What is Human Society? It is a Feeling Society: A Response to Gane and Scott.

by Benet Davetian
The University of Prince Edward Island, Canada

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 4,

Received: 13 Oct 2005     Accepted: 30 Oct 2005    Published: 31 Dec 2005


1.1 I was at once heartened and dismayed by Nicholas Gane's (2005) and John Scott's (2005) responses to my recent article in Sociological Research Online, Towards an Emotionally Conscious Social Theory (2005). I was pleased that we are continuing to discuss, in very hopeful terms, a viable future for social theory, yet a little surprised that neither writer addressed the empirical evidence presented in my article: the issue of emotional pain and its social consequences. Considerable portions of my article were cited in the discussion, save for the parts that presented the evidence and its implications. In this response, I would like to bring attention back to these other central points of my article which I feel were neglected by Gane and Scott.

1.2 Both writers took me to task regarding the amount of credit that I had given or not given to social theorists of our past. This was to be expected in some measure since I rather mercilessly took our founders (Comte, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Mead, etc...) to task for minimizing the role of emotions in their explanations of social organization, and, particularly, the very important roles played by emotional pain and anger in social outcomes. No heresy was intended. The fact that I critiqued their relative exclusion of emotions did not in any way mean that their other contributions amount to naught. I certainly did not wish to disagree with John Scott's call for a hopeful sociology that remains a coherent discipline. Nor did I wish to imply, as protested by Scott during a response predominantly addressed to John Urry (2005: 1.1), that Scott favoured closing the boundaries. Rather, I stated,

John Scott's Reflections on Disciplinary Fragmentation (2005) is a sobering reminder of the dangers as well as opportunities facing a social science that, although no longer governed by a strict and bounded canon, is in need of coherence and a curriculum capable of turning out graduates who possess a well-rounded 'sociological imagination.'….What needs to be discussed, however, is what is to be this 'sociological' frame of mind and how are we to fulfill the original promises of sociology within a contemporary context (2005: 2.1).
I agree with Scott that the discipline can retain its coherence while letting in new information. That was the point of my article. I do take exception, however, to certain parts of his article in which he implies that new sociologists remain unaware of some of the history of their discipline. The fact that Hobhouse preceded Turner in his studies of emotions by 100 years (5.4) does not change the state of sociology today, nor does it adequately respond to the evidence I have presented. Those of us who are relatively new on the scene may remain ignorant of the odd theorist who has produced work that might diminish our complaints; yet, for the most part, those of us who spent our post-graduate studies in the company of well-informed theorists did do our homework quite extensively. I could, for example, have mentioned George Homans favorably in my article but chose not to; I could have mentioned Talcott Parson's deeply psychological works but chose not to, because sociology has virtually not paid considerable heed to these individuals. It was my goal to demonstrate that, for the most part, social theory has by-passed the subject of human emotions and human embodiment. If Freud and Lacan are all we can offer up in response to the need for a sociology that is informed of the emotional make-up of its subjects, then we are far from achieving a fully functional social theory. Certainly, the evidence I offered went far beyond both Freud and Lacan. While Freud considered repression a necessary evil for social organization, the evidence I presented seemed to indicate that repression causes social disorganization and is, in the final analysis, one of the costliest agents in social organization. I presented the work of Arthur Janov in order to show that individuals who had stopped repressing their emotions and felt them in safety and in connection to their original causes had come to fare quite well, unlike the homo duplex of whom we are habituated of speaking (Davetian, 2005: 4.2-5.8).

1.3 So, regardless of how much effort the classical sociologists made to understand human nature, their main interest was the rationalization of the new industrial order (and dis-order). Intersubjectivity was studied as a social phenomenon rather than a conduit that allowed the symbolization of emotions, pain and anger included. Comte had two alternatives: to give in to despair or produce a stage-theory of change capable of promising a hopeful future for France despite the ravages of the Revolution and a destabilizing new industrial urban order. Similar to Spencer in England, he had to make sense of the new world without reverting to metaphysics. Similarly, Durkheim had to explain how order could be preserved in an increasingly secular and individualistic society. He had his hands full teaching his contemporaries the rules of social inquiry while speculating on a moral educational system capable of replacing the former authority of organized religion, and, particularly, the Catholic Church in France. As for Weber, he did meditate on the meanings that arise out of historical movements and contributed to our understanding of the role of 'interpretation' and 'motive' in historical and cultural change, but his meditations on alienation did not include an extensive section on emotions and their role in social development. He was too distracted by his studies in 'rationalization.' At least this is my take after reading thousands of pages of his work. For example, a more in-depth study of the emotional repression required for Protestant asceticism to be even feasible would have left sociology a richer science. We might have learned the historical background of modern repression within a capitalistic system and how such repression is accomplished at the micro level. Certainly, we witnessed the long-range results of such repression during the 1960's when an entire generation rebelled against standing norms of 'emotional propriety' and ridiculed the 'uptight' Protestant ethic. Even Marx, a hero of the counter-culture who did take emotions into consideration, viewed the personal as an outcome of economic and political organization. He missed the connection between untrammeled greed and unfulfilled need. While he astutely realized that class consciousness had an alienating influence on all classes, he failed to realize the historical and long-standing effects of the denial of the human need for love and recognition, a denial that occurs independently of economic considerations.

1.4 All of these theorists considered the individual in a top-to-down paradigm, with the social dominating the personal. Moreover, they were citizens of societies in which emotional expression was restrained; they were as much subjects as they were free thinkers. They simply did not live in an age when they could have been conscious of the extent of emotional repression as have become thinkers who have worked in the post-60's world. The classical authors, despite their unquestionable sincerity, were unable to ask themselves what role their own emotional perturbations played in their theoretical formulations (anyone who has read the biographies of Comte, Durkheim, Weber, and even Freud will appreciate the irony of the fact that these men were unable to transcend their own despair, a despair that was not simply a product of philosophical angst but directly connected to their conflicts with their significant others). Undergraduates pick up on this and are continually amazed by the fact that many of the founders of sociology who wrote of 'socialization' and 'social development' had such a difficult time functioning as contented individuals. This said, to debate the fine points is to miss the more important point made in my article: that emotional pain is a central pillar of social outcomes and it is time we studied how it is a product of the social as well as one of its major contaminants.

1.5 My commitment to a social theory that treats the emotional constitutions of individuals with care and scientific curiosity explains why I hesitated (perhaps with a certain amount of undue alarm) when I read of Gane's (Gane and Beer, 2005) interest in defining a 'post-human' society. We have too often assumed we are in a 'post-phase' whenever we have run into trouble tracking the permutations and semiotic transformations of a preceding phase. Thus, some speak with facility of the 'death of post-modernism' or 'the death of feminism,' without recognizing that the reverberating effects of these movements are still very much with us. So I agree wholeheartedly with Gane that there is a lot of 'innovative social theory' being written, his own included, but caution that such theory should, in addition to being inventive, be explanatory and subject to empirical verification, the opinion of our 'subjects' and 'social actors' not being the least of these verifications.

1.6 All in all, my critique of the relative exclusion of 'emotions' in the writings of the classical sociologists was meant to point to the possibility that all social life and all social institutions are part of an ongoing interactive process field, and that it is non-productive to speak of the 'individual' and 'society' in mutually exclusive terms. Both Mead and Elias issued a similar caution, Mead in his brilliant explanations of how self-awareness is dependent on a social field, and Elias in his plea that we move away from the 'homo-clausus' conception of civil identity. In keeping with their wisdom, I did not suggest that 'psychologism' be the starting and end point of social studies, but that psychological and social explanations be used to test and validate one another in order to increase our understanding of the 'social process.' It is not coincidental that sociology majors are not required to take a course in social psychology nor psychology majors required to take a course in introductory sociology. As Gane concedes, '…sociologists, at least for the past 20 years, have been particularly bad at opening their disciplinary borders to 'outside' approaches or knowledge' (2005: 2.2). So, the fact that a few sociologists in the past have delved into the psychological dimension (a point made by both respondents) is not reason for complete consolation; the majority of sociologists continue to study social phenomenon from dimensions that 'sociologize' the personal dimension. Gane defends this tendency when he writes,

'But the question is: do we want a sociology that is filled with emotions too, or is a key purpose of sociology to explain the common (post-) structural conditions that lie behind feelings of uncertainty and isolation that so many of us experience today? I would argue for the latter, and for this reason psychologism, for me at least, is not the answer, for individualization is a social rather than psychological process, albeit one that has deep psychological consequences' (2.6).

1.7 So the problem to which I point in my article is somewhat present in the manner in which Gane asks us to choose between social and psychological explanations. Perhaps this is due to lack of clarity in my own original article; although I did encourage sociologists not to fear 'psychologisms,' I did not mean to argue for an exclusively psychological approach. That would have been tantamount to responding to one deficiency through the creation of another deficiency. In fact, I am not sure there is a need to choose one over the other, because all social processes are psychological and all psychological processes are social. They are the whole that we know of as 'society.' Because emotions are socially influenced does not in any way give us the logical imperative to deny the existence of universal emotional needs. Also, I am not sure that an exaggerated emphasis on the role of language and communications in emotions is productive, not if it leads to a quantum jump in logic that then denies the human body and its realities. So, I attempted to illustrate the viability of a more inclusive approach, and the theoretical fallacies that can result when the interactive relationship between psychological and social factors is minimized:

'My purpose is not to suggest that emotions provide social actors with an extraordinary power of agency, nor that all social realities are emotionally bounded, but to encourage further debate on the nature of our emotional/social selves. Without this integrated understanding of the deep-core private self of the social actor we are left discussing the self in categorical terms: the self as reflexive entity, the self as thought, the self as an identity, the self as body, the self as a mirror, the self in modernity, the self as the other, the self as a transnational conduit. While these categorical abstractions help us understand larger shifts in the contours of the social, they leave us unable to evaluate the positive and negative effects of social change and, consequently, deprive us of the opportunity of developing social theories that not only explain current trends but also influence social change in accordance with the authentic needs of social actors' (2005, 2.7).

1.8 I tried in the last third of my article, perhaps the most important part, to bring attention to Arthur Janov's discovery that emotional pain registered during and after childhood has a 'resounding' influence on interaction, ideology and civil behaviour (4.1-5.8). Janov's work (Janov 1975, 2000), extensively documented through neuro-physiological measures, has surpassed that of Freud and Lacan. He has not only explained the ideational consequences of repression but also the emotional results and the radical modification of private and social embodiment. Going beyond Janov, I cited other evidence speaking to how emotions of 'embarrassment' and 'shame'---and the urgent need to avoid them through justifications and other-blame---are often aggravating factors in family relations, and inter-ethnic and cross-national conflicts. So I was understandably surprised that neither theorist responded to these issues.

1.9 In my article, I reasoned that if it is true that (a) individuals who carry an overload of pain tend to misperceive and under-respond or over-respond to the social facts with which they have to deal, then one could argue that (b) a society of pain-ridden individuals will tend to select social interaction rituals and social institutional forms that are dysfunctional or at best symbolic of their original discontent but too removed from it to provide us with telling clues. Unfortunately, this masking will lead in some instances to ideologies and social policies that help repress raging emotions without solving or curing the social ills that the policies are meant to address. This process of denial and re-presentation can be as much present in societies of slow change as it is in societies of rapid change such as those described by Giddens and Bauman. The social can transform personal experience, yet the person remains the one who must cope with and respond to that transformation…whatever the influence, the reaction, which will be later absorbed back into the social, is a personal one. Giddens points to this when he explains how modern contingencies and risk-management have created a desire for the 'pure relationship.' Human needs that cannot be fulfilled at the social level become pulled into the personal level…but they do not disappear.

1.10 All in all, I suggested, without reserve, that our knowledge of what it is 'to be human' and our views of 'the human condition' may be based on long-standing observations of repressed societies; thus, new theories might emerge if we would speculate on what society might be like if the infliction of emotional pain could be minimized. With the exception of Rousseau, who recognized that even 'a social contract' was a compromise of humanity's authentic possibilities, very few theorists have admitted the difficulty of speaking of a 'functional' society in the absence of reliable indicators regarding the emotional needs of individuals or their sense of contentment. So I was not arguing for a specialized one-track discipline called 'sociology of emotions,' but an 'emotionally-conscious social theorizing.'

1.11 We may and should theorize, as has done Nicholas Gane, about the important effects of new technologies (genetics included) and how these are transforming our experience as members of a social process. Yet, I am cautioning that we desist from rapidly concluding that we are experiencing a world that is radically new. Pain puts us in debt to our past, and contaminates and compromises authentic social exchanges. If this were not true, we would have much more consensus between the genders after decades of intelligent contributions from feminism and the men's movement.

Not a Sociology of Emotions but an Emotionally Conscious Sociology

2.1 So, in the interests of clarity I would summarize the main points of my article as follows: 1) The classical sociologists had their hands full explaining social order and disorder at a time when industrialization was transforming so many social practices and institutions, including the family, the legal system and conceptions of the citizen. Their main goal was to explain the dividing line between collective equilibrium and collective pathology. They are not to be excessively blamed. But neither should their methods be used to set the agenda for contemporary social theory. Most of Durkheim's efforts, including his bold claim that religion was 'the worship of society' (a theory undoubtedly shaped by his own commitment to atheism or laicism), were designed to explain various ways in which we could gauge social equilibrium in a changing world. Yet, he did not consider that a calibrated society may consist of miserable individuals.

2.2 2) Contemporary social theorists, for their part, understandably intrigued by rapid change and the breakdown of former certainties, have attempted to explain society using the new markers appearing on the horizon. Focusing on change they have sometimes missed the fact that old values and practices often re-emerge in new guises. The medium is not just the message. It is also our messenger. So whether human society is constructed through linguistic communications is less of an issue for me than the fact that these communications tend to always include an undertow of emotions felt at the private level. Although emotions are both social and biological, these two different aspects meet one another within each human body. In a society riddled with pain, what is felt and what is communicated are often out of sync with one another, thereby affecting the nature of personal and social embodiment, not to mention the civility ethos of the society in question.

2.3 3) The existence of pain and the fact that few people feel comfortable giving into feeling pain---preferring instead to construct defenses against it---may explain so many of the social practices which we take for granted as normal manifestations of 'social organization.' While a given manifestation may have a secondary beneficial influence (i.e. alcoholism keeps people in the alcohol industry employed, as well as creating jobs for the social workers who work with the victims of violent alcoholics, not to mention the Durkheimian 'effervescence' it creates between drinkers and the ensuing feelings of relaxation), it cannot be studied from the point of view of its secondary consequences but needs be seen for what it is. If this produces a more disheartening picture of social progress, then so be it…inspiration will surely follow from loss of heart….the cup will remain half-full (as opposed to half empty) and will fill up in due course.

2.4 All said, I remain intrigued with the original question offered up for debate in my article: Can sociology adequately explain why it is that so many of us social thinkers do not attempt to address the question of human pain? I would go far enough to include 'the need for love,' the prime cause of pain. In this functional society continually beset by amazing developments and changes that would have been the envy of our predecessors, why is there so much depression and so much heart-breaking loneliness? Could it be that some things do not change regardless of how much the environment is transformed?

2.5 Gane asks a series of interesting questions in the conclusion of his article-response. Although the questions are selected as part of his interest in studies of the 'post-human' (a term which I hope to better understand as Gane continues to write about it), they are important questions of concern to sociologists studying emotions:

Three lines of questioning immediately come to mind. First, are emotions restricted to human beings? If so, what happens to emotions or 'feeling states' once the 'nature' of these beings can be radically altered? If not, then how might a sociology of emotions be extended to the study of 'intelligent' machines? Second, what is the role of technology in changing the ways in which we experience the world and communicate to one another? If technologies of communication change, do we change too? Do technologies then structure are capacity to experience or 'feel' the world around us, thereby shaping the content of our emotions? More fundamentally, is emotion itself a form of communication, even if this does not take a linguistic form? And third, in view of the above, what is left of the term 'human' in the social sciences? Is the human a cultural construction that is finally free from biology, or is it an array of cultural and political norms tied historically to a body that has now been transcended? Either way, I suggest that the notion of 'human society', which lies at the heart of Davetian's sociology of emotions, now needs to be questioned rather than presupposed.' (2005: 3.6).

2.6 I would like to attempt to respond to some of these questions:

'First, are motions restricted to human beings? If so, what happens to emotions or "feeling states" once the "nature" of these beings can be radically altered?' Emotions are not restricted to human beings; any dog-owner will attest to this. What happens to emotions once the 'nature' of these beings changes? It is erroneous to equate changes in behaviour with changes in 'nature' since what changes is 'mentality' and 'action.' Such changes do not automatically mean that 'primal human needs have changed.' History is replete with reversals and adjustments. So, although our mentality is changing radically, our need for love (and the pain felt in face of rejection) remains non-negotiable; the only thing that is negotiable (and under the influence of ideologies of dominant interests) is the degree to which we express pain when it is present. That, at least, is what is indicated by historical studies that include studies of literary works, civility rituals and political regimes. I have focused on that topic in a two-volume work on Civility (forthcoming). Now, we could intellectualize that genetics might liberate us from the limitations of our biology and create a 'post-human' state (3.5). For my part, I feel that there is a difference between a modified human society and a post-human society: the latter term emerges from speculation that we will be able to leave behind many of our emotional characteristics. What we miss in this type of reasoning is the fact that something that is socially constructed may have been so constructed due to an existing need within the organism, a need that will not easily dissipate in a mutating world. Durkheim taught us that much in his erudite explanations of cause and function. Further cross-cultural studies would produce more information on how much of our emotional make-up is universal and how much of it is simply a mirror of the era and location in which we live.

2.7 'If not, then how might a sociology of emotions be extended to the study of "intelligent" machines?' The fact that emotions are not restricted to humans because they are also present in animals does not in any way rationalize the imagining of machines as entities capable of having emotions, unless we become capable of wiring in the same neuro-chemical physiological patterns of the animal kingdom into machines. We might just invent the feeling machine (Hal?). Yet the presence of the 'original' will always differentiate between the 'human' and the 'post-human.' ICT may be hurrying and abridging our contacts with one another as suggested by the writers whom Gane cites, but such transformations are not about to eliminate our sense of self nor our emotional needs. If anything, these new technologies might have the paradoxical function of increasing our sense of empowerment on one level while decreasing it on another (i.e. lots of information on life, yet a loss of meaning in life).

2.8 Gane continues:

'Second, what is the role of technology in changing the ways in which we experience the world and communicate to one another? If technologies of communication change, do we change too? Do technologies then structure are [sic] capacity to experience or 'feel' the world around us, thereby shaping the content of our emotions? More fundamentally, is emotion itself a form of communication, even if this does not take a linguistic form? And third, in view of the above, what is left of the term 'human' in the social sciences? Is the human a cultural construction that is finally free from biology, or is it an array of cultural and political norms tied historically to a body that has now been transcended?' I would answer yes to most of the questions here although the sequence of the questions seems to reveal a desire to go beyond the idea that human needs are primordial. I am suggesting that we study the basics of emotions since they can be felt at the pre-verbal level and re-presented during the acquisition of language. Where I diverge from Gane is when he implies that the human body can be transcended. He offers us only one alternative: 'finally free from biology' or 'an array of cultural and political norms tied historically to a body that has now been transcended.' There is no real 'or' alternative here. Both of these stated alternatives deny our continuing connection to our biological selves, a connection that sociology has yet to investigate more thoroughly and fruitfully. Since the inception of sociology, sociologists have always been talking of the transcendence of the body private and the historical fulfillment of the body social. Yet, the desire to view the social through purely social terms contributes to the denial of emotional (bodily) suffering, a major aspect of alienation in society, and, even perhaps, in social theory. We can carry forward the project of a post-structuralist theory without necessarily denying all primal foundations.

2.9 Gane concludes, 'Either way, I suggest that the notion of 'human society', which lies at the heart of Davetian's sociology of emotions, now needs to be questioned rather than presupposed.' As sociologists we are always questioning. Anything less would imply the closure of our field. But we should be ready to revisit a theory by re-examining the empirical evidence standing at its foundation. This can be done provided we have no a-priori preference for a substitute explanation standing in the wings; the denial of the possibility of non-mutable social facts should not be such an a-priori position, not if we wish to produce theory rather than ideology. I would be fully prepared to consider the possibility that a 'post-human' (another less discouraging term would do no harm) social environment is uprooting the entire meaning of 'emotions' and even 'primal emotions.' Should we begin observing that babies and young children and adults have stopped crying and expressing anger because of the new society, then I would gladly change my theory. But even then I might want to investigate what such closure of feeling is doing to the subjects in our brave new world of machine-human interfaces. I would certainly welcome some EEG's studies of these 'new' individuals to determine inner stress levels and see whether their bodies are really at ease with their new mentalities. Until then, I will continue to consider the question, 'What is Human Society?' an urgent and not inconsequential question facing social theory. It is the same question that pre-occupied the founders of our discipline and will, in all probability, pre-occupy generations of social theorists regardless of what occurs on the technological front. The human in us will be modified, but let us hope not denied or forgotten as it already has been to a certain extent. What the classical sociologists did leave us was an invaluable legacy; they advised that we should avoid writing fiction and verify our theories with empirical observations. Heeding their advice, I have offered those empirical observations in the last third of my article. The implications of all this are considerable. If people carry around with them an emotional biography that predisposes them to react in ways that are 'prototypic' to their pasts, then our studies of cultural, economic, political and communication forces should include some consideration of emotions.

2.10 Gane makes an invaluable contribution by recommending that we continue studying the connection between 'cultural and biology, and the mind and the body' (3.6). That is also my position. Where I differ slightly is that I find them inseparable, or, perhaps, part of one single process which I define as 'A Feeling Human Society.' His interview/duscussions with theorists from a variety of orientations (2004a) is an extremely valuable contribution to the progress of social theory, a contribution for which we are all grateful.

2.11 In the latest issue of Sociological Research Online, David Beer suggests that we carry on debating and talking through web forums and emails. I think this is an excellent idea. I can be reached through my email link at my web site: <http://www.bdavetian.com>.


DAVETIAN, B. (2005) 'Towards an Emotionally-Conscious Social Theory.' SocResOnline, 10, 2. <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/10/2/davetian.html>.

GANE, N. (2005) 'What is "Human Society"?: a Response to Davetian.' SocResOnline, 10. 3. <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/10/3/davetian.html>.

GANE, N. and Beer, D. (2004) 'Back to the Future of Social Theory: An Interview With Nicholas Gane.' SocResOnline, 9, 4. <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/9/4/beer.html>.

GANE, N. (2004a) The Future of Social Theory. London: Continuum.

JANOV, A. and Holden, M. (1975) Primal Man. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

JANOV, A. (2000) The Biology of Love. New York: Prometheus Books.

SCOTT, J. (2005) 'Fallacies in the Critique of Disciplinary Sociology.' SocResOnline, 10, 3. <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/10/3/scott.html>.

SCOTT, J. (2005a) 'Sociology and its Others: Reflections on Disciplinary Specialisation and Fragmentation', Sociological Research Online, 10, 1. <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/10/1/scott.html>.

URRY, John (2005) 'Beyond the Science of Society'. Sociological Research Online, 10, 2. <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/10/2/urry.html>.