Social Psychology of Emotion


Darren Ellis & Ian Tucker

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    List of Figures and Tables

    • 1.1 Plato's divided line 14
    • 1.1 Table of virtues and vices 26–7
    • 2.1 Emotional processing stages 34
    • 6.1 Darwin's taxonomy of emotion 113

    About the Authors

    Darren Ellis is Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader in Psychosocial Studies at the University of East London. Darren has been interested in ways in which emotion, affect and feeling are experienced, expressed and constructed. These interests have influenced his writings on psychotherapy, the emotional disclosure paradigm, theorising police stop and search activity, surveillance studies, conspiracy theory studies, and understandings of social media interactivity.

    Ian Tucker is Reader in Social Psychology at the University of East London. He has a long standing interest in the social psychological aspects of emotion and affect, which has theoretically informed empirical work in the areas of mental distress, social media and surveillance. He has conducted research for the Mental Health Foundation and EPSRC Communities and Culture Network+, and is currently working on a project exploring the impact of social media on psychological support in mental health communities. Ian has published numerous articles in the areas of mental health, space and place, embodiment, surveillance and social media.


    We would first like to thank SAGE for all their support throughout the making of this book (Gemma Shields and Katherine Haw in particular). Special mention must be made of Dave Harper, who has supported us through all aspects of this book, and provided much valued and welcomed company on our ‘writing weekends’ in Glastonbury!

    Dr Ian Tucker

    I would like to thank my co-author Darren for his unremitting commitment to this book, and huge effort to bring it to press! Thanks also to all my colleagues in the Psychology and Social Change Research Group at UEL, who have provided much needed intellectual support and nourishment. I would also like to thank all the students that have provided very useful questions regarding, and contributions towards, my thinking. Finally I would like to express a huge gratitude to my wonderful family, Katherine, Noah and Isaac, who have been with me all the way, and who I would be completely lost without.

    Dr Darren Ellis

    Many thanks to Ian who is a great pleasure to work with; he has been both a great friend and a rich source of inspiration. I'd also like to thank my colleagues in the area of Psychosocial Studies at UEL who encouraged me to develop this project (particularly David Jones, Candida Yates, Angie Voela, Heather Price, Corinne Squire, Nicola Diamond, Cigdem Esin and Lurraine Jones). Also thanks to the students who helped me shape some of this book through the emotion lecture series. I am very lucky also to have such a supportive and loving family, so a special thanks to Nicola, Lily, Otto and Arthur.

  • Conclusion

    It seems that the scientisation of psychology as a discipline has to some extent repressed its emotional history. This is not a unique contemporary phenomenon but history tells the story of the ways in which ideas are suppressed and superseded. For example emotion theories throughout the medieval period drew on the philosophy of Plato, but tended to reframe it through a Christian doctrine; later the enlightenment period attempted to reframe Christian doctrine through for example natural law theory; and contemporary psychology attempts to reframe former theorisations through inductive (scientific) methodologies. As Freud would have it, however, there is always a return of the repressed and thus we see similar discourses and questions emerge but in different guises through the various epochs and disciplines. However, we can (and perhaps should) learn something from the early theories of emotion. For example, distinctions between passions and affect were quite important to many pre-scientific conceptualisations. In many accounts the passions were less voluntary than the affects; but we no longer have such a distinction, perhaps because psychology has attempted to move away from these theologically loaded conceptualisations, such as affectus being part of the higher (intellectual) soul. In this way it dismisses some very rich theorisations that could be reinvigorated for contemporary purposes. Indeed it is argued by some scholars that today many of these early concepts that were bound up with theology have found their way through to psychology in disguised form (either consciously, or perhaps more likely, unconsciously or rather non-deliberately) (see Dixon (2003) for a review). For example, we still see distinctions between cognition and emotion, one often understood as more rational than the other, more intelligent and more suitable to human behaviour. Even the post-structuralist theories of affect resort to dichotomising the virtual with the actual in a way that is reminiscent of Plato's distinction between doxa and episteme or Kant's phenomena and noumena. This is not to say that there is no value in the development of thought, just as the ego must supersede the id, there is a requirement for psychology to become a rational discipline. Indeed it required disciplining! Yet, and if we are to continue with the metaphor of psychoanalysis, there is the danger of over-socialising the discipline through which the superego can become too overbearing.

    Just as individuals have been in need of taming the primitive and animalistic aspects of the self, one could argue that the discipline of psychology attempts to disentangle itself from the more emotional, subjective, messy and undesirable parts of itself. For instance, in the UK social cognition is the primary approach for social psychology, and is a core part of the British Psychological Society undergraduate curriculum, whereas emotion is not. Whilst we are not in any way denying the importance of cognitive processes in human activity (as we have not denied biological approaches), we feel that emotion as a topic features far too rarely in approaches that seek to toe the rationalist line. One could argue that this is because, whether consciously or not, mainstream social psychology's desire to operate a primarily cognitive approach has been, in part at least, to avoid engaging in aspects of the psychological self that emerge in and through emotional activity. Emotion's existence as messy, contradictory, complex, difficult to pin down and understand seemingly makes it problematic for mainstream rationalist approaches. We argue though that such messy activity is of prime concern for psychology, and although it may trouble its scientific credentials, should not be played down or taken out of the social psychological gaze.

    Thus in this book we have attempted to engage with the messy from Ancient Greek understandings right through to contemporary philosophies of digital media and technologies. Our aim has been to cover those theories and empirical accounts of emotion that we argue are important for a social psychological understanding of emotion, past and present, not because they fit into some form of social psychological paradigm. Some of the theories we've covered have featured in existing psychological histories of emotion, for instance, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Darwin and James. However, we have drawn out aspects of their work that is valuable when following a ‘social’ psychological account. We have also discussed theories that have not traditionally featured in histories of emotion, for instance, the social psychology of Kurt Lewin and the philosophy of technology of Gilbert Simondon. This is because we have wanted throughout to revisit well known theories of emotion, and point to what a modern social psychology of emotion can learn from them, as well as supplement them as and when appropriate. In doing so we hope to have avoided producing yet another potted history of emotion, and instead present a social psychological understanding of emotion, which has often been absent from previous accounts.

    Contemporary psychologies of emotion tend to be dominated by biological and cognitive accounts, which attempt to model the underlying biological and/or cognitive processes of emotion. We have not focused extensively on existing models of this kind, as our concern has been to address what is important for social psychological understandings. Our reason for wanting to write about specifically social psychological understandings of emotion, and what is important for them, is due to a desire to broaden psychological focus on the emotions, away from some of the potentially reductive beliefs that can form when focusing only on single disciplinary thinking. This can be exacerbated when one's approach aims to identify processes as causally underpinning emotional activity (e.g. biological models). Taking a social approach usefully facilitates an alternative starting point for analysis, in terms of thinking about the multiple relationships between objects and spaces that constitute the inner and outer realms of our social worlds. Doing so obliges one to think interdisciplinarily from the start. We know this from the success of social psychology as a field. We seek to add to this through an explicit focus on emotion, which we feel has, rather surprisingly, remained a minor part of existing social psychology.

    To date social psychology has been dominated by focus on concepts that are seen to be central to social behaviour. A glance through most social psychology textbooks will find chapters on attitude, prejudice, inter-group processes, social identity etc. These have, in the main, been studied experimentally and in accordance with the dominant theoretical paradigm of the time, e.g. social cognition. Since the 1980s an alternative stream of social psychological research has emerged, often called ‘critical social psychology’, which focuses on unpacking some of what it thought of as overly individualistic and reductive thinking in mainstream social psychology, and instead points to the social and historical contingency of social psychology categories, rather than simply accepting that they relate to specific and inherent psychological realities. This alternative stream has been for a lot of its time concerned with various forms of textual analysis, focusing empirically on the ways people orient to and/or construct their own understandings of identity and subjectivity. To a degree, ‘critical social psychology’ has been a less rational and more nuanced and complex sub-discipline, not without its own contradictions and internal debates. In writing this book we are addressing what we see as a gap in both mainstream and ‘critical’ social psychology, namely providing a sustained and substantive historical and contemporary account of emotion. In doing so, we are claiming that ‘emotion activity’ remains in need of continued theoretical and empirical social psychological focus. Moreover, battle lines do not need to be drawn between mainstream and critical approaches, but a course can be navigated that draws out the important antecedents and influences from across psychology as a whole, and beyond.

    So, in writing this book we have not set out to offer a new ‘social psychology of emotion’, theoretically and/or empirically. Instead we have presented a range of theories that we argue are important for social psychological understandings of emotion. As we stated in the Introduction, such a history has not been completed before in this context, and therefore the book is hopefully a timely offering. Moreover, a strength of this approach, namely not offering a specific social psychological approach itself, is that it allows us to present a set of concerns that we think should shape social psychology, and its multiple engagements with emotion. The discipline needs to be free to draw on theories from a range of disciplines where appropriate, and should not feel restricted through fear of entering existing debates that require one to take a specific position in relation to, for example, biology, discourse etc. Throughout the book we have sought to point out the importance of emotion for social psychology, yet we see drawing territorial lines around for instance, specific topics, paradigms, and approaches as unhelpful. This is why we argue that whilst it is useful for social psychology to have a distinct disciplinary identity, and therefore justify its existence in the world, in its practice it needs to be able to draw on theories from multiple disciplines.

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