The Age of Grief in the Time of Talk

by Julie Brownlie
University of Stirling

Sociological Research Online 14(5)22

Received: 30 Apr 2009     Accepted: 23 Jul 2009    Published: 30 Nov 2009


Responding to Charles Tilly's call to map how individuals and groups encounter big structures or large processes, this article is concerned with experiences of one particular social process: the move towards emotional openess. Drawing on a mixed methods study of emotions talk, the article questions this 'en bloc' narrative of social change 'in our own time' (Tilly, 1984). In particular, through analysis of survey data, it highlights the life-stage and cohort effects shaping the experiences of those in their middle years, 'the age of grief'; and through indepth analysis of qualitative interviews, it embeds these effects in particular local contexts and relationships and within a particular historical time, the time of talk. In doing so, it concludes that while Tilly is right to suggest stories about social change do social work, he underestimates the extent to which they also offer crucial insight in to the nature of the social, particularly through the reckoning of relationships and their emotional legacies.

Keywords: Experiences of Social Processes, Emotional Legacies, Emotional Culture, Mixed Methods


'it seems to me that I have arrived at the age of grief.[...]. I don't think it is years themselves, or the disintegration of the body. [...] What it is, is what we know, now that in spite of ourselves, we have stopped to think about it. It is not only that we know love ends, children are stolen, parents die feeling that their lives have been meaningless. [...] It is more that the barriers between the circumstances of oneself and of the rest of the world have broken down. [..] I understand that later you come to an age of hope, or at least resignation. I suspect it takes a long time to get there (Smiley, 1988:154)
1.1 In Jane Smiley's story 'The Age of Grief' the narrator, a man approaching middle age, becomes aware that he is, after 'all that schooling, all that care', unable to refuse or avoid the 'same cup of pain that every mortal drinks from' (154). The author fills in details of his specific biography and of the life stage he has reached or is yet to reach. Seeing this age as part of the human condition, she does not speak of the social times against which this changing consciousness takes place. We do not learn whether the times in which the narrator's father or grandfather lived precluded such insights, or shaped them in different ways.

1.2 In this article I want to draw on the notion of an age of grief as a shorthand for the experiences of the middle years and to help think about how life stages, and their emotional demands, are located within particular times. In doing so, what it means to research experiences of social processes, particularly the links between biography, generational shifts and changes in emotional culture, is explored. I do this by first posing a question Smiley did not: is there something about the current times that leads the post-war generation to cope with the emotional difficulties thrown up by their middle years, the age of grief, in a particular way? To read sociological theorising about the changing nature of emotional culture in the West one would think the answer to this is a resounding 'yes'. Drawing on both quantitative and qualitative data from a study on emotions talk, however, I question this 'en bloc' (Tilly, 1984:7) narrative of emotional openness in 'our own time' (Tilly, 1984: 14). I do this by exploring, through survey data, the differentiated experience of emotional culture; and through in-depth interview data, the ways in which the age of grief and emotional culture are shaped through relationships, past and present, remembered and imagined.

Biographies and the flow of history

2.1 Tilly's call for a 'concrete, historical program of inquiry' (1984:14) is inclusive of research which is both small scale and of 'our own time'. From his perspective, what matters is that research, by focusing on social relationships, challenges the construction of society as a 'thing apart' acting on individual minds and behaviour. He taps in to something quite fundamental about our sense of identity when he questions how it is we know that persons encountered at different points in time are the same people. After all, we often doubt earlier/younger versions of ourselves and struggle to recognise these selves as ourselves: ' Was that really me?' . For Tilly what keeps us us, is the relationships within which we are enmeshed - I am so and so's mother, daughter, workmate. This 'reckoning of relationships' (1984: 27) is at the heart of the other key theme of his writing - the need to link micro and macro histories. Tilly calls for a mapping of how individuals and groups experience or encounter big structures or large processes - the 'link between personal experience and the flow of history' (64). More than this, he argues that to understand macrohistory, we need to get the microhistory right.

2.2 It is these two interrelated themes of Tilly's writing - the seriousness with which he treats relationships and the need to link personal narratives with bigger processes and structures - which this article engages with though more in the spirit than by following the letter of his work. There are areas of divergence that need mentioning if only for them then to be put to one side. First, Tilly is critical of his younger self's - for younger should we be reading immature? - reliance on interview narratives ('standard stories'). Tilly's concern with such stories is not that they do not matter - he acknowledges they are both pervasive and powerful - rather the problem is with their explanatory potential. They do work - helping people make sense of what is going on in their lives - but their work in helping us understand social processes and the causal relations which shape them - the 'non story causal processes' - is limited. The work of analysis that needs to be done in relation to stories, therefore, is to 'tunnel under' (1999: 266) them in order to explain why these particular stories are being constructed. Second, Tilly is ambivalent about surveys, noting in Big Structures that they work with 'individual mental events', that surveys are somehow 'unsociological', exactly because of this focus on cases (Graham, 1984: 113).

2.3 In what follows, I suggest first that surveys have important things to tell us about the relationships which make up, and the differentiated experiences we have of, social processes at particular points in time. Second, and more significantly, I argue that stories do not just do social work, they also offer crucial insight into the nature of the social, particularly the reckoning of relationships and their emotional legacies. Curiously, given his interest in relationships, Tilly shows little interest in emotions. In fact his prescription below for how to tell a standard story , the type he argues most of us tell most of the time, could be read as stereotypically masculine - the consequence perhaps of a focus on a rational model of action and inter-action.

'Treat your characters as independent, conscious, and self motivated. Make all their significant actions occur as consequences of their own deliberations or impulses' (1999:257).

2.4 Yet, despite these differences, in the interplay between the way emotions unfold at different points in the life course and across generations, and the social shaping of emotional lives at particular historical moments, Tilly's aim of linking biographies to the flow of history is met. Before starting to explore this interplay through the dominant theoretical narratives about these social changes, I outline in brief the methodology of the project from which the data is drawn.

Researching emotions talk

3.1 The Someone To Talk To Study (hereafter STTTS) is an ESRC-funded study of emotional support and emotions talk in Britain. The research focuses on people's beliefs and practices in relation to formal and informal emotional support and, in particular, the significance or not of talk in how people get by or through difficult times. It has two main components: a module in the British Social Attitudes Survey[1] and follow--up in-depth interviews with a sample from the survey, purposively selected to ensure diversity of attitudes, experiences and demographic characteristics. In addition, the research team[2] kept post-interview fieldwork notes on each of the qualitative interviews and carried out follow-up telephone interviews[3] with a sub-sample of respondents from the qualitative sample about their experience of being interviewed. Interviews took place in participants' own homes and generally lasted between one and two-and-a-half hours. We adopted a guided narrative method (Chamberlayne, 2004), eliciting narratives through exploring the particular theme of emotional support at different times in people's lives. Analytically, this placed emotional support in the context of the life course, allowing an understanding of such support not only as it was understood and practised within biographies at particular points in time, but also across historical time and in relation to particular generations. All the qualitative interviews were recorded and the data - interviews and researchers' notes - were coded using NVivo 7, a software package for storing, coding, searching and retrieving text.

3.2 There are different rationales for mixing methods and different models for doing so (Greene, 2007). In the STTTS the collection of the data was sequential, though neither quantitative nor qualitative data had priority as they were seen to be answering different though related questions. From the design stage, the study was conceived as 'multi-strategy', concerned less with triangulation than with complexity - that is with using multidimensional approaches to access the multilayered nature of people's emotional lives. Sharing Mason's (2006) unease with the emphasis on 'integration' in recent debates about mixing methods, and particularly the assumption that different dimensions can be unproblematically merged in one plane, we were interested instead in how different methods illuminate how our emotional lives relate to broader cultural and historical shifts. Here, while the focus is primarily on the qualitative data, the analysis of the quantitative data has a pivotal role. Specifically, it was the particular experiences of the post-war generation that emerged from the survey data which suggested that closer analysis of the narratives of those in their middle years might be warranted. In what follows, the narratives of two women at this life stage are used to develop or enhance the quantitative findings. Both data sets, however, are a necessary part of challenging current theoretical social science narratives about changes in emotional culture, and it is to these that we now turn

Theorising the therapeutic turn: the non-story causal story?

4.1 While, as Lord Byron observed, stories get longer in their telling, it is also true that some just get bigger. This seems to be the case for the narratives sociologists tell about our transition towards a therapeutic culture. Sociological narratives about changes in the structures of feelings, in the values and meanings through which we understand our emotions (Williams, 1977), are prevalent. Seen as part of bigger trends towards individualisation and liberalisation, or as an illustration of emotional capitalism (Illouz, 2007), it has been argued in various forms since the 1960s, that Western societies, including the UK, have become more emotionally expressive; and, relatedly,that we have become more dependent on therapeutic professionals to cope with our emotional lives (Furedi, 2004; Nolan, 1989; Hochschild, 1999; Bauman, 1997). Tilly's belief that the coherence of relationships comes from their attachment to large processes so that 'the relationship between particular capitalists and particular workers reveal their pattern in the context of wider processes of proletarisation and capital concentration' (1984:64) is reflected in the way some of the above theorists think about emotional culture. As we note elsewhere (Anderson, Brownlie and Given, 2009), this cultural and social transformation is presented in a rosy light by some (Giddens, 1991), and in less optimistic terms by others (Rose,1996). Rarely, though, is the fact that there has been an en-bloc cultural and social transformation questioned. On the contrary, this narrative has been amplified by the media, who are attracted by the linearity and simplicity of a transition story, at the level of nation and individual, from 'blitz mentality' to vulnerability (Furedi, 2007).

4.2 Much theoretical work on this assumed cultural shift is based on discursive evidence which includes, though cannot be reduced to, the dominance of 'psy' knowledge and its mechanisms (Rose, 1996) and/or institutional practices such as the expansion of counselling provision and the translation of the therapeutic ethos beyond the realm of the therapeutic (Furedi, 2004).[4] But there has been little or no exploration of how these shifts are resisted or experienced by the general population.

The survey story: the u curve and generational turn of the third age

5.1 What, then, can the BSA module on emotions talk add to this theoretical narrative about the changing social processes shaping our emotional relationships? The module set out to gauge, in the first instance, whether there is an emerging cultural consensus in Britain that it is 'good to talk' about emotions, the extent to which people are comfortable and at ease with the notion of formal therapeutic intervention and the extent to which they actually use such services. My interest here, however, given our concern with social change, is to focus on the relevance of age and generation.

5.2 Since this was the first time a national survey had explicitly addressed these issues we had no baseline data with which to compare findings and draw conclusions about the pace and direction of social change. Nevertheless, we were able to explore the impact of age on people's beliefs and practices in part through looking at attitude statements about talking about emotions (what is referred to here as 'emotions talk'). These included statements which tapped in to people's perceptions of whether such practices are more common now than in the past. Our analysis did suggest an acceptance of the value of talking about emotions: two-thirds of the sample indicated that 'it is important for them to talk about their feelings'. In terms of accessing perceptions of social change, however, what is more interesting is that two- thirds also believed that people spend more time talking about their feelings now than in the past, and half of the sample identified themselves as having grown up in a household where people did not talk about their feelings.

5.3 When we constructed a scale from these statements, to act as a summary measure of people's responses, the extent to which attitudes varied between different social groups became clear. If there really were an emerging therapeutic culture we would have expected younger more than older people to be positive about talking about one's emotions. To an extent this is true: people under 60 were more likely than those over 60 to be in the 'most talkative' group. Age, however, interacts powerfully with gender at least for younger people, so that even though women are more likely than men to talk about their emotions, this gender gap is greatest among the youngest age group (the 18 to 25 year olds). While gender is relevant for the 40-59 year olds, it is not as strong a predictor of emotions talk as for the under 40s and all but disappears for the oldest age group (those over 60).

5.4 Age was also a key variable when we looked at attitudes towards therapy and counselling. The smallest proportion agreeing they would feel comfortable talking to counsellors or therapists were in the youngest and the oldest groups, with those in the middle two age groups, 25 to 44, and 45 to 59 year olds, the least resistant. Life stage effects seem to be relevant here in at least two ways: first, in explaining why it is that young people - particularly young men - do not feel it is acceptable to discuss their emotions. Unlike young women, who often establish close emotional relationships with friends before their twenties, many men seemed unable to engage in emotions talk until they were in established intimate relationships. Second, thinking about life stages may also help explain the relative openness of those in their middle years to counselling provision. Research has recently confirmed what experience has long suggested, that there is indeed a 'u-curve' in wellbeing (Blanchflower and Oswald, 2008) with one's middle years, the age of grief, being the most difficult in emotional terms. Formal service use, too, peaks in middle age. This might well reflect the needs of those at the bottom of the u-curve (the survey does suggest that it is need such as mental health problems - that best predicts formal emotional support).

5.5 Given that those born between 1945 and 1965 appear to have a greater awareness of counselling and the possibilities of formal 'emotions talk', it is likely that there is also a cohort or generational effect at work here. The baby boomers, it seems, are more open to the possibilties of therapeutic intervention than the older 'mustn't grumble' generation.

5.6 My aim here is to highlight how survey data can begin to tell us something about the social ties and characteristics of the relationships that make up macro and micro history. Illouz (2007) may well be right, that we are living in the age of emotional capitalism, or Furedi (2004), that there has been a professionalisation of our emotional lives, but if they are, these social processes are experienced in a highly differentiated way. The above survey data point to those in their middle years, the post- war baby boomers, having a particular experience of the changes in emotional culture as a result of their life stage and their cohort experience. In what follows, I explore in detail how this differentiated experience of the age of grief in the time of talk is narrated by some in their middle years.

Narrating the age of grief

People didn't talk about things then, they kept it to themselves. I was going to say about me, when I was, you know, when I had bad times and you didn't really want to talk about it, kind of a bit ashamed of feeling that way, you know. Whereas as you get older and you, you know, you do talk about things. I am a different person now, there's no doubt about that.[...] But as you get older? I mean nowadays everyone, you should talk about...everybody wants a psychiatrist, don't they? Everybody wants to, you know, like you read about these American stars and that, they've all got their own psychiatrists walking by the side of them holding their hand, haven't they? And you think to yourself, 'My God, the world's gone mad.' You know [...] they want the reason for everything, don't they? There's not a reason for everything, is there? [...] You know, 'Why do I feel like this?' you know. Well why do I feel like this, you know, cos your made... you're like that, aren't you? (Q33).[5]
6.1 Unlike Tilly's vision of standard stories as exemplars of no-messing-about causality, in this extract we see the muddle that is more often people's understanding of social change. The respondent moves uneasily between historical (perhaps generational) time and life stage, and then concludes with a rejection of temporality all together - 'you're made' that way. Looking across the qualitative interviews carried out for the STTTS, it is clear that people are acutely aware of time in its different guises - embodied, biographical, generational and historical - but they are cautious of being too 'standard' in the stories they tell about it. Sometimes people present clear historical and/or generational contexts for how they see their life. These can be 'real', for instance serving in World War Two ('some things make you hard you know', Q92). But they can also be imagined, as one woman put it when describing her marriage: 'and I think if I was another generation I might have gone up and away' (Q47). Others, though, are cautious about how to read their own and others' lives within the flow of history: they are reluctant, for instance, to judge their parents' through the lens of their own generation:
*I: You were saying that he had a different.. he wasn't someone that would talk about emotions.

*Resp: No I, I don't think he did, I mean he wasn't, he wasn't, he didn't fit into a stereotypical west of Scotland male you know [...], I mean he probably, I think for his time he was relatively demonstrative is probably a fairer way of looking at it because you tend to look at historical things and skew them with the values of the current time. So I mean he was quite, I think in many ways I think he was quite radical. I mean there are photographs of him pushing me in a buggy when most men wouldn't have known what a buggy was you know and things like that so, so, in many ways the comment from me is unfair but for today he would not have been that emotional I don't think. (Q12)

6.2 Or they are uneasy with the notion of clear-cut historical shifts - 'I mean, I think that they must have spoken, they can't have all bottled it up centuries and suddenly in 1980 we've all been talking about it' (Q28) - or with the popularised understandings of the past:

*Resp: .. and the people who .. who study it say that the 60s never really happened, and - when you were there - it was always something that was happening to someone else. It's kind o' something that we've created afterwards, you know, in the .. to watch like .. I dunno .. like the Austin Powers kind of ..

*I: .. Yeah. Yeah.

*Resp: .. stereotypical 60s stuff. If you were to go back, it's not .. you wouldn't find that (Q87)

6.3 Bearing in mind people's uncertainties about how to think and talk about social change, in what follows, I adopt a different lens in relation to the qualitative data, to look at two interviews[6] with women of similar socio-economic background and age (one 54, the other 60) who experienced a similar life event - a pregnancy outside of marriage at a time and in a place in which this was considered highly stigmatising: respectable working class small town/rural Britain in the late 1960s/early 1970s. These two interviews have been picked not to flatten out biographical differences but rather the opposite: to try and foreground the reckoning of relationships, how these shape the meanings attached to similar events, and how they interact with the framing variable of class but also particularly age, generation and gender. The fictional term, the age of grief, is used as a heuristic device for thinking about the life stage of the middle years, the stage the two women at the time of interview had reached. By looking at how in their accounts they draw on time past, present and future, however, the article locates this life stage and its emotional demands and insights, within the time of biography, generation and history. At first reading, bogged down as they are in relationships, these narratives seem a long way from the stuff of BIG social processes or structures. Yet it is in the way social processes seem to be swamped by the details of the everyday, by the nature of lived (emotional) experience that we are reminded of how most people do experience large social processes. As Faust says of the devil, so it is of social change: both tend to do their business unannounced. The big sociological stories about therapeutic culture are not as fragmented and ambivalent as these narratives. The former, as we have seen, tend to be oppositional stories - stories of being hailed by discourses of vulnerability and dependency or of self-discovery and reflexivity. In these smaller narratives, however, what we find is how a dominant (moral) story - the cultural acceptance that it is 'good to talk' - becomes a lived morality shaped by emotional legacies. Social processes such as emotional openness are experienced through layers of relationships - lived, remembered and imagined - played out across historical, generational and biographical time.

6.4 While the above refers to interviews and to narratives, the two cannot be unproblematically equated. Working with the idea of guided narratives, respondents, including Cath and Dee who are introduced below, were invited, using timelines as a prompt, to talk about their lives and, then, if it had not already emerged, about a particular time in their lives which they felt they have had to 'get through'. [7] The stories they and other respondents told in response to these queries shared narrative qualities of seeking to impose order and meaning, sometimes though not always through a sequencing of events, and of attaching significance to particular characters and settings (Lawler, 2005). These narratives of getting through, however, in part because of the methodological focus on biography, are not vacuum-packed, nestled as they are within broader life narratives and themselves containing mininarratives. Neither are these narratives of getting through continuous, as they are disrupted both by these other levels of narrative and by more traditional question and answer interactions within the interview.

6.5 In what follows, the thread of a biographical narrative is reconstructed through (mainly) sequential interview extracts with a view to understanding these narratives as moral performances which afford insight into respondents' beliefs and practices about emotions talk . The process of selection and transcription of these extracts is, in itself, a highly interpretive act even if the numbering of the data gives some reassurance about how these extracts relate to the interview as a whole. Such accounts can be criticised for not having the structural properties of a narrative (see Riessman's 1993 critique of Ginsburg, 1989) and for the researcher's interpretation resulting in an 'in-between genre, a mediated life story narrative' (1993:32). It seems useful for two reasons, however, to hold on to the idea of narrative in this article; both to describe the data and the analysis. First, because the notion of narrative captures something important about how respondents' attempts to make sense of getting through are inextricably intertwined with life narratives. As Andrews (2000), drawing on Ricoeur (1983), points out, we cannot help as humans but engage in time, and, therefore, narrative. These biographical narratives, however, are not always sequential but rather are revealing of the ways time past, present and future co-exist in the way that Tambouko (2008), and T.S. Elliott (1963) before her, alerted us to. While timelines may actually seem to work against this more process- orientated rather than sequential understanding of narrative (Tamboukou, 2008), respondents themselves are highly reflexive about how to use such tools, with one woman in the sample describing a debate she had with herself about whether to give a 'cv' or messier 'beanstalk' version of her timeline. Second, and relatedly, the analysis of how people make sense of emotional support and getting through, can be understood as narrative performances, performances of moral selves, with emotions talk (in its absence or presence) as a key dimension of this performance. Evidence for narrative as performance, as a dramatisation, can be found, Riessman (2008) argues, in a number of structural features of text: the use of direct speech, which has the function of both bringing the audience in, and allowing things to be said that it might be tricky to say oneself; use of asides - stepping out of the action to address an audience; repetition to build drama; and switiching tenses to emphasise agency.

6.6 The analysis, below, then, is based on close readings of these transcripts and listening to the interview recordings not just for thematic content but for their dialogic or performative properties (Riessman, 2008). This involves looking at how the narrative performance is produced both locally within the interview and in relation to wider societal processes but also, by looking at post-interview accounts, how it is received.

Cath's story

6.7 Cath, unlike Dee, had chosen to fill in a timeline and like many of the other respondents was most comfortable talking about the theme of emotions talk and emotional support in relation to her own life experiences. Cath's interview was shaped by her decision very early on to describe a relationship she had had when she was sixteen with a much older man. Cath became upset when talking about this relationship but was adamant that she wanted to. The fact that she had asked ahead of time for the interview to take place when her husband was not around - 'It were just that I think you can be more honest' (4011) - suggests Cath may have made a decision ahead of time to talk about this aspect of her life. Now 60, Cath in the remainder of the interview described the legacy of this relationship, her childhood, her current relationships and her hopes for the future, all the time moving backwards and forwards in time. The interview took place in the town Cath has lived in all her life and there was a strong sense of place within her narrative.

6.8 Cath, like many who took part in the study, chose to begin her timeline, and her interview, with the birth of her sibling. She describes her shock at being told one morning in the 1950s that she had a baby brother, not having previously realised or been told that her mother was pregnant: 'it were .. quite traumatic because, in them days, your parents didn't tell you that they were having a baby' (28-29)[8] This lack of sexual knowledge and openness continues to shape her narrative, with her mother accompanying her, aged fifteen, to an interview for her first job. She portrays a strong sense of what it meant to be fifteen at the start of the 1960s compared to the more knowing teenagers of today.

6.9 Cath understands this relationship in the terms of the time in which they unfolded: 'What I were doing wasn't right particularly in the day and age' (201-202). Cath returns to her vulnerability as a young woman entering a male dominated workplace much later in the interview as this is the context for, and in the narrative works to explain, this relationship. Part of Cath's moral performance in the extract below is coming out of the narrative to offer another perspective - what 'people could say' - before returning to her own romantic justification for the relationship.

6.10 Returning to her life narrative at the start of the interview, Cath describes how when she has a baby as a result of this relationship, her parents, with whom she is still living, avoid mentioning the child. Again, Cath understands her parents' reaction, their silence, in terms of the times, the time of not talking:

6.11 Cath emphasises how this sense of shame was structurally and culturally reinforced in late 1960s Britain: during hospital visiting times after the birth - 'You're sat there. And then you don't like going into detail about, that you're not married' (420) and, later, in her having to be assessed morally, as well as financially, fit to have a mortgage: 'But in them days, if you got a mortgage, it had to go in front of the Board and .. It wasn't just cut and dried. And .. and a woman on her own ..' (616) For Cath, though, it is buying the house that allows her to reassert her morality:

6.12 Halfway through the interview, Cath returns to this narrative of needing to work. On this occasion, though, rather than posited as evidence of her morality as a parent, this choice is repositioned in the present as a cautionary tale for her own daughter. In this extract, Cath makes clear that evidence of closeness, of having been a good parent, is found in talk and vice versa; not talking is evidence of having failed; despite the researcher's attempt to reframe this 'failure' as Cath 'doing everything':

6.13 While Cath describes the silencing of having a child outside of marriage in the time 'before talk', she also offers a narrative, all the more powerful for the understated way in which it is described, which highlights that emotions may have been unspoken during her childhood - but they were nevertheless strongly expressed.

6.14 In the latter stages of the interview, Cath not only reads the problems of her past through the current discourse about the value of emotional openness, as she enters her middle years she describes a new openness to therapeutic narratives and practices: she briefly seeks marriage guidance counselling and takes advice from women's magazines and talk shows: 'I mean, you know, when he's [Jeremy Kyle] sort o' been on about things, I might o' included 'em when I've been talking to [husband] sort o' thing [laughs]'(3377).. Things did get her down as she entered the 'u - curve' of her middle years: she describes briefly taking antidepressants but then coming off them again very quickly, without returning to talk to her GP - 'just soldiered on meself really' (3293). Part of this 'soldiering on' is caring for her mother who has continued to live close by all these years. It is when describing being caught between different generational demands that Cath becomes upset. The sense of arriving at a life stage shaped by the emotional demands and insights of middle age - an age of grief - is palpable here in Cath's awareness that even though she might wish it were otherwise -' I just wish I could just walk away' - the barriers between her circumstances and those of other women of her age and class, have, as Smiley put it, broken down. Again, though, this needs to be read as a jointly constructed account, with the researcher giving Cath clear permission (encouragement?) to locate this point in her life in relation to her past and to position herself as 'pulled in all directions':

6.15 Intimated right at the start of her narrative by another hidden pregnancy, her mother's, Cath's story in her community and family in the late 1960s, is one of secrets, silence, exclusion and shame. Illustrated in the two extracts below, for Cath, throughout the interview, this emotional legacy has shaped how she has dealt with her relationships and feelings:

6.16 The theme that she should be able to talk, that her real self remains hidden as a result of her not talking, is repeated throughout Cath's interview, not just in relation to her husband but also her mother ('even though I do [love her], and she knows I do, I .. I just can't say it', 2167) and her daughter ('I mean I've said to [daughter] "For goodness sake, when you bring your children up, talk to 'em" (2218). While raising ethical issues in relation to reflexivity, and highlighting the risks of engaging in the 'currency of distress' (Skeggs: 1995: 29) (though there are important counter-arguments here about allowing the 'ordinariness of unhappiness' into sociological accounts, Smart, 2007), this injunction to be emotionally open also applies to Cath's relationship with the researcher. When it was suggested to Cath early in the interview that she did not need to talk about this relationship, she replied- 'I feel that I 'ave to talk about it' (193). Keeping things 'in' for Cath is not right: close relationships should be based on disclosure, and her inability to talk about her emotions with those she is closest to represents to Cath a failing - 'because you need to tell people how you feel' (2189). Cath rejects the ways of her upbringing - 'We didn't 'ave to be upset. We 'ad to just get on with it' (330) - and the cultural shifts towards emotional openness and new cultural practices of emotions talk seem to be the lens through which she now judges this earlier time, the time of not talking. Yet, at the same time, it is this lens which when she turns it on herself, leads her to see herself as lacking.

Dee's story

6.17 The interview with Dee, as with Cath, began with a description of a difficult life experience. Although she had chosen not to do a timeline, the biographical focus of the interview means that Dee becoming pregnant at a very young age is raised at an early stage. Unlike Cath, however, Dee describes herself as not valuing emotional disclosure and is much more emotionally controlled during the interview. As in the other interview, Dee sees earlier life experiences as having an emotional legacy though she resists reading these through current therapeutic discourses or investing in the moral injunction to talk. Interestingly, though, the follow-up interview with Dee suggests a shift in Dee's perspective after the research. Like Cath, Dee has remained living in the area where she grew up, so temporality and place are also to the fore in her account.

6.18 Dee, in the above extract, reflects on the constraints imposed by the time and place in which her unplanned pregnancy happened - rural England in the early 1970s. She goes on though, in the next part of this extract, to bring her life up-to-date. Like Cath, she reflects on the emotional demands of her life now, managing the needs of her adult children and her ageing mother, as well as the demands of work, Having reached her middle years, the age of grief, Dee looks back on a life shaped by teenage motherhood and full time work, and forward to an age of hope:

6.19 Later in the interview, though, it becomes clear that there is a complication in this narrative about the ending of her marriage: unable to take her child with her, her parents had stepped in to look after their grandchild. Dee continued to live close to her parents and to have regular contact with the child, but her family excommunicate her for many years as a result of her decision to end the marriage. The extent and depth of her exclusion is performed in the following extracts through the language of the 'forbidden', and in the first extract, through repetition and listing. While relationships with the family gradually improve over the years, Dee, in her turn, finds it hard to forgive or to forget. The direct speech in the second extract brings home to us what Dee perceives as the moral duplicity of the relatives:

6.20 Running through Dee's narrative is the alternative story that she imagines could have been her life had her family reacted differently: 'if the option had been there for them and they to have said, "look, you don't have to get married, we will support you, don't worry about that." But that never came from them' (208-209). In her fifties, in a long-term marriage and with a good network of friends at the time of the interview, Dee remembers the past both as another time - 'the whole world was against me, that there was no one, there was nowhere to turn. Whereas now it's got a different feel to it' (505-506) - but also as having a presence in the present through its emotional legacy: And I think perhaps it's because of what happened to me when I was younger I now tend to think that "oh, am I misreading something? [..] Am I going to get hurt?"(524-526).

6.21 These legacies are felt most strongly in her relationship with her mother. As with Cath, Dee, midlife, has a caring role in relation to her mother, one that she is highly ambivalent about: 'All the things that have gone on and I can't forgive her for them' (957).

6.22 As Cath's story started with her not knowing her mother was pregnant, Dee's story ends with a memory of the day she found out her mother, who was then in her forties, was pregnant. Again, through the use of direct speech and the movement between tenses, the theme of the visibility of women from different generations having babies in small communities, and the moral appropriateness of their being too old or too young to do so, is dramatised:

6.23 Unlike Cath, however, the more emotionally open society Dee lives in now she is in her fifties, is not one where she feels at ease. Whereas for Cath, talking about your feelings carries moral weight, it being the right thing to do, for Dee talking about emotions lacks morality: strength is associated with keeping things in. Despite her own experiences of her family not being a support, she resists what she sees as the social change towards outside help, preferring to keep things within the family. The sequence below makes clear the extent to which morality and emotions talk have become entangled for Dee, and emphasises again the power of the wished-for narrative of family support, of family together 'fighting the world'. The moral judgment Dee shows towards single mothers today could be read as a form of appropriation or ventriloquism - where one voice speaks through another voice or voice type (Bakhtin, 1981). Here, Dee appears to be appropriating our dominant culture's denigration of such women, as a way of distancing herself and, in the process, retrieving some degree of power or moral standing. Her emphasis on the gap between how her family actually, and should have, behaved also does the moral work of directing the reader to where fault lies.

6.24 When Dee is contacted for post-interview follow-up, however, her narrative shifts, and she reflects on how the research interview itself has her revising the value of disclosure. Crucially, too, it affords another understanding of why Dee makes the link between morality and talking, other than not wanting to seem weak: she believed that she was morally in the wrong, 'the one at fault'.

I found it easy talking to a complete stranger [the researcher] and I probably should have discussed, certain things that happened in my life, I probably should have discussed it with someone at the time. But most people were too close but equally I didn't want to admit some things and I didn't want to seem to be weak. And I felt, with one part of my life, really, I was the one at fault and it took a long time to see that I wasn't. (Follow-up telephone interview with Dee).

6.25 The post-interview accounts with researchers allowed for the dialogical or performance elements of the narratives to be further analysed. Researchers describe the impact the narratives of Cath and Dee had on them. In doing so, they give us some sense of the success of the interviews as moral performances and, at the same time of the emotional work expected of them as the audience for these performances:

Dee had suffered a lot in her life - she'd been through some horrible stuff and as the interview went on I could feel myself getting quite angry about her mother's reaction to things - internally I was thinking 'what a bitch' - obviously didn't express (PI researcher notes).
I felt a couple of times that she was literally searching my face, wanting to read my reaction. [...] Cath's life story seems to have been one of being judged by family and found wanting and of, in turn, judging herself so perhaps the interview was an opportunity to stop this, however briefly. I felt warmly towards her, I felt the need to say that it sounded like she had acted courageously (PI researcher notes).

6.26 Both Cath and Dee are part of the majority in the BSA sample who believe there have been cultural and social shifts towards an acceptance that it is 'good to talk' about our emotions. We can hear in their accounts, however, how this discourse is refracted through particular life events - their point in the life course - their experience of the middle years, of the age of grief; the relationships which they have had, remembered or wished for; the times in which they have lived; and, relatedly, their gendered and material position. Both narratives are about emotional legacies - and it is these legacies which blur any meaningful distinction that Gross (2005) and others have tried to make between meaning-constitutive and regulative traditions. It is not just that cultural messages can be regulative - the moral injunction to talk being a case in point - but that the exclusionary effects of past regulations continue to have such strong emotional resonance in the present, shaping values and practices. As Dee puts it, there are bits that can't be let go of. Similarly Cath's account of how she tries to impress on her daughter the need to do things differently as a parent, suggests how resilient these legacies are. This seems to be particularly true for women; it is hard not to read/understand the emotional, physical and material costs of the events described - unplanned pregnancies, unwanted and violent marriages, single parenthood - as falling particularly heavily on them. We do not know what the men - the fathers, brothers, husbands, sons - in these two women's stories would have to say. No doubt they will have their own emotional legacies, though these are likely to be narrated and lived out in different ways.

Concluding thoughts...

7.1 It is clear from the above that different research methods create different understandings of the relationship between big social processes and micro (emotional) lives. Surveys differentiate and establish patterns within these processes and allow us to answer questions about how such processes impact on particular social groups, while narrative approaches embed these processes in particular biographies. Follow-up interviews allow these narratives, in their turn, to be reviewed in light of the research itself. In other words, these post-interview accounts of how it felt to talk about, and to be an audience for, such stories, emphasise the dialogical and performative nature of the narratives. Using different methods in this way allowed for the theoretical narrative about an en-bloc movement towards emotional expression to be challenged. Through the survey the possibility of lifestage and cohort effects shaping the experience of those in their middle years was highlighted, that is, the notion that while there may well be particular emotional experiences and insights associated with the middle years - the age of grief - these experiences and insights are in their turn shaped by the cultural mores of the time, the time of talk (or not). Through the narrative analysis, we see how these beliefs about the morality of emotions talk are also shaped by particular social relationships.

7.2 I started by taking Tilly's (1984) focus on the significance of relationships and the need to link the micro and the macro as compass points. Hopefully we have not wandered too far from the course set by them. The use of quantitative and qualitative approaches has shown how social processes can be linked with biographies in 'our own time' so that these processes are not reified as en bloc entities, impacting glacier-like on people's lives, sweeping along without resistance, all in their path. While Tilly(1999) is right to emphasise the social work that stories do, we miss a great deal if we do not see such stories as also telling us something important about the social. It is the fragmented, differentiated, ambivalent nature of these microstories which reveals how social processes are encountered. These stories play an invaluable part in getting right the narratives we tell about the 'big' processes.


This study was made possible by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (Res 062-23-0468). The author would also like to express her thanks to the other members of the research team Simon Anderson, Susan Reid, Lisa Given, Chris Creegan and Nicola Cleghorn of the National Centre for Social Research and to all those people who took part in interviews.


1The BSA survey is based on a representative sample of the adult (18+) population in England, Scotland and Wales. Participants are interviewed in their own homes using Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI). For the Someone To Talk To Study module, 2102 interviews were conducted between May and November 2007 with a response rate of 51%.

2Four researchers were involved in carrying out the qualitative interviews.

3In total 52 in-depth qualitative interviews and 16 follow-up interviews were carried out . Further details of the sample selection can be found in Anderson, Brownlie and Given (2009).

4While we are aware that those writing about a therapeutic turn are drawing on wider cultural shifts than the rise of counselling and therapeutic services, it would be curious if beliefs and practices about emotions talk and formal emotional support were not relevant to these broader shifts.

5This is the number allocated to the respondents who took part in follow-up qualitative interviews.

6Some biographical details have been changed in these accounts to protect the anonymity of the respondents.

7Timelines were sent out in advance of the interview and respondents were invited to note down on these what they viewed as the key events, times or stages in their lives so far. While the first part of the interview involved inviting respondents to share narratives about their lives and, in particular, specific experiences of 'getting through', the latter part of the interview involved an exploration of the beliefs people held about the role of professionals, their understanding of social change in relation to emotions talk; and a textual mapping of their current supports and ways of getting through.

8Cath's interview transcript has lines numbered from 1 to 4092; Dee's from 1 to 1492.


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