deference from others, a relational dimension, with a dispositional one, independent of relationships with others.

The implication that the vernacular meaning of self-esteem has a pride/shame component is supported by an empirical study of the relationship between self-esteem scores and affect. Using two self-esteem scales and a scale measuring positive and negative affect, Brown and Marshall (2001) found that pride and shame were the two emotions having the highest correlations with self-esteem scores.

But definition # 2 of self-esteem, above, points to another component: it mentions no emotions or feelings. Instead, it defines self-esteem cognitively, “holding a good opinion” of self. Note that a second term, self-complacency, implies a negative inflection, as will be discussed below. Self-esteem scales appear to emphasize this second, cognitive meaning. They focus on that part of self-concept, self-evaluation, which is verbally described and cognitive, rather than affective and social. With a standardized paper and pencil test, it might be difficult, but not impossible, to get at the affective component directly, especially if it is hidden.

I have been unable to find a single conceptual definition of self-esteem. But the confound between self-evaluation and self-feeling discussed here has come up indirectly. Baumeister et al (1996; 1998) have suggested that a too high self-esteem, which they equate with egotism, can lead to aggression when egotism is threatened. But if self-feeling is defined as constituting high self-esteem, genuine pride, the Baumeister et al paradox wouldn’t arise.

Their discussion ignores the distinctions between genuine pride and false pride (egotism), and between conscious shame and shame that is outside awareness. Self-esteem can be defined conceptually as a ratio based on proneness to genuine pride as against proneness to shame/embarrassment, everyday emotions that are prevalent in virtually all kinds of encounters and many states of consciousness (Scheff 2003). Since positive self-evaluation may be based on egotism and false pride, scales confound egotism, high cognitive self-evaluation, with high-self esteem (genuine pride).

This problem can be represented in a simple table.


                                                                               Self Feeling

 High                                      Low

Self Evaluation


   High Self-Esteem




Low Self-Esteem


Existing scales, since they use vernacular words and don’t distinguish between cognitive and emotional components, confound self-effacing attitudes and low self-esteem, and egotism and high self-esteem. This possibility has not been much considered in the vast literature on self-esteem, probably because everyday pride and shame are hidden by the vernacular meanings of the words pride and shame in English[4].

As indicated earlier, the word pride in English is also ambiguous. Unless one precedes the word with “justified, authentic or genuine,” there is an inflection of arrogance or hubris, “ the pride that goeth before the fall.” This type would better be called false pride, since it implies hiding shame behind boldness.   A new conceptual definition of self-esteem as an emotion construct, rather than one that mixes cognitive and emotional elements might help to resolve this embarrassing problem.

The Rasch (1980) probabilistic model sets very stringent conditions for establishing standardized scales. The condition that is particularly relevant is the requirement of uni-dimensionality. He offers a number of approaches to test for the existence of two or more dimensions in scale materials. Since 1980, when Rasch published his extended volume on this problem, a small literature has developed. As of this writing, there is one book length treatment of the model (Bond and Fox 2001), and 366 references in PsychInfo with Rasch in their title.

But out of the 6, 336 references with self-esteem in their title, only two titles include the word Rasch. One (Beres 1981) was a dissertation on self-esteem; there is no reference in PsychInfo to a subsequent publication. The other (McRae 1991) appears to be an application of the Rasch technique in the use of a single self-esteem scale. This application made a significant difference in the outcome of the study.

There are over two thousand references on PsychInfo and Sociological Abstracts with alienation in their titles, but none of them have Rasch in their title. It would appear that attempting uni-dimensionality in scales is an area that needs much more development.

The Seeman (1975) analysis of alienation studies suggests the need for Rasch models of the six dimensions he found. Allowing for emotional/cognitive and dispositional /relational components for four or five of these dimensions could give rise to a large number of uni-dimensional scales.

Similarly, for self-esteem, the Leary and Baumeister study (2000) suggests the need for Rasch models of the relational and the dispositional dimensions. The Brown/Marshall analysis (2001) and the study by Scheff and Fearon (2004) suggest the need for Rasch models of the emotional and the cognitive dimensions. These latter studies might provide a way out of the dilemma reported by Baumeister and his colleagues (1996; 1998). Presumably only the cognitive scale, in which high self-evaluation amounts to egotism, would be correlated with aggression. The pride/shame scale would not. The development of a scale that measures the emotional dimension might require, at least at first, a qualitative approach, similar to the one used in the Scheff and Fearon study (2004).

The confounding of independent variables suggests an answer to the riddle of the low correlation between self-esteem measures and external variables. To use self-esteem for an example, high values on a cognitive dimension, self-evaluation, would hide low values on the emotional dimension. Since egotism is often a cover for low self-feeling, it would seem fair to guess that the mixing of these two elements would lead to low correlations with real world behavior.

Several problems that plague the systematic study of self-esteem have been mentioned. 1. Existing scales surely confound at least four dimensions: dispositions, social relationships, cognition and emotion. 2. It has been found that results with existing scales show a correlation between high self-esteem and aggression. 3. Studies using self-esteem scales report, on average, a trivially small correlation between self-esteem and real world behavior.

This paper has suggested that a step toward solving the first two problems, and hopefully, the third also, would be to define self-esteem as a purely emotional construct, the ratio between proneness toward genuine pride in the numerator, and proneness to shame, whether conscious or not, in the denominator. This definition could mark the first step for salvaging the concept of self-esteem from the doldrums that have befallen it.

Conclusion: This essay has pointed out the ambiguity of several key ideas in social science, and proposed conceptual definitions two of them, love and self-esteem. It also points to a general issue: the need for a basic reform in the social sciences. Many foundational ideas, such as context, alienation, irrationality, love and self-esteem have not yet been defined in a way more precisely than vernacular usage. Perhaps the next step needed most in social science is to begin the task of deciding which concepts are most crucial, and attempting to define them clearly.


Baumeister, Roy, Laura Smart, and Joseph Boden. 1996. Relation of Threatened Egoism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem. Psychological Review. 103: 5-33.

Baumeister, Roy and Joseph Boden. 1998. Aggression and the Self: High Self-Esteem, Low Self-Control, and Ego Threat. Pp. 111-138 in Geen, R. and E. Donnerstein (Editors), Human Aggression. San Diego: Academic Press.

Beres, Richard J. 1881, An application of the Rasch model to a measure of self-esteem. Dissertation Abstracts International. Vol 41(11-A), 4685

Bond, Trevor and Christine Fox. 2001. Applying the Rasch Model. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Brown, Jonathon, and Margaret Marshall. 2001. Self-Esteem and Emotion: Some Thoughts about Feelings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 27, #5: 575-584.

Fisher, Helen E. 1992. Anatomy of Love : the natural history of monogamy, adultery, and divorce. New York: Norton,

  Gergen, Kenneth. 1996. Postmodern Culture and the Revisioning of Alienation. In Geyer, Felix (Editor).  Alienation, Ethnicity, and Postmodernism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.

  Heinz, Walter. 1992. The methodology of alienation research. In Felix Geyer and Wlater Heinz (Editors), Alienation, Society, and the Individual. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Izard, Carroll. 1977. Human Emotions. New York: Plenum

Leary, Mark and Roy Baumeister. 2000. The Nature and Function of Self-Esteem: Sociometer Theory. Pp. 1-62 in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Mark Zanna, (Editor). V. 32. San Diego: Academic Press.

Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. 2000.  A General Theory of Love,. New York : Random House

McRae, James. 1991.  Rasch measurement and differences between women and men in self-esteem. Social Science Research. 20(4), 421-436.

Metge, Joan. 1986. In and Out of Touch. Wellington, NZ: Victoria University Press.

Miller, William. 1993. Humiliation. Ithaca: Cornell U. Press.

Ortony, Andrew, Gerald Clore, and Allan Collins. 1988. The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Piercy, Marge. 1986. The Moon is Always Female.

Plutchick, Robert. 2003. Emotions and Life. Washington, D.C.:  American Psychological Association.

Quine, William. 1979. A Postscript on Metaphor. In S. Sacks (Editor), On Metaphor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

   Rasch, Georg. 1980. Some Probabilistic  Models for Intelligence and Attainment Tests. 2nd Edition. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.

Retzinger, Suzanne. 1991. Violent Emotions. Ne[5]wbury Park: Sage.

        1995. Identifying Shame and Anger in Discourse. American Behavioral Scientist 38: 541-559)

Schacht, Richard. 1970. Alienation. New York: Anchor.

Scheff, Thomas. 2003. Shame in Self and Society          Symbolic Interaction 26: #2, 39-262.

_____________The Structure of Context: Deciphering Frame Analysis. Unpublished ms.

_____________2004. Conceptions of Love, Chapter 4 in On Human Bonds. (unpublished ms.)

Scheff, Thomas, Suzanne Retzinger & M. Ryan. 1989. Self‑Esteem, Crime, and Violence. In Neil Smelser (Editor), The Social Importance of Self‑Esteem, Berkeley: U.C. Press

                Scheff, Thomas and David Fearon, Jr. 2004. Social and Emotional Components in Self-Esteem. Journal of the Theory of Social Behavior. 34: 73-90

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

_____________1992. About Love: Re-inventing Romance for our Times. Lanham, Md.: Littlefield Adams.

Tomkins, Silvan. 1962; 1963; 1965; 1992. Affect/Imagery/Consciousness. New York: Springer.


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[1] This paper has benefited from comments on an earlier draft by Bernard Phillips, and more generally, by his encouragement.

[2] Heinz (1992) also criticizes alienation studies for confounding individual and relational elements, but doesn’t note the emotion/cognition confound. Nor does Gergen (1996) who has proposed giving more emphasis to the relational aspect of alienation, in line with his more general interest in bringing relational elements into individual psychology.

[3] Rasch 1980; Bond and Fox. 2001.

[4] With Retzinger, Ryan and I raised this issue in a chapter of a widely read volume (1989). As far as I can tell, there has been no published response.