Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Emotions in Social Life: Critical Themes and Contemporary Issues

Gillian Bendelow and Simon J. Williams (editors)
London: Routledge
0 415 1379 9 (pb); 0 415 13798 5 (hb)
£17.99 (pb); £50.00 (hb)
xxx + 340 pp.

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This edited collection has developed from the work of the BSA Sociology of Emotions study group, but draws on the work of other sociologists. The collection is very uneven and it is not possible to do justice to it in a short review In general, it is centred around the role of emotions in social life and attempts to show how an 'emotional' perspective can be useful in various areas of sociological research and theorising. In the first chapter Bendelow and Williams attempt to demarcate the 'sociological terrain' of 'emotions in social life'. They suggest that the study of emotions has been neglected in a Western intellectual tradition which divorces body and mind, nature and culture, reason and emotion and public from private. They suggest that the study of emotion breaks down these dualisms and thus mounts an epistemological challenge to western rationality.

The book begins with a set of critical theoretical essays, which are followed by four sections showing the utility of 'emotion' perspectives to various substantive areas of research; information technology, lifecourse research, sexuality/personal relationships, and health.

The first of the more applied sections deals with the mediation of emotional experience through television and the internet. Tester discusses the blunting of emotional reactions to television news (of disasters, wars, etc.) in relation to Simmel's theory of the social overload suffered by city-dwellers. Denzin gives an account of gendered 'therapeutic' transactions on an internet discussion group, and Williams criticises the notion of 'virtual reality' as substitutable for embodied experience.

The emotional experiences of children and the implications of ageing for emotional life are discussed in the next section. Mayall discusses how the experience of children is structured by the division between home and school, and the various affective experiences available or typical of either location. Mayall's emphasis on the structuring of daily life and its affordances shows how an affective perspective can add to our understanding of the taken-for-granted and mundane. In contrast to Mayall's somewhat ideal-typical portrait of primary school children, Prendergast and Forrest describe peer-group behaviour in secondary schools, pointing up the distress suffered by boys who have been subjected to bullying. Hepworth criticises the stereotyped view of the life-cycle as staged and progressive, arguing for a more complex view of identity over the life-span.

A section on gender and emotions follows. Seidler argues that the emotional dimension of men's lives is suppressed. Duncombe and Marsden discuss the concept of emotion work in relation to gendered performances. They make pertinent criticisms of the use of this concept and of notions of authenticity and false consciousness. Wouters discusses the balance between 'love' as identified by commitment to a relationship and 'lust' as identified by pleasure-seeking, preferably anonymously. Seidler's paper suffers from a rather stereotyped view of emotionality, a view which is undermined by Dunscombe and Marsden, and by Wouters.

The final section on emotions and health includes a paper by Bendelow and Williams on different experiences of pain according to gender. Freund contributes a closely argued and interesting paper on space, boundedness and the physical dynamics of social interactions. These concepts are treated both as material factors and as psychological metaphors, leading into a discussion of the stress encountered when people are unable to defend either their physical or psychological boundaries. This section finishes with two well-organised and interesting papers on nursing. Meerabeau and Page describe the emotion constellations experienced by nurses involved in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, while Olesen and Bone discuss changes in nursing organisation and administration and suggest how these changes may impact on the emotional work carried out by nurses. They lay out the implications of these changes and suggest ways of developing research in this area.

In general, I found the applied theory sections of the book more interesting and useful than the general section. This may be partly because they introduced me to substantive areas of sociological research about which I knew little or nothing. And in many cases, the rather fuzzy conceptualisation of emotions does not detract from the substantive arguments. This is not the case for the general section, which was disappointing. This section begins with a piece in which Hochschild attempts to extend her emotion labour analogy to conflictive emotions around the marriage rite. However, this analogy is most useful for the fairly routinised types of emotion displays to be found in work settings and is too limiting for the topic treated in this chapter. Averill's (1980; 1985) work on the normative contradictions embedded in emotion concepts would be useful here. Newton criticises the lack of historical perspective in most emotion theory, but seems to be ignorant of a body of historical research on emotion and feeling conventions by social historians and social psychologists, e.g. the work of Stearns and Stearns (1986). Lyon criticises anthropological research for an overly culturalist perspective, which mystifies the question of social and bodily agency. To some extent she seems to be attacking a straw man. While it is true that the anthropologists whom she cites are more interested in issues of social control than issues of social structure, in all the cases cited they explore the cultures of small and isolated tribes. Part of the value of this type of research on emotions is that it gives us a place to stand outside our own culture, from which we can see more clearly the shape of our own conceptions of emotions. Ordinary language analysis can give us another such place and was used extensively in emotion theorising in the 1960s and 1970s to carry out just this task, breaking down the notion of emotions as sensations (see eg. Kenny, 1963; Arnold, 1970; Averill, 1980; Armon-Jones, 1986).

Crossley's chapter uses linguistic approaches to emotion and phenomenology to extend Habermas's theory of social action. I found this chapter the most interesting and coherent, but again it was marred by a misunderstanding of the meaning of the 'intentionality' of mental acts, and the strategic role which the intentionality of emotion concepts played in social constructivist theories of emotion. His discussion of the phenomenology of emotions is important as this topic is usually ignored in constructivist approaches. In general his chapter succeeds in giving signposts into the fascinating epistemological problems underlying contemporary emotion theorising.

This book seems to be aimed at an advanced undergraduate or postgraduate readership. Although some chapters repay reading, others are marred by ignorance or miscomprehension of work in philosophy, social anthropology and social psychology, most of which is easily accessible.

Muriel Egerton
University of Manchester


ARMON-JONES, C. (1986) 'The Thesis of Constructionism' in R. Harre (editor) The Social Construction of Emotion. Oxford: Blackwell.

ARNOLD, M.B. (1970) (editor) Feelings and Emotions: The Loyola Symposium. New York: Academic Press.

AVERILL, J.R. (1980) Anger and Aggression: An Essay on Emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.

AVERILL, J.R. (1985) 'The Social Construction of Emotion with Special Reference to Love' in K.J. Gergen and K.E. Davis (editors) The Social Construction of the Person. New York: Springer-Verlag.

KENNY, A. (1963) Action, Emotion and Will. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

STEARNS, C.Z. and STEARNS, P.N. (1986) Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America's History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998