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Discussing sociology on the taxonomic program of emotions proposed by Thomas J. Scheff contested by Cas Wouters

Lisboa, 2008-03-30

Dear Thomas, Cas and all,

Your discussion about the epistemological background of our common taxonomic work is, of course, crucial. I suppose one need to develop it on going the Tom´s oriented discussion about sociological definition of single emotions.

I wonder if my approach to the epistemological problem would help to clarify issues and each one positions. I hope my English writing does not betray my thinking, as I am a Portuguese language sociologist. Any way, I can offer you three English papers on the subject you can download at http://iscte.pt/~apad/novosite2007/ingles.html (Damasios´s errors - homage to a source of inspiration; Two Cultures and the real thing; Two Cultures and the real thing second version)

I came from noticing the fact that 21rst century sociology has a biased relationship with violence and instability of life. Mainstream sociology thinks it self as a part of a larger scientific division of labour that splits violence (especially state violence) and life instability (especially body and emotional instabilities) from sociological playground. International relations, political science, criminology, strategic sciences, doctrinaire knowledge (as Law), for instance, are disciplines outside and neglected by mainstream sociology and forgotten in sociology courses. It was not the case within the works of Marx, Durkheim or Weber. That means that sociology taboos did course mainstream sociology, as Social State supporter, till its actual tinny speaker’s corner in scientific division of labour. Sociologists are not aloud easily to talk about, to refer to, to think about certain subjects, stigmatised as non sociological, non ethical, ideological, non rational, and so on.   

My empirical problem is this: why should prisoners be treated – most of the time – as non people or as if they do not live, as if they were already dead? Even Foucault and Goffman did accept the idea of the non existence (or the abnormal existence) of prisoners in social life. My task is to show how these mainstream sociological conceptions reinforce ideologically exclusion processes that produce excluded people, reinforcing social peace of mind about human rights growing violations, both in the Third World and at home (because sociology is not able – or willing – to denounce these violations). Arguing that these denunciation goals are out of our collective competence or goals, as sociologists, do not explain the way mainstream sociologists become nervous about this kind of questioning. That is why it is growing a new sociological speciality – the Human Rights sociology – as a marginal development of social theory. It do not feat within mainstream social theory. I hope, in the future, human rights problems will match with the emphasis and concerns of mainstream sociology and of mainstream sociological courses.

I am developing a theoretical sociological approach to these problems around the concepts of sociology of instability (meaning that each one of us are equal in potential to every one else, even if we all depend on our body/mind physics/chemestry developments during life, we all depend on social institutional framework – the habitus of Bourdieu, for instance -, we all depend on our will to face and organize change, both in our own lives and in social live) social natures (see http://iscte.pt/~apad/social%20natures) and state-of-spirit (meaning a formalized theoretical and methodological approach, both qualitative/inductive and quantitative/deductive - not at the same time, of course -, to conceive and propose basic and common states-of-mind present at all forms of culture knowned and feelled by human beings. States-of-mind are a tuned and synchronized assembly all levels of instable living reality producing an empirical state of some kind of stability; the way of showing togetherness, social cohesion, as human social nature requires from each one of us and for all together as societies).

Empirical examples of states-of-spirit are Marx´s revolutionary spirit, Durkheim´s social consciousness, Weber´s spirit of capitalism. I did propose – under different studies – prohibitionist spirit (a father beat a child if he do not know – or do not want to know – how to change his own behaviour facing child existence. The same qualities of state-of-spirit are mobilised at intuitional and global levels of human existence when the western leaders decide to organize the war against the people who live on oil land). I propose submission spirit (displayed when dogs show their defeat under its own social hierarchy, when dogs show theirs soft parts to the leader. Children behave a comparable way facing adult supremacy, incorporating any thing coming from them (as the equivalent happens often to prisoners or captive people, when they identify them selves with who whatever guide the captivity) and – as showed by immigrants interviews in Lisbon – as immigrants accept supremacy of authorities and national people in general at receiving countries, in order to avoid looking back to the difficult and irreversible decision of working and living abroad, and in order to concentrate on searching the best way out of his/her challenge of changing life).

I have to present all that to explain this: a) I did never work on sociology of emotions: I just hope to be able to learn from you about it; b) I am not a specialist; I need help from very different approaches, inside and outside sociology, to develop my research inquiries, qualitative and quantitative; c) I hope to join efforts to adapt (to open) social theory to the new needs of social knowledge at the 21rst century, without Social State, out of actual limitations of mainstream sociology; d) the emergency of sociology of the body and sociology of emotions at the 80´s represents to me the need of many sociologists to attach to social theory new contributions out of mainstream sociology and, at the same time, a trap: emotions and body lives together, they both embody: they cannot be understood apart of each other.

How to deal with Tom´s problem of a scientific definition of emotions? My answer is: look at neural sciences and Antonio Damasio “Descartes error”, “The feeling of what happens” and “Looking for Spinoza”. He benefit of a very strong investment of brain sciences in order

  • The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Harvest Books, Outubro 2000 (ISBN 0156010755)
  • Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Harcourt, Fevereiro 2003 (ISBN 0151005575)

to develop artificial intelligence. And he propose a very interesting set of definitions of emotions, feelings and social feelings, as part of human regulatory system at three different levels of reality, measuring/spliting these levels on reaction time (shorter at emotion level and longer at social feelings level). Different levels situate themselves at different momentum deep inside the body (on emotion level), outside de body (on social emotion level) and at the brain level (on feelings reflexive level, having by mechanism the emotional level and by environment the social emotions level).

It would be possible, one day, to agree, between neural science and social science, at a common definition of emotion? I hope so. I think we can run for this propose.

Dear Cas: yes, I hope to be able to develop a chemistry like periodic table of simple state-of-spirit, joining medical neural data and sociological data about it. I cannot do it alone. This forum can be the opportunity to make it happen.

I cannot agree more with you when you wrote for the need of an “attempt to map patterns and phases of emotion regulation.” This is a break trough mainstream sociology that discards the instability of live, the individual and social growing processes, and the genetical and evolutionary methodological approach to social phenomena. It is clear to me that state-of-spirit are socially constructed, at the same time every culture needs to conform to social nature of human bodies and minds, somehow equal at their genetic framework deeper level, comparing other species and ways of living in earth, with different genetic supported ways of organizing reproduction, individual and social lives. The scientific efforts to look at the equality of mankind (as social potential genetically framed) as a taxonomy of emotion construction do not oppose the sociological empirical observation of diversity of emotional phenomena at individual, institutional, global and other specific social levels. Genetic approach of equality of mankind potential at all continents does not oppose the very different local evolution of cultures. One can join together the in deep research on simplest and common worldwide emotions and, at the same time – probably other research team – the phenomenological regards on how to make objective science on empirical local observations and, finally, to explain how they come (or not) together, considering that some deep individual emotions are induced by social states-of-spirit (social control) and, the other way around, some social emotions are induced by politics and individual emotions at the centre of society network (political work).

This theoretical view thinks emotions as embodied regulatory outputs (biological, mind and social, all together more or less synchronized and tuned) springing from social situations (be them at individual, institutional or global level, most of the time all together, eventually in contradictory ways) diffusing through social tissue wherever the probability of communication of emotions can run (bottom up, through the same social level, top down, normally using privileged directions). Feelings are though as reflexive abstract symbolic constructed behavior (as reasoning, institutional action or violent organized action or threat, for instance) conditioning the emotional states by strength of willing and manipulation of the environment, changing state of spirit (standard cultural learned control response to emotions) and supervising the results.

During the same stage of development, people, institutions and global human kind become used to the some kind of emotional results, whenever it mobilize the some kind of feelings (can we call it the natural multilevel and tuned/synchronized control system, result of historical evolution?). During the same stage of development the natural instability of life and of mankind evolutes slowly, eventually without the reflexive adaptative knowledge counterpart, till when, for any reason, everything turns out differently of what was used to be expectable. A new stage of development arises because people become aware of the different consequences of old feelings at the emotional levels (individual and social anomie problem). One learns how to use better new feelings in order to obtain certain emotional consequences one needs or wants. Old feelings becomes less used or forgotten.

I am developing this approach as much as I can. I look at the emotions taxonomic program as an opportunity to do it better and to attract criticism and contributions to it. For instance, I remember a Greek colleague to mention on the list his work of detection of emotional states by electronic measuring means. I think he could be a big help to sociological approach to emotions and to scientific definition of simple emotional states. This kind of work I am not prepared to perform. But I need its results.


Sorry about the long text. I hope my English writing do not inhibit your ability to read it and to understand it.