Social Interaction (Lecture #3, SOC101Y, 26 Sep 12, R Brym)
Feminist Theory, Emotions, and the Building Blocks of Social
A few years ago, a researcher and his assistants eavesdropped on 1200 conversations
of people laughing in public places, such as shopping malls (Provine, 2000). When they
heard someone laughing, they recorded who laughed (the speaker, the listener, or both)
and the gender of the speaker and the listener. To simplify things, they eavesdropped
only on two-person groups.
They found that women laugh more than men do in everyday conversations. The
biggest discrepancy in laughing occurs when the speaker is a woman and the listener is
a man. In such cases, women laugh more than twice as often as men do. However,
even when a man speaks and a woman listens, the woman is more likely to laugh than
the man is.
Research also shows that men are more likely than women are to engage in long
monologues and interrupt when others are talking (Tannen, 1994a, 1994b). Men are
less likely to ask for help or directions because doing so would imply a reduction in their
authority. Much male–female conflict results from these differences. A stereotypical case
is the lost male driver and the helpful female passenger. The female passenger, seeing
that the male driver is lost, suggests that they stop and ask for directions. The male
driver does not want to ask for directions because he thinks that would make him look
incompetent. If both parties remain firm in their positions, an argument is bound to
Social interaction involves communication among people acting and reacting to one
another, either face-to-face or via computer. Feminist sociologists are especially
sensitive to gender differences in social interaction like those just described. They see
that gender often structures interaction patterns.
Consider laughter. If we define status as a recognized social position, it is generally true
that people with higher status (in this case, men) get more laughs, while people with
lower status (in this case, women) laugh more. That is perhaps why class clowns are
nearly always boys. Similarly, a sociological study of laughter among staff members in a
psychiatric hospital discovered what the researcher called “downward humour” (Coser,
1960). At a series of staff meetings, the psychiatrists averaged 7.5 witticisms, the
residents averaged 5.5, and the paramedics averaged a mere 0.7. The higher the status
of a staff member, the more laughs they got. Moreover, the psychiatrists most often
made the residents the target of their humor while the residents and the paramedics
targeted the patients or themselves. Laughter in everyday life, it turns out, is not as
spontaneous as you may think. It is often a signal of who has higher or lower status.
Social structure influences who laughs more.
Social statuses are just one of three building blocks that structure all social interactions.
The others are roles and norms. A role is a set of expected behaviours. Whereas people occupy a status, they perform a role. Students may learn to expect that when things get
dull, the class clown will brighten their day. The class clown will rise to the occasion,
knowing that his fellow students expect him to do so. A norm is a generally accepted
way of doing things. Classroom norms are imposed by instructors, who routinely punish
class clowns for distracting their classmates from the task at hand.
Some scholars think that laughter and other emotions are like the common cold. In both
cases, an external disturbance causes a reaction that people presumably experience
involuntarily. For example, the external disturbance could be a grizzly bear attack that
causes us to experience fear, or exposure to a virus that causes us to catch cold. In
either case, we can’t control our body’s patterned response. Emotions, like colds, just
happen to us (Thoits, 1989: 319).
It is not surprising that feminists were among the first sociologists to note the flaw in the
view that emotional responses are typically involuntary (Hochschild, 1979, 1983).
Seeing how often women, as status subordinates, must control their emotions, they
generalized the idea. Emotions don’t just happen to us, they argued. We manage them.
If a grizzly bear attacks you in the woods, you can run as fast as possible or calm
yourself, lie down, play dead, and silently pray for the best. You are more likely to
survive the grizzly bear attack if you control your emotions and follow the second
strategy. You will also temper your fear with a new emotion: hope (see Figure 1).
How We Get Emotional
For example, a grizzly bear attacks.
physiological response and initial emotion
Your pulse rate increases etc.; you experience fear.
cultural script You have learned that lying still and playing dead increases the chance the grizzly bear
will lose interest in you.
modified emotional response
you act according to the cultural script, which gives you hope.
When people manage their emotions, they usually follow certain cultural “scripts,” like
the culturally transmitted knowledge that lying down and playing dead gives you a better
chance of surviving a grizzly bear attack. That is, individuals usually know the culturally
designated emotional response to a particular external stimulus and try to respond
appropriately. If they
don’t succeed in achieving the culturally appropriate emotional response, they are likely
to feel guilt, disappointment, or (as in the case of the grizzly bear attack) something
Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild is a leading figure in the study of emotion
management. In fact, she coined the term. She argues that emotion management
involves people obeying “feeling rules” and responding appropriately to the situations in
which they find themselves (Hochschild, 1979, 1983). So, for example, people talk
about the “right” to feel angry and they acknowledge that they “should” have mourned a
relative’s death more deeply. People have conventional expectations not only about
what they should feel but also about how much they should feel, how long they should
feel it, and with whom they should share those feelings. For example, we are expected
to mourn the end of a love relationship. Canadians today regard shedding tears as
completely natural in such a case, though if you shot yourself—a fad among some
European Romantics in the early nineteenth century—then the average Canadian would
consider you deranged. If you go on a date minutes after you break up with your long-
time love, most people will regard you as callous. Norms and rules govern our
Hochschild distinguishes emotion management (which everyone does in their everyday
life) from emotion labour (which many people do as part of their job and for which they
are paid). We’ve all seen teachers discipline students who routinely hand in
assignments late, pass notes, chatter during class, talk back, and act as class clowns.
Those teachers do emotion labour. Similarly, sales clerks, nurses, and flight attendants
must be experts in emotion labour. They spend a considerable part of their workday
dealing with other people’s misbehaviour, anger, rudeness, and unreasonable demands.
They spend another part of their workday in what is essentially promotional and public
relations work on behalf of the organizations that employ them. (“We hope you enjoyed
your flight on Air Canada and that we can serve you again the next time your travel.”) In all these tasks, they carefully manage their own emotions while trying to render their
clientele happy and orderly. Hochschild estimates that in the United States, nearly half
the jobs women do and one-fifth of the jobs men do involve substantial amounts of
emotion labour. More women than men do emotion labour because they are typically
better socialized to undertake caring and nurturing roles.
Note too that as the focus of the economy shifts from the production of goods to the
production of services, the market for emotion labour grows. More and more people are
selected, trained, and paid for their skill in emotion labour. Consequently, business
organizations increasingly govern the expression of feelings at work, which becomes
less spontaneous and authentic over time. This process affects women more than it
does men because women do more emotion labour than men do.
Emotions in Historical Perspective
Social structure impinges on emotional experiences in many ways. As we have seen,
status hierarchies influence patterns of laughter. Cultural scripts and the expectations of
others influence the way we manage our emotions in our personal lives. The growth of
the economy’s service sector requires more emotion labour, turns it into a commodity,
and decreases the ability of people to experience emotions spontaneously and
authentically. In these and other ways, the commonsense view of emotions as unique,
spontaneous, uncontrollable, authentic, natural, and perhaps even rooted exclusively in
our biological makeup proves to be misguided.
We can glean additional evidence of the impact of society on our emotional life from
socio-historical studies. It turns out that feeling rules take different forms under different
social conditions, which vary historically. Three examples from the social history of
emotions help illustrate the point:
• Grief. Among other factors, the crude death rate (the annual number of deaths per
1000 people in a population) helps determine our experience of grief (Lofland,
1985). In Europe as late as 1600, life expectancy was only 35 years. Many
infants died at birth or in their first year of life. Infectious diseases decimated
populations. The medical profession was in its infancy. The risk of losing family
members, especially babies, was thus much greater than today. One result of
this situation was that people invested less emotionally in their children than we
typically do. Their grief response to the death of children was shorter and less
intense than ours is; the mourning period was briefer and people became less
distraught. As health conditions improved and the infant mortality rate fell over
the years, emotional investment in children increased. It intensified especially in
the nineteenth century when women starting having fewer babies on average as
a result of industrialization. As emotional investment in children increased, grief
response to children’s deaths intensified and lasted longer. • Anger. Industrialization and the growth of competitive markets in nineteenth-century
North America and Europe turned the family into an emotional haven from a
world increasingly perceived as heartless. In keeping with the enhanced
emotional function of the family, anger control, particularly by women, became
increasingly important for the establishment of a harmonious household. The
early twentieth century witnessed mounting labour unrest and the growth of the
service sector. Avoiding anger thus became an important labour relations goal.
This trend influenced family life too. Child-rearing advice manuals increasingly
stressed the importance of teaching children how to control their anger (Stearns
and Stearns, 1985, 1986).
• Disgust. Manners in Europe in the Middle Ages were disgusting by our standards.
Even the most refined aristocrats spat in public and belched shamelessly during
banquets. Members of high society did not think twice about scratching
themselves in places we regard as private and passing gas at the dinner table,
where they ate with their hands and speared food with knives. What was
acceptable then causes revulsion now because feeling rules have changed.
Specifically, manners began to change with the emergence of the modern
political state, especially after 1700. The modern political state raised armies and
collected taxes, imposed languages and required loyalty. All this coordination of
effort necessitated more self-control on the part of the citizenry. Changes in
standards of public conduct—signalled by the introduction of the fork, the
nightdress, the handkerchief, the spittoon, and the chamber pot— accompanied
the rise of the modern state. Good manners also served to define who had power
and who lacked it. For example, there is nothing inherently well-mannered about
a father sitting at the head of the table carving the turkey and children waiting to
speak until they are spoken to. These rules about the difference between good
manners and improper behaviour were created to signify the distribution of power
in the family by age and gender (Elias, 1994 ; Scott, 1998).
We thus see that although emotions form an important part of all social interactions,
they are neither universal nor constant. They have histories and deep sociological
underpinnings in statuses, roles, and norms. This observation flies in the face of
common sense. We typically think of our interactions as outcomes of our emotional
states. We commonly believe that we interact differently with people depending on
whether they love us, make us angry, or make us laugh. We usually think our emotions
are evoked involuntarily and result in uncontrollable action. However, emotions are not
as unique, involuntary, and uncontrollable as people often believe. Underlying the
turbulence of emotional life is a measure of order and predictability governed by
sociological principles that vary historically.
Just as building blocks need cement to hold them together, so norms, roles, and
statuses require a sort of “social cement” to prevent them from falling apart and to turn
them into a durable social structure. What is the nature of the cement that holds the building blocks of social life together? Asked differently, exactly how is social interaction
maintained? This is the most fundamental sociological question one can ask, for it is
really a question about how social structures, and society as a whole, are possible.
Conflict Theories of Social Interaction Competing for Attention
Have you ever been in a conversation where you couldn’t get a word in edgewise? If
you are like most people, this situation is bound to happen occasionally. The longer this
kind of one-sided conversation persists, the more neglected you feel. You may make
increasingly forceful attempts to turn the conversation your way. However, if you fail,
you may decide to end the interaction altogether. If this experience repeats itself—if the
person you are talking to persistently monopolizes conversations—you are likely to want
to avoid getting into conversations with him or her in the future. Maintaining interaction
(and maintaining a relationship) requires that both parties’ need for attention is met. (For
an example of what can happen when this need is not met, see this online video clip.)
Most people do not consistently try to monopolize conversations. If they did, there
wouldn’t be much talk in the world. In fact, turn-taking is one of the basic norms that
govern conversations; people literally take turns talking to make conversation possible.
Nonetheless, a remarkably large part of all conversations involves a subtle competition
for attention. Consider the following snippet of dinner conversation:
John: “I’m feeling really starved.”
Mary: “Oh, I just ate.”
John: “Well, I’m feeling really starved.” Mary: “When was the last time you ate?”
Charles Derber recorded this conversation (Derber, 1979: 24). John starts by saying
how hungry he is. The attention is on him. Mary replies that she is not hungry, and the
attention shifts to her. John insists he is hungry, shifting attention back to him. Mary
finally allows the conversation to focus on John by asking him when he last ate. John
thus “wins” the competition for attention.
Derber recorded 1500 conversations in family homes, workplaces, restaurants,
classrooms, dormitories, and therapy groups. He concluded that North Americans
usually try to
turn conversations toward themselves. They usually do so in ways that go unnoticed.
Nonetheless, says Derber, the typical conversation is a covert competition for attention.
In Derber’s words, there exists
a set of extremely common conversational practices which show an unresponsiveness
to others’ topics and involve turning them into one’s own. Because of norms prohibiting
blatantly egocentric behaviour, these practices are often exquisitely subtle.... Although
conversationalists are free to introduce topics about themselves, they are expected to maintain an appearance of genuine interest in [topics] about others in a conversation. A
delicate face-saving system requires that people refrain from openly disregarding
others’ concerns and keep expressions of disinterest from becoming visible. (1979: 23)
You can observe the competition for attention yourself. Record a couple of minutes of
conversation in your dorm, home, or workplace. Then play back the recording. Evaluate
each statement in the conversation. Does the statement try to change who is the
subject of the conversation? Or does it say something about the other
conversationalists or ask them about what they said? How does not responding or
merely saying “uh-huh” in response operate to shift attention? Are other conversational
techniques especially effective in shifting attention? Who “wins” the conversation? What
is the winner’s gender, race, and class position? Is the winner popular or unpopular? Do
you think a connection exists between the person’s status in the group and his or her
ability to win? You might even want to record yourself in conversation. Where do you fit
Derber’s analysis is influenced by conflict theory, which holds that social interaction
involves competition over valued resources. Such resources include attention, approval,
prestige, information, money, and so on (Blau, 1964; Coleman, 1990; Hechter, 1987;
Homans, 1961). According to conflict theorists, competitive interaction involves people
seeking to gain the most—socially, emotionally, and economically—while paying the
Variants of the Conflict Theory of Interaction
The idea that social interaction involves trade in attention and other valued resources is
the central insight of exchange theory, one variant of the conflict theory of interaction
(Blau, 1964; Homans, 1961). Exchange theorists argue that all social relationships
involve a literal give and take. From this point of view, when people interact, they
exchange valued resources (including attention, pleasure, approval, prestige,
information, and money) or punishments. With payoffs, relationships endure and can
give rise to various organizational forms. Without payoffs, relationships end.
Paradoxically, relationships can also endure because punishments are exchanged. The
classic case involves “tit-for-tat” violence, where one party to a conflict engages in
violence, another party retaliates, the first party seeks revenge, and so on.
A second variant of this approach is rational choice theory (Coleman, 1990; Hechter,
1987). Rational choice theory focuses less on the resources exchanged than on the
way interacting people weigh the benefits and costs of interaction. According to rational
choice theory, interacting people always try to maximize benefits and minimize costs.
Businesspeople want to keep their expenses to a minimum so they can keep their
profits as high as possible. Similarly, everyone wants to gain the most from their
interactions—socially, emotionally, and economically—while paying the least.
6 From this point of view, the chance of a relationship enduring increases if it provides the
interacting parties with payoffs. Ultimately, then, payoffs make social order possible. On
the other hand, unequal payoffs mean trouble. The greater the inequality of payoffs to
interacting parties, the greater the chance that conflict will erupt and lead to a
breakdown in the interaction. Thus, conflict never lies far below the surface of
competitive social interactions marked by substantial inequality (Bourdieu, 1977 ;
Power and Social Interaction
Many conflict theorists of social interaction emphasize that when people interact, their
statuses are often arranged in a hierarchy. People on top enjoy more power than those
on the bottom— that is, they are “in a position to carry out [their] own will despite
resistance” (Weber, 1947: 152). In face-to-face communication, the degree of inequality
strongly affects the character of social interaction between the interacting parties
(Bourdieu, 1977 ; Collins, 1982; Kemper, 1978, 1987; Molm, 1997).
To get a better grasp on the role of power in social interaction, consider two extreme
cases and the case that lies at the midpoint between the extremes (Table 1).
Domination represents one extreme type of interaction. In social interaction based on
domination, nearly all power is concentrated in the hands of people of similar status,
whereas people of different status enjoy almost no power. Guards versus inmates in a
concentration camp, and landowners versus slaves on plantations in the American
South before the Civil War were engaged in social interaction based on domination. In
extreme cases of domination, subordinates live in a state of near-constant fear.
Main Modes of Interaction
The other extreme involves interaction based on cooperation. Here, power is more or
less equally distributed between people of different status. Cooperative interaction is
based on feelings of trust. Marriages are happier when spouses share housework and
child care equitably. Perceived inequity breeds resentment and dissatisfaction. It harms
intimacy. It increases the chance that people will have extramarital affairs and will
divorce. In contrast, a high level of trust between spouses is associated with marital
stability and enduring love (Wood, 1999).
Between the two extremes of interaction based on domination and interaction based on