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Philosophy of Emotion - Defending a Social Constructionism Theory of Emotion

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It is a commonplace expression that you have to break an egg to make an omelet. Social constructionism is not about making omelets; it is, rather, about the living, clucking chicken that develops from an egg under normal conditions. Episodic dispositions, cognitive schemas, and transitional social roles are three overlapping features or principles that help us understand how emotional responses are organized into coherent syndromes. Any discussion of one presumes the other two

Nevertheless, they point in somewhat different directions for further analysis, as I will try to illustrate briefly.

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There are different theories of emotion to explain what emotions are and how they operate. This is challenging, since emotions can be analyzed from many different perspectives. In one sense, emotions are sophisticated and subtle, the epitome of what make us human. In another sense, however, human emotions seem to be very similar to (if not the same as) the responses that other animals display. Further, the emotions that we have and how we express them reflect our social environment, but it also seems likely that emotions were shaped by natural selection over time. These and other conflicting features of the emotions make constructing a theory difficult and have led to the creation of a variety of different theories. Theories of emotion can be categorized in terms of the context within which the explanation is developed. The standard contexts are evolutionary, social and internal. Evolutionary theories attempt to provide an historical analysis of the emotions, usually with a special interest in explaining why humans today have the emotions that they do. Social theories explain emotions as the products of cultures and societies

The internal approach attempts to provide a description of the emotion process itself. This article is organized around these three categories and will discuss the basic ideas that are associated with each. Some specific theories, as well as the main features of emotion will also be explained.Emotion is one type of affect, other types being mood, temperament and sensation (for example, pain). Emotions can be understood as either states or as processes. When understood as a state (like being angry or afraid), an emotion is a type of mental state that interacts with other mental states and causes certain behaviors. Understood as a process, it is useful to divide emotion into two parts. The early part of the emotion process is the interval between the perception of the stimulus and the triggering of the bodily response. The later part of the emotion process is a bodily response, for example, changes in heart rate, skin conductance, and facial expression. This description is sufficient to begin an analysis of the emotions, although it does leave out some aspects of the process such as the subjective awareness of the emotion and behavior that is often part of the emotion response (for example, fighting, running away, hugging another person). The early part of the process is typically taken to include an evaluation of the stimulus, which means that the occurrence of an emotion depends on how the individual understands or “sees” the stimulus. For example, one person may respond to being laid-off from a job with anger, while another person responds with joy—it depends on how the individual evaluates this event. Having this evaluative component in the process means that an emotion is not a simple and direct response to a stimulus. In this way, emotions differ from reflexes such as the startle response or the eye-blink response, which are direct responses to certain kinds of stimuli.

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It will prove illustrative to contrast my work on the self-concept within the old paradigm (mechanistic, individualistic, experimental), with recent recent, relationally oriented explorations of emotion (Gergen, 1994). Let us first deconstruct the traditional emotional terms - concepts such as anger, love, fear, joy, and the like. That is, let us view such terms as social constructions, and not as indexing differentiated properties of the mind or the cortex. With the aid of such deconstruction we are relieved of the endlessly burdensome search for the signified - that is, the elusive essence of anger, love, and so on. Further, the individualist conception of such terms may be bracketed. This critique also enables us to view the language of emotion, not as a set of terms referring to off-stage properties of the mind, but as performatives. That is, when we say, "I am angry," "I love you," and the like, we are not trying to describe a far off land of the mind, or a state of the neurons

Rather, we are performing in a relationship, and the phrases themselves are only a constituent of more fully embodied actions, including movements of the limbs, vocal intonations, patterns of gaze, and so on. At the same time, let us not view these performances as purely individual. Rather, they are more adequately viewed as integers in more complex patterns of relationship. They cannot be performed at random, but require the actions of others as invitations; and once performed, they invite only a circumscribed array of actions on the part of the others. Let us view these extended patterns of interchange as emotional scenarios. In documenting emotional scenarios for anger, for example, we find that there are only certain actions that warrant anger as an intelligible response (e.g. insult, expressions of hostility). And, once anger has been performed, the other is not free to act in any way; convention requires that one react, for example, with an apology, with an exonerating explanation, or with anger. Or to put it more broadly, we find emotional expressions to be constituents of extended forms of interchange, somewhat like cultural dances, and they gain their intelligibility and importance only by virtue of their placement within such dances. Emotional performances are no more possessions of the single individual than are the words we speak. Although innovative theoretical formulations such as these are one means of contributing to a process of societal transformation, we find additional professional means of pursuing such ends. For example, constructionist psychologists have also pursued alternative forms of methodology, reasoning as they do that research methods also convey values and ideologies. Feeling that experimental technologies place a divide between the scientist and subject, privilege the scientist's voice over the subject's, and invite manipulation, they seek means of broadening the range of research methods. Qualitative methodologies (Denzin and Lincoln, 1994) are one significant step toward an enriched social psychology, as are discourse analytic procedures.

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In conclusion, philosophical naturalists as well as working scientists have begun to take up this opportunity in ways that use the methods of philosophy and science to both state and evaluate social constructionist hypotheses (though not always under that label)

Because of the powerful and central role culture plays in shaping human social environments, behaviors, identities and development, there is ample room for continuing and even expanding the pursuit of social constructionist themes within a naturalistic framework.

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Fiske,S. (l987) Television culture. London: Routledge.

Gadamer, H. (l975) Truth and method. New York: Seabury.

Gergen, K.J. (l965) Interactions goals and personalistic feedback as factors affecting the presentations of self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, l, 4l3-424.

Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S. (Eds.) (1994) Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Edwards, D. & Potter,J.(l992) Discursive psychology. London: Sage.

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