Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory

Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory

by Catherine A. Lutz

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ISBN-13: 9780226219783
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/04/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 281
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Unnatural Emotions

Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll & Their Challenge to Western Theory

By Catherine A. Lutz

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1998 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-21978-3


The Cultural Construction of Emotions

At first blush, nothing might appear more natural and hence less cultural than emotions, nothing more private and hence less amenable to public scrutiny, nothing more inchoate and less compatible with the logos of social science. These views can be treated, however, as items in a cultural discourse whose traditional assumptions about human nature and whose dualisms — body and mind, public and private, essence and appearance, and irrationality and thought — constitute what we take to be the self-evident nature of emotion. This book uncovers some of the cultural assumptions found in Western thinking about the emotions and contrasts them with those I encountered during fieldwork on the one-half-square-mile atoll of Ifaluk in the southwest Pacific. I have two aims. The first is to deconstruct emotion, to show that the use of the term in both our everyday and social-scientific conversation rests on a network of often implicit associations that give force to statements that use it. The second is to describe my understanding of everyday life on Ifaluk, whose people speak about emotions in ways that reflect their values, their power struggles, and their unique atoll environment.

The concept of emotion plays a central role in the Western view of the world. While words like "envy," "love," and "fear" are invoked by anyone who would speak about the self, about the private, about the intensely meaningful, or about the ineffable, they are also used to talk about devalued aspects of the world — the irrational, the uncontrollable, the vulnerable, and the female. Both sides of what can be seen as an ambivalent Western view of emotion are predicated, however, on the belief that emotion is in essence a psychobiological structure and an aspect of the individual. The role of culture in the experience of emotion is seen as secondary, even minimal, from that perspective. Culture or society can do little more than highlight or darken particular areas of the given psychobiological structure of emotions by, for example, repressing the expression of anger in women, calling for smiles to mask natural feelings of fear in certain situations, or emphasizing shame in one society and guilt in another. And while emotions are often seen as evoked in communal life, they are rarely presented as an index of social relationship rather than a sign of a personal state.

Although the value of emotion as symbol is not dependent on some objective relationship to the body, my aim is not to cut the body out of emotions or simply to civilize them. It is to deconstruct an overly naturalized and rigidly bounded concept of emotion, to treat emotion as an ideological practice rather than as a thing to be discovered or an essence to be distilled. Michelle Rosaldo has suggested the felicitous notion that emotions be seen as "embodied thoughts" (1984:143); Scheper-Hughes and Lock (1987) talk of the "mindful body" — each suggesting possible routes around the difficulties presented by the dualisms of our traditional ways of thinking about issues of mind and body, of nature and culture, of thought and emotion. Those dualisms create our compulsion to ask for a strict accounting of what is biological in the emotions and what is cultural and to seek the essence of a psychobiological process behind the stage front of cultural and linguistic forms. Discourse about emotion constitutes it as a social object, however, and it is with conventions and uses of the term "emotion" that we have to start. With no privileged route to some underlying and unmediated psychophysical emotional reality, we might be not resigned to but intrigued by the task of elucidating our understandings of what we and others mean, intend, feel, and do when we traffic in "emotion."

After deconstruction, the word remains. By making emotion the focus of this study, I both deconstruct and reconstruct the term, both undermine its foundations and elevate it to a more central analytic place. Revealing some of the cultural foundations and conceptual machinery behind the smooth, commonsense surface of the language of emotion does not mean that the term "emotion" can or should be jettisoned by those who study human behavior. My alternative view of emotion contests, but must of necessity maintain some dialogue with, an unreconstructed view of emotion. And so the reader will find a text that is not hermetically sealed but that to some degree simultaneously takes and undermines a position. After deconstruction, emotion retains value as a way of talking about the intensely meaningful as that is culturally defined, socially enacted, and personally articulated. It retains value also as a category more open than others to use as a link between the mental and the physical (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987) and between the ideal or desired world and the actual world. As the undervalued member of the dualism it participates in with "thought," emotion is also less likely to be taken, at least in its traditional forms, as the only important human capacity, and so might better provide a route by which these two capacities are reunited. And it retains value as a way of orienting us toward things that matter rather than things that simply make sense.

Although we may experience emotion as something that rises and falls within the boundaries of our bodies, the decidedly social origins of our understandings of the self, the other, the world, and experience draw our attention to the interpersonal processes by which something called emotion or some things like joy, anger, or fear come to be ascribed to and experienced by us. I will demonstrate that the use of emotion concepts, as elements of local ideological practice, involves negotiation over the meaning of events, over rights and morality, over control of resources — in short, involves struggles over the entire range of issues that concern human groups. As Clifford has noted of culture itself, emotion is "contested, temporal, and emergent" (1986:19). Once de-essentialized, emotion can be viewed as a cultural and interpersonal process of naming, justifying, and persuading by people in relationship to each other. Emotional meaning is then a social rather than an individual achievement — an emergent product of social life.

This book attempts to demonstrate how emotional meaning is fundamentally structured by particular cultural systems and particular social and material environments. The claim is made that emotional experience is not precultural but preeminently cultural. The prevalent assumption that the emotions are invariant across cultures is replaced here with the question of how one cultural discourse on emotion may be translated into another. As I listened to people speak the language of emotion in everyday encounters with each other on Ifaluk atoll, it became clear to me that the concepts of emotion can more profitably be viewed as serving complex communicative, moral, and cultural purposes rather than simply as labels for internal states whose nature or essence is presumed to be universal. The pragmatic and associative networks of meaning in which each emotion word is embedded are extremely rich ones. The complex meaning of each emotion word is the result of the important role those words play in articulating the full range of a people's cultural values, social relations, and economic circumstances. Talk about emotions is simultaneously talk about society — about power and politics, about kinship and marriage, about normality and deviance — as several anthropologists have begun to document (Abu-Lughod 1986; Fajans 1985; Myers 1979; Rosaldo 1980).

The present work draws on a number of the new approaches to emotions that have developed over the past ten to fifteen years. It benefits, most of all, from the seminal work of Briggs, Levy, and Rosaldo, whose ethnographies of the Utku Eskimos, Tahitians, and Ilongot of the Philippines, respectively, were the first to ask how emotions are understood indigenously (see also H. Geertz 1959, C. Geertz 1973). Each of these scholars takes emotions to be structured in part by the meanings locally attached to them, and in so doing helped found the field of ethnopsychology. Each also gives an at least partially reflexive analysis in which we see the emotional life of the ethnographer and his or her society reflected as an exotic phenomenon in the eyes of the people encountered.

While Levy and Briggs to some degree are committed to linking the cultural meaning of emotions to a more universal psychobiological conception of emotional functioning that derives ultimately from Freud, I am concerned with questioning the embedded Western assumptions that the psychodynamic view of emotions brings with it. Both Briggs and Levy, however, give valuable examples of the depth and richness of the understandings of self and emotion that exist in other societies. From the very different tradition of symbolic anthropology, Rosaldo sees emotions as forms of symbolic action whose articulation with other aspects of cultural meaning and social structure is primary (see also Myers 1979; Shore 1982). More than her predecessors, she explores the importance of emotions for a theory of culture and social action.

Another important influence on the view of emotions I present here is the work of the philosopher Solomon (1976), who has developed an eloquent critique of the "myth" that emotions are hydraulic in operation and beyond the control of individuals. He substitutes a scheme in which emotions are subjective judgments which both reflect and constitute our individual views of the world, and notes that feelings then can be seen not as the essence but the "ornament" (1976:158) of emotion. His views can be adapted to account for the variations that exist cross-culturally in emotional meaning if we note that the construction of cultural (as well as personal) subjectivities is a matter of the learning of emotions. His critique of the hydraulic model of emotions can also be extended from an intellectual to a cultural and deconstructive one.

Solomon's more rational conception of emotions is consistent with recent moves made in psychology and anthropology to reconsider the links between cognition and emotion. The cognitive theories of emotion, such as those of Arnold (1960), Lazarus (1977), and Beck (1967), were developed out of a sense of the inadequacy both of an overly instinctual view of emotion and of the too mechanical view of the human as information processor introduced by the cognitive revolution of the 1960s and '70s. The approach to Ifaluk ethnography taken here draws on the cognitive tradition in asking how understanding and reasoning about emotion among the Ifaluk are evident in the language they use to talk about it (Holland and Quinn 1987; Quinn 1982). I am concerned, however, with viewing that process of understanding as a social or interpersonally negotiated one (Black 1985) and with situating it more fully than have many cognitive anthropologists in the social structures and social behaviors that drive it.

Finally, social-constructionist and critical theory have been drawn on to frame my more basic understandings of the goals and limitations of ethnographic research on emotions. Gergen (1973, 1985), Sabini and Silver (1982), and Averill (1980, 1982, 1985) have developed furthest the argument for viewing psychological phenomena such as emotions as a form of discourse rather than as things to be discovered beneath the skin or under the hat. Averill, in particular, has developed the constructivist theory of emotions and has written extensive and erudite treatments of several emotions, including anger and love. Another strain of critical theory, one that comes from marxist and feminist sources, has also informed my attempt to link the cultural forms of emotional meaning with much broader political and economic structures and to question the "dispassionate" and value-neutral self-image of theorizing on self and emotion (e.g., Foucault 1980; Hochschild 1983; Scheper-Hughes 1985). These analyses add power as a crucial factor in the constitution of subjectivity, something which constructivist analysis tends to ignore in favor of a focus on language per se and the metaphor of speech as "game." Like Foucault, I am interested in how the emotions — like other aspects of a culturally postulated psyche — are "the place in which the most minute and local social practices are linked up with the large scale organization of power" (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983:xxvi).

The process of coming to understand the emotional lives of people in different cultures can be seen first and foremost as a problem of translation. What must be translated are the meanings of the emotion words spoken in everyday conversation, of the emotionally imbued events of everyday life, of tears and other gestures, and of audience reaction to emotional performance. The interpretive task, then, is not primarily to fathom somehow "what they are feeling" inside (Geertz 1976) but rather to translate emotional communications from one idiom, context, language, or sociohistorical mode of understanding into another.

If it is assumed that emotion is simply a biopsychological event and that each emotion is universal and linked neatly to a facial expression (of which even careful and intentional masking leaves unmistakable clues), the process of emotional understanding across cultural boundaries becomes a simple one of reading faces or looking for "leaks" from the inner pool of emotional experience; one looks for the occurrence or nonoccurrence of particular emotions whose meaning is considered unproblematic. If, however, emotion is seen as woven in complex ways into cultural meaning systems and social interaction, and if emotion is used to talk about what is culturally defined and experienced as "intensely meaningful," then the problem becomes one of translating between two different cultural views and enactments of that which is real and good and proper.

It has commonly been observed that the process of translation involves much more than the one-to-one linking of concepts in one language with concepts in another. Rather, the process ideally involves providing the context of use of the words in each of the two languages between which translation is attempted. The shift from a concern with language as semantics to an emphasis on language as social action was heralded early on in the history of anthropology by Malinowski but has only recently been taken up widely.

Michelle Rosaldo first raised the issue of the translation of emotional lives across cultures in part by questioning the traditional anthropological assumption that the "symbolic" realms of ritual and art require translation, whereas the everyday words of commonsense and mundane conversation do not. This leads us, she pointed out, to "fail to see that common discourse as well as the more spectacular feats of poets and religious men requires an interpretive account" (1980:23). Rosaldo situated emotion talk within the language games that Wittgenstein and Ryle before her outlined, and demonstrated that the sense of emotion words for those who use them is as much to be found in how they work in social life as in any necessary resonance with a preverbal emotional experience.

This latter, pragmatic view of emotional and other language has had to struggle for acceptance against the implicit assumption, widespread in Western thinking, that words have labeling or reference as their primary function. (For comments on the Western view of language, see Crapanzano 1981 and Good and Good 1982.) The referential view of language goes hand in hand, in the West, with a tendency toward reification, or the confusion of words with the objects about which they are used to talk. This confusion has been identified in marxist thought as a concomitant of social relations under capitalism. These two aspects of the Western approach to language — as something which primarily refers to or even is a series of things — act together to predispose us toward a particular view of the words used to talk about emotion, such as "anger," "fear," "happiness," or "emotion" itself. At best, these words are seen as labels for emotion "things"; at worst, the words become the things themselves rather than human, cultural, and historical inventions for viewing self and relations with others.

The problem of the referential and reified view of language is found in even more extreme form in the domain of emotion words than it is elsewhere in language. This is so because the Western approach to language reinforces the already existing view of emotions as primarily physical things. "Anger," "fear," and "happiness" are treated, through the process of reification, not as concepts used to do certain kinds of things in the world but as labels for concretized psychophysical states or objectivized internal "event-things." When emotion words are confused with things, the tendency is to look at the emotion terminologies of other cultures as being either "accurate" or "inaccurate" labels for the presumably universal underlying things, which is to say, to look at the emotions as objective natural events (e.g., Needham 1981).


Excerpted from Unnatural Emotions by Catherine A. Lutz. Copyright © 1998 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Part 1 - Introduction
1. The Cultural Construction of Emotions
2. Paths to Ifaluk
The Genesis of the Project
Historical Routes to Ifaluk
One Anthropological Road
An Approach to the Cross-Cultural Study of Emotion
Part 2 - Two Cultural Views of Emotion and Self
3. Emotion, Thought, and Estrangement: Western Discourses on Feeling
Emotion against Thought, Emotion against Estrangement
Emotion as the Irrational
Emotion as Unintended and Uncontrollable Act
Emotion as Danger and Vulnerability
Emotion as Physicality
Emotion as Natural Fact
Emotion as Subjectivity
Emotion as Female
Emotion as Value
4. The Ethnopsychological Contexts of Emotion: Ifaluk Beliefs about the Person
Ethnopsychology as a Domain of Study
Person, Self, and Other: Categories of Agents and Variation in Consciousness
Explaining and Evaluating Behavior
Part 3 - Need, Violation, and Danger: Three Emotions in Everyday Life
5. Need, Nurturance, and the Precariousness of Life on a Coral Atoll: The Emotion of Fago (Compasson/Love/Sadness)
The Forms of Need and Nurturance
Fago as Maturity, Nurturance as Power
Fago, Compassion, Love and Sadness: A Comparison of Two Emotional Meaning Systems
Emotion Meaning and Material Conditions on a Coral Atoll
6. Morality, Domination, and the Emotion of "Justifiable Anger"
Moral Anger and Ifaluk Values
Domination and the Ideological Role of Justifiable Anger
The Scene that Constitutes Justifiable Anger
Anger, Song, Personal Restraint, and Moral Judgment
7. The Cultural Construction of Danger
The Nature of Danger
Variations in the Perception of Threat
The Things That Are Done with Fear
8. Conclusion: Emotional Theories
The First Construction: Local Theories of Emotion
The Second Construction: Foreign Observers and Their Emotion Theories
The Third Construction: Culture and Ideology in Academic Emotion Theory

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