Back to Dr. Ratner's Home Page
This article is slightly longer than the version that is published in Culture and Psychology 2000, vol. 6, pp. 5-39

A Cultural-Psychological Analysis of Emotions1

Carl Ratner


I argue that an activity theory --which regards emotions as interdependent and interpenetrating with other cultural phenomena-- is central for the cultural psychology of emotions. Activity theory maintains that the cultural characteristics, development, and functions of emotions are shaped by social activities and cultural concepts. I explain the relation of biological to cultural factors in shaping the characteristics and development of emotions. Evidence is presented which shows that biological processes -- hormones, neurotransmitters, autonomic reactions -- underlie (mediate) but do not determine emotional qualities and expressions. Particular qualities and expressions are determined by cultural processes and factors.

The etymology of "emotion" is the Latin word to move something. Until the mid 18th century the word emotion in English meant movement. Later it came to mean political agitation or disturbance. It was only in the late 18th century that the sense of strong feeling came to the fore. Powerful visceral feelings are noteworthy to us because they contrast with the norm of controlled, rational, calculating thought (Barbalet, 1998, pp. 29-61). Emotions and thinking seem so different that we classify them as different kinds of phenomena. Emotions appear to be natural phenomena governed by biological mechanisms that are beyond our control (autonomic). In contrast, thinking appears to be voluntary, learned, controlled, and dependent upon cultural symbols and concepts. Emotions are associated with art, beauty, poetry, and music. Thinking is associated with logic, science, calculation. Emotions appear so antithetical to thinking that they are said to interfere with it. Clear thinking supposedly requires eliminating emotions.

Despite the apparent plausibility of this viewpoint, it actually rests upon a number of misconceptions (identified and repudiated by Ratner, 1989). The most fundamental error is dichotomizing emotions and thinking and attributing them to different processes. A little reflection reveals that all thinking entails feelings -- e.g., thinking about going to work entails feelings of displeasure while thinking about going home entails pleasurable feelings; thinking about a problem entails feelings of frustration, despair, or excitement. Similarly, all feelings entail thinking -- I'm sad about going to work because of how I remember work was recently and expect it to be today. Artistic work which is regarded as emotion-laden and emotion-driven is not purely emotional; it requires serious cognitive planning and reflection. Conversely, scientists are not devoid of emotions in their work. They are passionate about their work, they feel a sense of intrigue, frustration, satisfaction, and even elation and aesthetic appreciation at discovering a new phenomenon or formulating an elegant theory. Emotions do not cause thinking to be non-objective; they can motivate a passionate concern for objectivity -- as anger at falsehood or injustice often does. Objective thinking entails feelings, and non-objective thinking entails cognition. Objective thinking is more precise, comprehensive, and insightful than non-objective thinking. However, it is just as emotional.

Emotions are feelings that accompany thinking. They are the feeling side of thoughts; thought-filled feelings; thoughtful feelings. Emotions never exist alone, apart from thoughts. The thoughts that are felt may be implicit and difficult to fathom, however they are ultimately knowable (Beck, 1988). We may be fascinated by intense feelings however we should not be deluded into thinking that they have an independent existence apart from cognition. They are as dependent on cognition as weak feelings are.

If feelings and thinking are two sides of the same coin, different aspects of one thing, then the term "emotion" must be reconceptualized. It must denote feeling sides of thoughts, or thoughtful feelings, rather than feelings as a distinctive phenomenon. This is what I shall mean by emotions in this article.

Integrated into cognition, emotions are cultural just as thinking is. I shall demonstrate that they are formed by cultural processes, their qualities reflect these cultural processes, and they function to perpetuate cultural processes (cf. Dewey, 1910, pp. 249-250; Vygotsky, 1997a, pp. 272-273, 327 for a clear statement of this position).

Articulating the cultural nature of emotions requires a comprehensive, coherent concept of culture. Without such a concept, we would have no framework for understanding what was cultural about emotions. We would have no parameters for deciding what "cultural" includes (Ratner, 2000). The most specific and comprehensive conception of culture as it encompasses psychological phenomena is Vygotsky's work on activity theory (cf. Ratner, 1997a, pp. 98-100; Ratner, 1999, pp. 10-12 for discussion of this approach). Vygotsky's conception is more specific and comprehensive than the standard general definition of culture as the totality of socially constructed behaviors, beliefs, and objects. Vygotsky accepted this definition as far as recognizing that cultural phenomena are humanly constructed artifacts rather than natural products, and that cultural phenomena are social facts in Durkheim's sense of being emergent products of social interactions rather than individual creations (cf. Durkheim, 1895/1938; Gordon, 1981, p. 563). However, this general definition provides no guidelines for identifying specific aspects of culture that are vital to emotions. Consequently, Vygotsky developed a more concrete definition of culture that bears on emotions. While Vygotsky"s work requires refinement, it is an important step in delineating the cultural nature, origins, characteristics, functions, and formation of emotions.

Culture and Cultural Psychology from The Standpoint of Activity Theory

Vygotsky embraced the concept of activity (deyatelnost, or Tatigkeit) in his later works, commencing in 1930. Briefly put, there are four tenets of Vygotsky's activity theory which concern culture:

1) Humans collectively devise activities such as producing goods, raising children, educating the populace, treating disease, etc. It is through these socially organized activities that humans survive and realize themselves. Consequently, they are basic to all social and psychological processes. They are basic to the ways in which an individual interacts with the world of objects, other people, and even himself (Vygotsky, 1997b, pp. 5, 53-54, 133). Of course, individuals do many things outside of socially organized activities. They engage in personal pursuits such as hobbies, friendships, and enjoying nature. However, these individual acts are subsidiary to socially organized activities. Most human life is spent in and structured by socially organized activities. Personal pursuits derive most of their character from these activities.

The fact that activities are socially constructed does not mean that they are democratically constructed and controlled. Most activities are controlled by powerful elites rather than by the majority of people who engage in them.

2) Practical, socially organized activities stimulate people to collectively construct concepts about things and people. Therefore, socially constructed and shared conceptual representations, or meanings, of things reflect the way things and people are treated in social activity. For example, the succession of forms that the concept of person has taken in the life of men in different societies accords with their system of law, religion, customs, social structures, and mentality (Mauss, 1938/1985, p. 3).

3) Psychological phenomena are constructed from, and reflect, social activities and their corresponding cultural concepts.2 Emphasizing the formative influence of socially organized activities on psychology, Vygotsky stated: "the structures of higher mental functions represent a cast of collective social relations between people. These [mental] structures are nothing other than a transfer into the personality of an inward relation of a social order that constitutes the basis of the social structure of the human personality" (Vygotsky, 1998, pp. 169-170).

For example, the social activity of art can foster particular emotional qualities. In The Psychology of Art Vygotsky observed that emotions produced by artworks can have a more "cerebral" quality than emotions that are produced in other activities, such as athletics: "The emotions caused by art are intelligent emotions. Instead of manifesting themselves in the form of fist-shaking or fits, they are usually released in images of fantasy" (Vygotsky, 1925/1971, p. 212, emphasis added).

Vygotsky also emphasized the role of cultural concepts in structuring psychological phenomena congruent with social activities (Vygotsky, 1997b, p. 96):

environment does not always affect men directly and straightforwardly, but also indirectly through his ideology. By ideology we will understand all the social stimuli that have been established in the course of historical development and have become hardened in the form of legal statutes, moral precepts, artistic tastes, and so on. These standards are permeated through and through with the class structure of society that generated them and serve as the class organization of production. They are responsible for all of human behavior and in this sense we are justified in speaking of man's class behavior (Vygotsky, 1997b, p. 211).

The fact that activities and concepts are basic to psychology does not mean they temporally precede it. Psychology is always in activity; there is no activity without psychology just as there is no psychology without activity. However, the social organization of activity is the raison d'etre of psychology (Ratner, 1997a, pp. 110-116).

4) Culture consists in practical, socially organized activities, cultural concepts, and psychological phenomena. It also includes human intentionality, teleology, or agency. Agency is a cultural phenomenon in a two-fold sense: a) Its teleology aims at constructing and maintaining the components of culture -- i.e., activities, artifacts, concepts, psychological phenomena and their interactions. Vygotsky (1997a, p. 206) said that "Man's relationship to his surroundings must always bear the character of purposefulness, of activity, and not simple dependence." b) Agency is stimulated and shaped by existing cultural components (cf. Ratner, 1991, chap. 1; Ratner, 1999; Vygotsky,1998, pp. 23-24, 43-44).

Vygotsky outlined the foregoing points about culture and psychology. Unfortunately, he never developed them in depth. He made scattered, general comments about the importance of culture, activity, social environment, social system, social role, social relationships, social class, social conditions, and ideology in forming psychological phenomena. However he failed to rigorously define these terms or integrate them into a systematic account of psychology. Activity theory is thus more of a conceptual framework than a specific theory regarding connections between sociohistorical processes and individual functioning (Gauvain, 1993, p. 94). Vygotsky"s research rarely scratched the surface of institutional and ideological influences on psychological formation. His research primarily concerned interpersonal influences (between caretaker and child) on psychological development (cf. Ratner, 1997a, chap. 3; Ratner, 1999, pp. 12-14 for discussion of this point).

For cultural psychology to comprehend the concrete cultural character of psychological phenomena it must elucidate the specific and distinctive ways that populations of people organize the major domains of life -- such as work, education, medical care, religion, art, family -- and the ways that this social organization of activities is recapitulated in concepts, psychological phenomena, and agency.

For example, capitalist economic activity must be comprehended as internally differentiated into an enormous number of specialized enterprises and positions. The positions entail particular kinds of power, rewards (income, status), responsibilities, and creativity which are profoundly different from those associated with hunting and gathering economic activities. (In the social organization of capitalist economic activity, individuals are accorded a great deal of legal independence to sell their goods and services on the market.) Another important feature of capitalist economic activity is its radical differentiation from other activities. Businesses are run with an exclusive focus on profitable production, and other aspects of life are dealt with elsewhere. Family, religion, fine art, medicine, and education -- which were integral to economic production in other societies -- are divested from capitalist business and institutionalized in separate activities. At the same time, economic activity exerts great influence over other activities.

These concrete characteristics of capitalist economic activity are central to understanding the cultural concepts and psychology of people today. For example, the bourgeois notion of the individual self recapitulates the individualized economic activity of bourgeois men who run enterprises as they see fit for their own self-interest, exploit resources for their own benefit, take business risks on their own, and compete as adversaries against other businessmen and workers (Laski, 1936; Macpherson, 1962).

Understanding the concrete cultural character of emotions requires elucidating their correspondence with the manner in which people act, think, and are treated in cultural activities (cf, Ratner, 1997; Ratner, forthcoming, chap. 1 for a fuller presentation of this approach). We shall now examine how the social relations of practical cultural activities and their associated concepts imbue emotions with specific characteristics, form the experiences which socialize emotions in people's minds and bodies, are motivated by -- i.e., are a teleological goal of -- emotions, and dictate a unique relationship between emotions and physiological processes.

Cultural Characteristics of Emotions

Emotions have the following characteristics: (1) quality, (2) intensity, (3) behavioral expression, (4) the manner in which they are managed or resolved, (5) organization -- wherein any emotion is more closely akin to or divergent from others. These 5 characteristics originate in and reflect cultural activities and concepts.

The quality of emotions

The kind of emotion that is felt in a particular situation depends upon an understanding (concept, representation, schema) of it. Understanding is not simply attaching a positive or negative value to a situation, it is understanding the characteristics, causes, and consequences of an event. We become angry when someone hurts us because we assume that she intended to hurt us or is in some way responsible for it. A different conceptual understanding of the act would lead to a different emotional reaction. The power of thinking to determine the quality of emotions is evident in the fact that if we reconceptualize an event years after it occurred this alters our emotional reaction to it. A child can be angry at her father for being a disciplinarian; years later she appreciates that he was trying to teach her good values such as diligence; suddenly a warm feeling of love replaces the anger over his strictness.

An emotion ordinarily rests upon several concepts, not one. These include an understanding of the immediate stimulus (the event, object, person, behavior) that confronts oneself, the social context in which the stimulus occurs, and needs and capabilities of the individual. For example, whether one feels shameful about having committed an infraction depends not only on the act but upon whether one believes that others have noticed it, whether they are likely to be critical, and whether one cares about their reaction. Solomon (1978, p. 187) expressed this idea by stating that, "an emotion is a network of conceptual and perceptual structures in which the objects and people in our world, others" actions and our own, are given significance." "An emotion is not an isolated judgment, but a system of judgments which is in turn a sub-system of the whole of our way(s) of viewing the world."

Social constructionists emphasize that these understandings are cultural: "emotions are characterized by attitudes such as beliefs, judgments, and desires, the contents of which are not natural, but are determined by the systems of cultural belief, value and moral value of particular communities" (Armon-Jones,1986, p. 33; cf. Kleinman & Good, 1985, p. 65). "Affects are not merely handled differently by culturally constituted cognitive coping processes, such processes engender affects whose very nature differs significantly [in different societies]" (Kleinman, 1980, p. 171).

The concept of personal responsibility that generates anger among Westerners is a predominant cultural idea. We use it in interpreting an action that harms us and this leads us to become angered. Anger reflects a judicial stance in which offenders are blamed for violating rights of the victim. "Anger adds blame to frustration and annoyance" (Solomon, 1978, p. 194). People who lack a concept of personal intention or responsibility and who attribute harmful events to fate, for example, do not blame actors (hold them responsible) for harmful action and do not generate significant anger at them. This is evidently the case in Turkey (Olson, 1981, pp. 98-99) and among the Utku Eskimos (Solomon, 1978).

Western guilt, disgust, and depression are similarly uncommon among people whose cultural concepts lead them to interpret events differently from the way Westerners do. Carothers (1947) and Murphy (1978) report a low incidence of guilt in sub-Saharan African people. Murphy explains that until recently, people attributed their misfortunes to witchcraft by hostile others; they did not blame themselves and did not feel guilt. The adoption (imposition) of Protestant religious beliefs was one factor that has spurred the development of guilt in younger Africans. Protestantism believed that the individual is responsible for his own acts and misdeeds, and that a stern, omniscient god can read one's immoral thoughts and inflict punishment. Such beliefs induced people to worry greatly about their own thoughts and actions. This kind of worry is guilt.

Concepts not only determine whether or not particular emotions will occur, they also determine the nuanced, modulated quality of an emotion. Happiness, for instance, is quite different according to whether one is marveling at a sunset in the desert, solving a difficult problem that advances a field of knowledge, or watching a favorite team win a frenzied athletic contest in the final moments. The enjoyment in each case is modulated by complex concepts about nature, self-pride, intelligence, science, fame, the social good, identifying with athletic teams, competitive struggle and victory. Fear is similarly modulated as the Pintupi people recognize in distinguishing 15 different kinds of fear -- including fear of someone seeking revenge, fear of relatives, and sudden fear (Russell, 1991). An emotion is not a singular, homogeneous, invariant feeling (Kagan, 1998, chap. 1).

Since emotions are modulated by particular cultural concepts, variations in the latter introduce substantial differences in seemingly similar emotions (Ratner, 1991, pp. 76-83, 264-268). Thus,

The guilt of the Jew, for example, is to be understood in terms of the beliefs and attitudes which collectively make up Jewish religion and culture. In this respect it may be said that the guilt of the Jew is different from the guilt of the Christian, or that the guilt of the Japanese is different from the guilt of the American (Averill, 1980, pp. 50-51).

Lee (1999) explains how shame is different for an ancient Taoist and a modern Korean. Shame for the ancient Taoist was rooted in an intrinsic human frailty, namely the inability to achieve Tao. Tao was an ideal state in which the individual relinquishes intellectual reasoning and achieves an intuitive awareness of the unity of subject and object. The near impossibility of achieving this state of self-fulfillment causes shame. Shame is a universal, ontological, permanent condition that results from the inability of the human being to relinquish his own consciousness and merge with the world. This emotion is qualitatively different for a modern Korean who feels shameful because of his poor dress, for example. For him, shame is a personal lapse at a specific time and situation which results in a social stigma being imposed by particular people. The personal lapse is a failure to employ reason and self-control (rather than relinquish them). Modern guilt is possible to avoid by greater personal resolve, and it has nothing to do with human nature or with overcoming the distinction between subject and object. The two kinds of shame share a similar sense of inadequate capability, however the feeling of inadequacy is quite different as a result of the different mediations that modulate it.

Love similarly takes on quite different qualities according to cultural conceptions of person, privacy, public life, religion, and sensual pleasure. Historically, at least three kinds of love (between adults) have existed in Western countries:

1) Romantic love among the aristocracy during the middle ages.

This was usually an intense devotion between a knight and a married noblewoman. Being adulterous, it was secretive and confined to sporadic encounters. It was asexual to a great extent and consisted of yearning for one's lover whom one rarely met. Neither intimacy nor fulfillment were part of this love. Unfulfilled yearning intensified it. Love was an attraction to idealized stereotypes of a knight or noblewoman. It was elicited by displays of good character such as modesty, humility, respectfulness, loyalty, generosity, and honesty. Personal idiosyncrasies were not cultivated during feudalism and they played no part in evoking romantic love. Courtly love was a spiritual, almost religious, sentiment that sublimated the base instincts and elevated the soul through dedication to one"s loved one. One was a better person through caring for (serving) another. Love was thus a moral act. (Capellanus, 1957).

2) Love that was felt by many Americans who engaged in limited, local production of commodities between the decline of feudalism and the rise of industrial capitalism. This period includes the North American colonial period (17th and 18th centuries).

This love was primarily a spiritual closeness -- a rational friendship -- that developed gradually with knowledge of a person's character and deeds. It had a rational, reserved quality and was deemed far more genuine and enduring than passionate romantic love. It's concern for individual character made it a more personal attraction than courtly love was. Like courtly love, colonial love was moral and ennobling through dedicated caring for another person (Illouz, 1997, pp. 46-47; Ratner, 1991, 80-81).

3) Modern romantic love that emerged out of colonial love in18th century Europe and 19th century North America and evolved into its current form around 1910 with the solidification of capitalist economy.

This love is a passionate/sensuous, visceral, spontaneous, irresistible, disorienting feeling that is quickly aroused by personal attributes and physical appearance of another individual. Idiosyncratic traits such as sense of humor, being dynamic or patient, and recreational interests supercede moral criteria as the basis of attraction. Modern romantic love is a euphoric feeling of intimate psychological bonding with another person to complete oneself. Lovers enter each other's psychological worlds and relish knowing and being known by each other. Love is a giddy personal happiness rather than a spiritual uplifting or improvement in one's character (Illouz, 1997, pp. 29-32).

These different forms of love reflected different cultural concepts and activities. Space does not permit analysis of all three forms but it will be instructive to at least discuss the cultural basis of two forms of romantic love.

Feudal romantic love was elicited by concepts regarding appropriate personal attributes and social relationships. These cultural concepts led members of the nobility to seek tragic, unfulfilling, risky love in illicit, adulterous, clandestine relationships. Furtive, sporadic relationships do not naturally stimulate love; their capacity to do so depends upon cultural beliefs that love should be unfulfilling, that love is most intense if unfulfilling, and that unfulfilling, tragic love should be found in adulterous relationships between men and women of particular social ranks. If furtive, sporadic social relationships were differently conceived as impediments to love then individuals who were attracted to each other in these circumstances would renounce their interest and look for a different kind of partner with whom they could have a different kind of love.

The distinctive quality of modern romantic love is generated by beliefs that:

These cultural concepts about people and social relationships place enormous emphasis on the distinctiveness of the individual: Isolated individuals seek people whose idiosyncrasies match their own and whose idiosyncrasies matter to each other.

Cultural concepts stipulate the need for a particular kind of love; the social and psychological advantages it will bring; what it will feel like; the appropriate behaviors that elicit and signal it (e.g., the kinds of conversations, mannerisms, eye and body contact, self presentation, treatment of people); the settings in which the behaviors should occur (e.g., dimly lit, quiet settings); the social bonds (intimacy, communication, compatibility) which must obtain in order to experience the culturally specific quality of love; and the kinds of people who are suitable love-objects.3

The quality of emotions not only rests upon interpretations of things and people. It also depends upon peoples' cultural conception of emotions themselves. The folk theory about love that the feudal aristocracy, bourgeois middle class, and American colonists (Puritans) held made their love experiences quite different (Kovecses, 1990, p. 36). Emotions are quite different if one believes that they must be expressed or are dangerous to express (Kleinman & Good, 1985, p. 186). "What it feels like to feel angry, is not quite the same for the Ilongot who believe that anger is so dangerous it can destroy society and for working class Americans who believe that anger helps you overcome fear and attain independence" (Kleinman & Good, 1985, p. 186; cf. Solomon, 1978, pp. 195-196).

One North American "ethnotheory" dichotomizes emotions and cognition. Emotions are construed as independent of cognition and irrational, spontaneous, natural, physical, irrepressible, and vital to express. Although this ethnotheory is fallacious, as this article demonstrates, it nevertheless remains predominant. (It is codified in North American psychological theories -- Ratner 1989. It is also codified in law as a distinction between crimes of passion and pre-meditated crimes. Crimes of passion are regarded as involuntary due to the overwhelming force of emotions. Consequently, such criminals are not held to be responsible for their crimes and sentences are much less severe than they are for pre-meditated crimes which are voluntarily calculated.) People who regard emotions in this manner find it difficult to control or change an emotion because a) there appear to be no means for controlling a natural, irrational, autonomous process, and b) any attempt at controlling or changing an emotion is misguided because it would be tantamount to denying the self (Kleinman & Good, 1985, pp. 77-84; Kovecses, 1990, pp. 54-62, 146-151; Lutz, 1990).

Other cultures have different folk theories of emotions. Numerous peoples have no word or concept for emotions, per se. They regard emotions as integrated with thinking, attitudes, motives, behavior, and fate/fortune rather than being something distinct (Russell, 1991, p. 429). The Ilongots consider disruptive emotions as something quite tangible and controllable and they summarily terminate them when the situation demands (Rosaldo, 1984).

Rural Fiji Indians differentiate a whole class of social emotions from individual emotions. Social emotions, such as camaraderie, are positive, constructed only in social interaction (typically religious rituals), experienced by numerous individuals together, experienced only by men who are the sole participants of such interactions, are considered to be expressive acts not as internal states, and are regarded as the only true emotions. Emotions which are experienced by solitary individuals are transient and devalued as quasi-emotions which happen on occasion but which are not constructed according to people's will (Brenneis, 1990).

Cultures vary greatly in the number and kind of emotions they recognize. No one pattern is standard or normal (Russell, 1991). Some cultures have a few broad emotional concepts rather than finely differentiated Western emotional concepts. For example, people in Uganda have an emotional concept that combines elements of Western anger and sadness. Australian aborigines have one concept that combines elements of Western fear and shame. Samoans have one concept that spans Western hate and disgust and does not distinguish them. Conversely, certain societies make exceedingly fine distinctions among emotions. The Pintupi differentiate 15 kinds of fear.

The defining point of activity theory is that cultural concepts which form psychological phenomena do not stand alone but reflect the social relations of cultural activities. The social organization of activities constitutes the content of concepts and psychology. This is true for the concepts we have discussed above.

Murphy's (1978) data suggest that the notion of personal responsibility that led to guilt feelings among sub-Saharan Africans, discussed above, was inspired by changes in economic activity. The introduction of capitalist business practices allowed a large number of people whose grandfathers had lived under traditional custom and the rule of local lords to become independent businessmen with great individual autonomy. This economic change stimulated an emphasis on personal responsibility for success and failure. Individuals tend to feel guilty when they "become accustomed to thinking of pleasure and displeasure as arising from their own acts and, indirectly, their own volition, rather than by hazard, by reason of something happening within the body, or from acts of others" (ibid., p. 240).

Romantic love was similarly inspired by social activities. Romantic love among the feudal aristocracy recapitulated aristocratic social relations.

An important characteristic of courtly love wherever it was found was that it was aristocratic. It grew up in a feudal society and the love of a troubadour was thought of in terms of feudal relations. The lover devoted himself to the service of his mistress, who became his liege lady. He was her baillie and had to render her the submission of a vassal...Such a conception of the relations between a lady and her lover would be likely to grow up in a typical Provencal castle in which there were very few women of rank but many landless knights, squires, and pages, who were feudally inferior to the lady of the castle. This relationship helps to explain the extreme humility which is one of the characteristics of courtly love. Another result of the association between courtly love and feudalism was that knightly qualities, especially courtesy and loyalty, which would in any case be desirable in a lover, came to be especially valued (Southall, 1973, p. 66).

Modern romantic love was devised by a different class, the bourgeoisie who engaged in novel economic activities (Ratner, 1991, pp. 80-81). The individualized nature of their economic activity was recapitulated in the individualistic qualities of romantic love. As Leach (1980, p. 106) said, "romantic love appeared with the emergence of economic individualism." Illouz (1997, pp. 33-42, 81-91) further observes that the passionate, sensual, hedonistic, spontaneous quality of romantic love reflected the burgeoning consumerism of the early 20th century. Consumer demand for products, which was promoted by manufacturers to expand production and profit, was energized by marketing strategies that stimulated intense, spontaneous, sensual, hedonistic desire for commodities. These feeling qualities are recapitulated in intense, spontaneous, sensual, hedonistic desire for a partner in romantic love.

Another characteristic of cultural activities that fostered the qualities of romantic love was the estrangement of people. Estrangement made people desperate to find a lover but it also made the search to find such a person more difficult. This difficulty was compounded by the intense division of labor among activities which made the life experiences of people different and difficult to match. Thus arose the belief that finding a soul-mate was extremely improbable, unpredictable, and fortuitous -- "magical."

Another relevant feature of bourgeois economic activities was their external division of labor from the family. Capitalist work was impersonal, competitive, materialistic, calculating, and unstable. Business owners excluded personal concerns from the economic domain and relegated them to the family. The family was made into a private world in which personal concerns were partitioned off from, and opposed to, public activities. Romantic love occurred in this differentiated private world. This social isolation generated an antisocial love that spurned calculation and social issues and claimed to transcend them, was irrational and extremely personal, occurred at times and places outside normal life (at night, on vacations), and was a special feeling unlike those of daily life.

The bourgeoisie was the first class to fully develop this kind of emotion because their economic roles cultivated individualism by allowing for individual responsibility and creativity, their material wealth enabled them to participate in consumerism, and they had the resources to establish a comfortable domestic domicile outside work where personal relations could be cultivated. Working class families could not construct an oppositional, personalized family because their long working day left little time for home life, wives worked outside the home and could not create a domestic milieu, and the structure of working class activities offered little opportunity or incentive to develop individualized personal relationships.

While romantic love was a genuinely novel creation by human agents and was irreducible to other cultural factors, it was inspired and circumscribed by a system of economic and familial activities. Only because the bourgeoisie occupied a definite position within these activities was it able to create the modern form of romantic love.

The segregation of personal life from public life was the institutional foundation not only for romantic love but for the general ethnotheory of emotions as irrational, impulsive, personal, and primitive. Not only romantic love, but most emotions were (and still are) suppressed in most public cultural activities (see p. 24, below). There, impersonal, mechanical, profit-maximizing calculations take priority over personal relations. Little concern exists for whether employees are happy, sad, jealous, afraid, guilty, in love, or angry. Personal relations are the primary concern of the family. There is great concern for whether individuals are happy, sad, jealous, afraid, guilty, or angry. Moreover, emotions are to be cultivated and expressed freely; reason and calculation are impugned as impersonal, insensitive, unfeeling, and rigid because of the connotation they have in public institutions. The different priorities concerning emotion and cognition in different social activities has led to conceptually differentiating them as separate, antithetical phenomena. Simmel, Weber, and Heller all articulated this kind of explanation (cf. Barbalet, 1998, pp. 54-59).

Of course, such a conceptualization exaggerates the distinction between emotion and cognition. The fact that impersonal calculations are a priority in economic activity does not mean that emotions do not exist there. Obviously, employees feel emotions despite the fact that managers are oblivious to them. Similarly, at home, family members do think about how to budget money and time and how to treat their children although these may not be as salient as personal nurturing is (ibid., pp. 59-61). Thus, the ethnotheory which dichotomizes emotion and cognition is an illusion which is fostered by a social division of labor. The real social division of labor leads to a one-sided, exaggerated conception of emotions and cognition -- just as the illusion of the free individual is an exaggeration of the real legal freedom which individuals have under capitalism (cf. Ratner, 1994 for a discussion of social illusions).

The activity basis of emotions and emotion concepts is further illustrated by gender differences in emotions. In modern times, emotions have been differentiated in men and women according to the social positions and activities which they occupied (Stearns, 1993).

From 1850 until 1910 middle class males experienced much more anger and much less fear than females did. Stearns explains that the reason for the gender differentiation of anger and fear (among the middle class) lay in the division of labor between male and female cultural activities:

The driving force toward gender differentiation [of emotions] was the increasingly vivid separation of roles, as work moved outside the home and men along with it, while women's domestic responsibilities were more sharply emphasized. It seemed obvious that boys and girls had to be trained up to different tasks and that such training implied different emotional goals (ibid., p. 42).

Middle class men, who engaged in aggressive, competitive social activities outside the home needed to shun fear and cultivate anger in order to overcome obstacles. For socially subordinate middle class women who engaged in spiritual, aesthetic, and care-giving domestic activities, and were expected to be demure and differential, anger was unacceptable. However, fearfulness was appropriate because it reinforced the secluded, vulnerable, deferential social position of women. The restricted social life that women led became reflected and reproduced in the rise of Intense fearfulness -- known as phobias -- in nineteenth century bourgeois women. For example, agoraphobia (Platzschwindel) was reported in 1834 and was coined and studied intensively in 1872 by Westphal who found it to be much more common among women than men (DeSwaan, 1981, p. 365).4 Agoraphobia continues to be the most common form of phobia, and women comprise about 2/3 of the cases of contemporary agoraphobia (deSwaan, 1981, p. 366; Wolfe, 1984). DeSwaan and Wolfe attribute phobias among contemporary women to lingering social restrictions and persisting elements of Victorian ideology.

The differentiation of fear and anger along gender lines occurred among the bourgeoisie because it was primarily in this class that public and private activities were differentiated along gender lines. Working class women and men both worked outside the family and developed similar patterns of fear and anger.

Changes in the social activities of middle class men and women after 1900 fostered changes in their emotions. Fear and anger began to lose their gender distinctiveness as women increasingly performed similar activities as men in the labor force, in co-educational schools, and in mixed-gender recreation (Stearns, pp. 54ff.). Beginning with the 1920's, men were expected to defuse anger much as Victorian women had, and women were taught to renounce jealous backbiting that could undermine the coherence and efficiency of social organizations. The introduction of mass production in large bureaucratic enterprises required social skills of obedience and cooperativeness in both men and women.

While unruly expressions of anger were condemned, envy was encouraged to motivate some market-oriented behavior. Market activity required individuals to be competitive, ambitious, and acquisitive. Envy of other peoples' success was a strong motivator of these behaviors. After World War I, women were encouraged to intensify their envy of other women's possessions, attractiveness, and success so that they would consume more commodities and become more competitive in the job market. Advertisements also encouraged women to make themselves enviable by buying products. "Women"s envy, once regarded as a grave sin and the first step on the road to ruin, came to be seen as a powerful economic stimulant and as a 'natural' part of femininity in twentieth-century America" (Matt, 1998, p. 393).5

These historical examples illustrate that emotions have specific qualities which are derived from social activities and concepts. The concrete cultural quality of human emotions led Shweder (1993, p. 421) to conclude that "happiness, surprise, and most of the basic emotions on Ekman"s list do not have close analogies among the basic emotions of the Indian Rasadhyaya, and any sense of easy familiarity with the Sanskrit list is more apparent than real."

Although the full, concrete qualities of emotions are culturally specific and variable, some transcultural similarity in emotions is undeniable. Fear, joy, sadness, surprise, frustration, liking, and disliking clearly exist in all societies. Whatever their origin may be -- quite possibly learned as other universals such as cooking food and making pottery are -- universal qualities of emotions are quite general and abstract. They provide little information about actual experience and behavior. To know that all people become happy, sad, and frustrated is as informative as knowing that all people eat, cover parts of their body with clothing, seek shelter, form families, speak language, and develop moral codes. "That everywhere people mate and produce children, have some sense of mine and thine, and protect themselves in one fashion or another from rain and sun are neither false nor, from some point of view, unimportant; but they are hardly very much help in drawing a portrait of man that will be a true and honest likeness" (Geertz, 1973, p. 40). General, abstract emotional universals do not illuminate specific emotional experience which is cultural. Just as the need to form families does not produce or explain monogamy, so a general sense of caring does not produce or explain romantic love, nor does frustration produce or explain anger. Specific emotional qualities are only understandable in terms of cultural activities and concepts (cf. Ratner, 1991, chap. 3; Ratner, 1997a, pp. 210-213).

Intensity of emotions

The intensity of emotion depends upon cognitive concepts just as the quality of emotion does. The fear generated by meeting the proverbial bear in the woods is proportional to one's estimation of the likelihood that it will attack, the harm it is likely to inflict, and one's ability to defend oneself. The degree of fear that is generated by losing one's job depends upon the cultural import that a job has for a people's self-esteem, social life, and standard of living. The intensity of love similarly depends upon the extent to which a partner conforms to cultural ideals of physical beauty, personality, ethnicity, wealth, and family background. Love is also intensified to the extent that cultural values designate it as important for self-esteem and social status. Anger's intensity is proportional to one's culturally-mediated judgment of how harmful the offensive act was, how ruthless the offender was in committing it, external circumstances which are deemed pertinent (poverty, childhood abuse), and one's own sense of vulnerability. The intensity of emotions also depends upon an ethnotheory of emotions -- whether emotions are construed as a strong force and should be intense.

Different cultural concepts concerning the nature/importance of events and the nature of emotions generate different levels of emotional intensity in different populations.

The behavioral expression of emotions

A given emotional quality is often expressed according to different display rules in different cultures. Cultural variations in display rules include the general ease with which any and all emotions are expressed. Hemphill (1998) points out that most 18th century middle class American men and women were noticeably more restrained emotionally than people were in earlier times. Men and women were urged to master their emotional expressivity, including their facial countenance, laughter, and language. Men were expected to be more restrained than women. "Before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, extremes of jubilant laughter, passionate weeping, and violent rage were indulged in with a freedom that in later centuries would not be permitted even to children" (Kasson, 1990, p. 147).

Hemphill (1998, pp. 39-40) and Kasson (1990, pp. 147-151) explain that these forms of emotional expression reflect social activities. Controlling emotional expression was important for 18th century middle class men because it was part of the self-discipline they had to develop in order to compete in the market economy. Competing in the business world required a calculating mentality that was free of sentiment and personal biases. Men not only worked to develop job skills; they also worked on themselves to develop the proper demeanor of competence, diligence, and reliability so that they could appear marketable. An unemotional demeanor was also an important way of hiding information from competitors. Displaying anxiety, trepidation, and even intense desire might be exploited by one's competitor in business or politics.

Contemporary emotional expression among men and women is similarly rooted in social activities as Brody & Hall explain:

the emotions that women display more (warmth, happiness, shame, guilt, fear, and nervousness) are related to affiliation, vulnerability, and self-consciousness, and are consistent with women's lower social status and power, lower physical aggression, and their traditional gender roles (including child caretaking and social bonding, which necessitates being able to read the emotion signals of others). Greater male anger, pride, and contempt are consistent with the male role of differentiating and competing with others, in which the goals are the minimization of vulnerability in order to maximize the chances of success (Brody & Hall, 1993, p. 452; Brody, 1999, pp. 3-4, chap. 10).

While cultural variations in emotional expression are critically important features of emotions, certain common expressions may also exist. Some of these may originate in widespread social relations -- e.g., where individuals choose their mates, instead of having them arranged by elders, they must indicate their attraction to potential mates in order to initiate and sustain a relationship. Common expressions of attraction are joking and eye contact (cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 77, 115; Ratner, 1997a, pp. 210-211). Other widespread emotional expressions are possibly rooted in bodily concomitants of emotions. It is possible that when happiness is a release of tension, the body relaxes in a discernible way. Or, when happiness is a thrilling, uplifting experience muscles of the body may be uplifted accordingly. Conversely, sadness is deflating and may cause the body to droop. Shame evidently triggers neurological reactions which reduce muscle tonus of the neck and result in stooping and head hanging (Schore, 1994, p. 220). Surprise generates attention and a corresponding raising of the eyes, eyebrows, and head (Camras, 1992, p. 275).

Several caveats must be noted about natural physical tendencies to express emotions. One is that a single emotion is modulated in various forms which might be expressed differently. Happiness includes release of tension as well as thrilling excitement. A bodily expression of each will be quite different. Consequently, even the single emotion of happiness could have diverse natural expressions of its different qualities. Conversely, a given gesture may express a variety of emotions. Crying may sometimes express sadness, however it may also express happiness or relief from tension. A red face does not only express anger, it also expresses embarrassment (Kagan, 1998, chap. 1).

Secondly, any physical tendencies for expressing emotions are weak and easily overlaid by cultural rules of expression. Cultural rules can override the tendency to physically deflate or cry when sad. People may sometimes cry when sad, however they may also not cry and instead express sadness through other gestures. Scowling may sometimes expresses anger, however it is also used to expresses culturally formed disapproval and bewilderment. Smiling can express joy but it can be mastered to express sarcasm. Spitting in many parts of the world is a sign of utmost contempt; yet among the Masai of Africa it is a sign of affection. In certain places, people express joy by taking a shark's tooth and driving into their head with great violence so as to produce a copious bleeding (Labarre, 1947).

This indefinite relationship between an emotion and expression makes it difficult to know what emotion is being expressed. Only extended interaction with people can clarify what their emotional experience is. Because emotions are expressed differently in different cultures, diverse people only achieve modest agreement in naming emotions which are posed in photographs. For example, when Americans viewed photos of Fore people from New Guinea posing various emotions, only 18% recognized the Fore pose of fear, 27% recognized the Fore pose of surprise, 46% recognized the Fore pose of disgust, and 51% recognized Fore posed anger. Conversely, when Fore and Americans viewed American poses of anger, Fore subjects used the word which is translated as anger in English to label poses of sadness (Ekman, 1972, p. 275; Russell, 1991, 1994; Ratner, 1989, pp. 221-224; Wierzbicka, 1995).

Haidt & Keltner (1999) similarly found intra- and inter-cultural differences in identifying emotions from facial expressions. When Americans and Asian Indians viewed photos of facial expressions posed by American models and were given a list of emotions to match with the photos, only poses of anger and disgust were identified as such by the vast majority of both groups (80%). Expressions which were posed to represent fear, sadness, surprise, and embarrassment were identified as other emotions by half or more of the subjects from both groups: Only 55% of Americans and Indians identified posed fear as such (30% of Americans identified it as surprise), only 43% of Indians identified posed sadness as such, only 43% of Indians identified posed surprise as such, and only 55% of Indians identified posed embarrassment as such. When subjects were not supplied with a list of emotions and were given free choice over emotion words to use, posed anger, embarrassment, happiness, and surprise were identified as such by 70-90% of both groups, however fear was only identified by 35% of Indians, and sadness by about half of both groups (ibid., tables 2, 3). The lack of unanimity in identifying emotions from posed facial expressions, as well as discrepancies in data from the two procedures, casts doubt on the thesis that emotions are automatically expressed in particular gestures which are universally recognized.

Great inconsistency in recognizing emotional expressions is even found when they are depicted in full bodily displays through dances. Hejmadi, Davidson, & Rozin (2000) consulted a classic Indian text from 200 A.D., The Natyasastra, to obtain strict specifications of dance movements that depicted classic emotions. The dances were performed by an expert Hindu dancer and tape recorded. 47 Hindu Indian subjects and 48 American college students viewed the tape recorded dances and were asked to identify the emotions they expressed. On both a fixed-response format (where Ss were provided with 11 emotional labels for each expressed emotion) and free-response format, less than half the Ss identified the vast majority of emotions that were depicted in the dances. No emotion was identified by more than half of the subjects. And the 50% correct identification was only achieved on 4 of the 30 depicted emotions. 23-25 of American Ss (out of 48 total American Ss) correctly identified four emotions in the fixed response condition. Only 1 emotion was correctly identified by about 50% of Indian subjects (22 out of 47 Ss) in the fixed condition. And no emotion was correctly identified by even 50% of American or Indian Ss in the free response condition. Sadness, for example, was only identified by 8 Americans in the fixed response condition and 6 in the free response condition. Anger was only recognized by 16 Indian Ss in the fixed response condition and 17 in the free response condition.6

An ambiguous and inconclusive correlation exists between facial expressions that mimic disgust and self-reports of associated feelings (Fernandez-Dols & Ruiz-Belda, 1997, pp. 260-261). Feelings of fear and disgust were not displayed in typical facial expressions of phobics (Camras, 1992, p. 276). Even happiness and smiling are not invariably correlated. Several studies have found that happy individuals do not necessarily smile. Especially interesting is the fact that happy individuals smile during social interactions but not when alone. During non-social periods, happy individuals evidence neutral facial expressions or expressions of surprise, sadness, and fear. Consequently, Fernandez-Dols & Ruiz-Belda (1997, pp. 264-269) conclude that smiling is a social cue for expressing happiness to other people. It is not a natural, physiological expression of happiness. Happiness is thus neither a sufficient cause of smiling nor a necessary cause: In research, subjects who smile have been found to experience anger, fear, sadness, and surprise (ibid., p. 268).

Even if universal emotional expressions exist, they would only indicate a very general sense of an emotion. From crying, we might have a very general sense that someone was sad, however, the specific features of her sadness would remain unknown. Thus, universal expressions may rest upon diverse causes and they provide limited information about emotions.

Managing emotions

The manner in which people resolve their emotions depends upon cultural concepts about emotions and other phenomena. The Ilongot people of the Philippines have a great fear of emotion's potential to disrupt social relationships, consequently, they immediately dissipate strong emotions in order to ensure continuous amicable relations. This process prevents frustration from turning to anger. Rosaldo emphasizes that the Ilongots do not repress anger; they avoid it (Rosaldo, 1984, p. 144). Solomon (1978) makes the same point about the manner in which Utku Eskimos handle frustration (cf. Robarchek, 1977 for an additional example of managing anger).

Modern Americans generally remain angry for long periods and find anger difficult to dissipate. This is because we usually interpret behavior as motivated by personality traits which are consistent and persistent. Consequently, when someone hurts us we assume that they are "an injurious person" who warrants continued anger on our part to defend against likely new attacks. A different interpretation of people"s behavior -- e.g., that it is motivated by momentary, transient states rather than by enduring personality traits -- would enable us to assume that a hurtful action is exceptional and would allow us to dissipate our anger (Ratner, 1991, p. 79).

Buddhist villagers in northeastern Thailand have an interesting way of assuaging grief after an unexpected death of a loved one. Their management of grief rests on a cultural belief about spirits in dead and living people. It is common to believe that the spirit of one who dies an unexpected death becomes a troubled ghost which intrudes itself into the lives of the living because it is not yet ready to be reborn. This troubled ghost causes grief in the living. Grief can therefore be expiated by honoring the dead person so that the spirit will become untroubled. In one case, a grieving daughter paid for a tower to be erected in memory to her dead mother. Her grief soon dissipated (Kleinman & Good, 1985, pp. 160-164).

The organization of emotions

The similarity or difference which a given emotion has with other emotions varies considerably in different societies. The Ifaluk experience disappointment and fright as similar feelings (Lutz, 1986). Americans experience disappointment and fright as quite disparate feelings.

The Ifaluk also experience an emotion called "fago" which encompasses the English terms: compassion, sadness, love, respect, and gratitude. The love aspect of fago is integrally related to sadness, whereas love in the West is generally a joyful feeling that is distant from sadness (Lutz, 1986; Ratner, 1991, p. 82). Love can culminate in sadness but Westerners differentiate the two rather than conflate them (Illouz, 1997, p. 30).

The manner in which emotions are differentiated from, or integrated with, other emotions is an important determinant of their qualities (Asch, 1946; Ratner, 1997a, pp. 54-57, 77-78). The Western love that is distinct from sadness has a different quality from the Ifaluk love that entails sadness.

The organization of emotions rests upon cultural concepts and activities. The Ifaluk regard disappointment and fright as closely related because they emphasize the fact that both involve some unexpected bad occurrence. Westerners do not emphasize this aspect of disappointment and therefore do not sense disappointment and fright as similar. In Ifaluk life, love is often interrupted by tragic events which tinge it with sadness. Love in the West is regarded as an antidote to frustrating events and therefore feels dissimilar to sadness.

The Cultural Functions of Emotions

Emotions motivate social activity (cf. Copp, 1998). We have seen that after World War I, women were encouraged to feel and express envy in order to motivate consumption, competition, and ambition which are all vital to capitalistic economic activity. More generally we saw that gender differences over the past 150 years have functioned to adjust men and women to social roles (Brody, 1999, p. 202).

Jealousy motivates possessive behavior in numerous societies. It motivates people to keep things (as well as prized individuals) for oneself and away from others. Jealousy reinforces exclusive personal relationships by challenging rivals to one's friendships or marriage.

Our discussion of love makes clear that it drives people to engage in particular kinds of interpersonal relationships in order to achieve a particular emotional quality.

Gordon (1981, pp. 563-564) states that gratitude has a social function of implementing exchange and reciprocity relationships: the grateful individual is motivated to reciprocally benefit his benefactor. Intense maternal love enforces a personal relationship between mother and child which recapitulates the domestic role of women (Ratner, 1991, pp. 80-81). Respect and loyalty foment group cohesion which is necessary for social life. Guilt and shame similarly foment adherence to social norms -- they motivate the individual to conform to norms by controlling his own behavior so that it does not have to be supervised by social authority (Kemper, 1984, p. 373).

According to Abu-Lughod (1990), shame among Bedouin women, especially shame about sexual matters, functions to perpetuate patriarchal, patrilineal economic and family relations. Marriages are arranged for the economic enhancement of the fathers, not for the bride and groom. The paternal kin group of the husband remains dominant after marriage, and the marital bond between bride and groom is subordinated to it. Sexual shame among women promulgates this social system by interfering with intimate marital bonds between women and men. Sexual modesty prevents unmarried women from personally attracting men (who might be unacceptable to the father) and it allows fathers to dictate who the husband will be. Sexual modesty also prevents married women from establishing intimate relations with their husbands which might conflict with patriarchal control. The emotion of shame thus supports a definite kind of family relation or activity.

The Cultural Formation (Development) of Emotions

One significant way in which emotions are cultural is that their development in individual youngsters is stimulated and shaped through a social process called socialization.

Developmental psychologists have identified numerous ways in which emotions are socialized. Caretakers model emotional expressions, they instruct children how to react emotionally, and they contingently respond to children"s emotions, as when a mother reacts to her daughter's fear of swimming by ignoring it or sympathizing with it (Denham, 1998, chap. 4). Consequently, "certain expressive patterns of toddlers and their mothers become more and more alike across time" (ibid., p. 110). Clinical psychologists know just how profound, uncanny, and difficult to modify these similarities between offspring and caretakers are.

While socialization primarily occurs through interpersonal interactions -- between caretakers and children -- its content is rooted beyond these face-to-face interactions in cultural activities and concepts (Body, 1999, chap. 10). This is why caretakers in a particular society engage in similar socialization practices which differ from those in other societies. For example, Western parents indulge children's emotions and encourage them to pay a great deal of attention to their emotions while non-Western parents usually do not. The Kipsigis people of Kenya attempt to distract children from emotions. This leads children to de-emphasize personal, internal attributes and become more socially oriented. Chao (1995) reports similar differences between American and Chinese socialization. 40% of American mothers encouraged their children to introspect about, analyze, and discuss their feelings whereas none of Chinese mothers did.

Emotional socialization teaches activity-appropriate feelings rules to their children in order to prepare them to participate in activities when they grow up. Stearns (1993, p. 60) reports that after 1920, parents socialized children to experience and express anger in the same way that it was treated at work:

after a brief lag, the [emotional] standards developed for job situations were imported into child-rearing advice. In this new model, children's anger should be controlled and there should be no outlets for channeling. Children should learn to identify their anger and to talk it out without effect, so that they could get rid of it, replacing it with other feeling more socially useful and personally comfortable. Anger had no redeeming qualities, and old-fashioned advice, typically directed to boys, to displace it by attacking some other target was now roundly condemned...Anger was relabeled "aggression" clarify its uniformly antisocial implication.

Western parents today inculcate emotions to prepare boys and girls for the social activities they will enter when they mature. Since women are still more responsible for nurturing than men, girls, compared to boys, are socialized to be more emotional -- i.e., to cultivate and express feelings that accompany thoughts. From infancy through childhood parents:

  • discuss emotions more with their daughters than with their sons (with the exception of anger and other outer-directed emotions, such as disgust) -- fathers speak about things in general 3.5 times more to their school age daughters than to their school age sons

  • use a greater variety of emotion words when talking to daughters

  • display a wider range of emotions to their daughters than to their sons

  • use more positive than negative emotion words with preschool daughters but approximately equal numbers of positive and negative emotion words with their same-aged sons

  • pay more attention to 12-18 year old boys negative behavior (physical aggression, taking objects, verbalizing negative emotions) than they did to girls' even though the frequency of negative behaviors was equal for boys and girls. By 30 months, boys manifested higher rates of negative behavior than girls

  • help daughters more than sons

  • allow sons more autonomy than daughters

  • smile more at their daughters than at their sons

  • punish sons' emotional expressiveness more than daughters'

  • are more emotionally responsive to daughters than sons

  • minimize extent to which sons dwell on sadness and daughters dwell on anger (Brody & Hall, 1993, p. 452-455; Brody, 1999, chap. 7).7

Of course, these are not the only techniques for socializing emotions. Emotions are also modeled in literature, plays, music, poetry, television, and movies which children imitate to generate appropriate emotions in themselves.

Emotional socialization inculcates cultural-psychological themes. However, socialization should not be thought of as a mechanical imposing of functions onto a passive recipient. Socialization is actively internalized by the youngster. She identifies with social events and strives to adapt herself to them. The individual is an active and willing participant in becoming socialized by others. She lends herself to others and draws others into her being. This is certainly true for emotions in that individuals strive to imitate emotional reactions they perceive in others. Adolescents desperately desire to have the experience of passionate romantic love which they see and hear about in movies and songs. People question their own adequacy when they are more (or less) angry, jealous, depressed, or in love than normative standards prescribe. This attempt at measuring up to social standards is what Cooley called "the looking glass self" -- namely, we see ourself and strive to adjust it to the ways we imagine other people expect us to be.8

Another way in which socialization involves complex dynamics between caretaker and child is that it interacts with innate traits of the infant. However, interaction does not imply that social and innate, biological processes contribute equally to the psychological outcome. Vygotsky explained that social processes are dominant in forming psychological phenomena. He argued that innate biological mechanisms determine the form and content of simple, stereotyped, involuntary reactions such as instincts, reflexes, and infantile temperaments. However, such "lower," "elementary" reactions cannot be the basis of "higher" psychological phenomena which are complex, controllable, intentional, variable, and mediated by cognitive symbols. Lower and higher processes are clearly different in terms of their mechanisms, components, origins, features, formation (development), and functions (cf. Bernard, 1926, pp.123-141 for a similar argument). Thus, lower processes do not contribute their characteristics to influence some part of psychological phenomena. Their characteristics are inimical to psychological phenomena and would interfere with their development. Psychological phenomena develop on a biological and social basis that is autonomous of lower, determining biological mechanisms. Psychological development consists in "the transition from direct, innate, natural forms and methods of behavior to mediated, artificial mental functions that develop in the process of cultural development" (Vygotsky, 1998, p. 168; cf., Ratner, 1991, chap. 4; 1998a, 1998b for Vygotsky"s argument).

The transformation from lower to higher psychological processes occurs via social interaction between infant and caretaker. This interaction does not combine existing features of both processes together. It transforms lower processes into higher psychological functions by a) dispensing with many natural processes, b) modifying (pacifying, civilizing) certain natural processes by incorporating them into new systems, and c) generating novel psychological functions which have no natural analogue or basis (Vygotsky, 1997a, p. 87).9

From Vygotsky's perspective, socialization generates emotions as a new social-cognitive phenomenon in children who previously, as infants, only felt sensations such as pleasure, pain, hot, cold, excitement (cf. Oatley & Jenkins, 1996, pp. 166-168).

Socialization is not mechanical nor is it monolithic. Socialization of emotions occurs by individual caretakers who contribute their distinctive (combinations of) social experience to other distinctive (combinations of) social experiences which their children have. Individual differences in social experience lead to individual differences in emotional intensity, expression, management, quality, and organization. Of course, individual psychological differences are not absolute. They are variations around common cultural themes. Without shared common actions there would be no culture.

While socialization inculcates socially sanctioned emotions, it is also the potential basis of creative thinking which can analyze and alter emotions and the broader culture. Vygotsky believed that proper socialization stimulates the development of thinking, creativity, and imagination (Vygotsky, 1997b, p. 153).

The imagination that is cultivated by cultural life has the ability to analyze (and ultimately alter) society and also psychological functions such as emotions. Whether imagination achieves this level of insight and creativity seems to depend upon a combination of historical circumstances and individual social experiences. Certainly, not all imagination profoundly understands and advances emotional phenomena or society as a whole. Most imagination works within the system -- e.g., to devise a strategy for finding a job or a spouse -- without comprehending or changing it significantly. Thus, imagination and creativity are not necessarily emancipating. They only become so if they are cultivated and utilized to critically examine cultural phenomena (cf. Ratner, 1998b, pp. 469-472; Ratner,1999; Ratner, forthcoming, chap. 1).

The Interaction of Biology and Culture in Emotions

If cultural activities and concepts shape the quality, intensity, expression, organization, management, formation and function of emotions (Hochschild, 1979), what role does biology play?

Cultural processes can only be central if biological processes are subsidiary. If biological mechanisms strongly determined the features of emotions, cultural processes would have minimal influence (Elias, 1939/1991, p. 37). The cultural-psychological analysis I have presented requires that biological mechanisms contribute little, if anything, to the specific characteristics of emotion. Emotions are not physically independent of biological processes since they require a physical medium as all psychological phenomena do. However, emotions are functionally autonomous of biological mechanisms in the sense that their specific features are determined by cultural rather than biological factors.

Although such a conception of emotions is unusual and controversial, some provocative biological and psychological research supports it. Interestingly, some of this evidence is provided by researchers who do not realize that it supports this conclusion.

Phylogenetic evidence suggests that emotions develop as biological processes recede as determinants of behavior. In species where biological processes directly and strongly determine behavior, emotions are absent or rudimentary. The behavior of low animals occurs as a biologically programmed response to a stimulus without the intermediary of psychological experience. An insect, mouse, bird, or fish which reflexively avoids a stimulus because of its color, shape, or size has no feeling about it. Emotions only arise as biological programs recede in influence and are replaced by cognitive processes that mediate between stimuli and responses. Information processing increases over phylogenetic and ontogenetic development. Higher animals -- from dogs to apes -- engage in some cognitive processing of information before making a response. This provides the "space" for developing a few simple, stereotyped emotions. In humans, cognitive mediation between stimulus and response is extensive and has almost entirely superceded automatic biological programs as determinants of behavior. As the biologist Schneirla (1972, p. 79) said, "In man, visceral processes play a far more indirect and delicate role in emotional reactions which are much more influenced by the perceptual significance of the situation than they are in lower mammals." Extensive cognitive activity is the basis of complex, modulated emotions (cf. Ratner, 1991, chap. 1; cf. Taylor, 1985, pp. 263-274). "Emotions require a good deal of conceptual sophistication, including, for example, categories of ownership and rights, self and status, responsibility" (Solomon, 1978, p. 198). Consequently, it is doubtful that rats which suddenly freeze in place when they hear a tone that in the past had signaled painful electric shock are in a brain state that is essentially the same as the one experienced by a passenger being told that the plane will have to make a forced landing on water in the next few minutes (Kagan, 1998, p. 20; cf. Vygotsky, 1999, pp. 27-28). It is equally inconceivable that animals could experience shame the way a Taoist does (as described on p. 10 above).

Cultural cognitive mediation of emotions occurs in the brain cortex. The cortex is the body's primary receptacle for all social experience. Cortical centers are extremely receptive to social experience and their growth and organization reflect it. The cortex transmits social experience to mental and physical functions. The cortex is a biological trojan horse that allows social experience to enter mental and bodily processes and organize them (Ratner, 1991, pp. 224-237). Geertz explained this eloquently:

In apparent paradox, an increasing autonomy, hierarchical complexity, and regnancy of ongoing central nervous system activity seem to go hand in hand with a less fully detailed determination of such activity by the structure of the central nervous system in and of itself; i.e., intrinsically…Properties which improve the performance capacity of the central nervous system reduce its functional self-sufficiency…A fully specified adaptively sufficient definition of regnant neural processes in terms of intrinsic parameters being impossible, the human brain is thoroughly dependent upon cultural resources for its very operation; and those resources are, consequently, not adjuncts to, but constituents of, mental activity (Geertz, 1973, p. 76).

Extensive neurobiological evidence portrays the manner in which culture organizes emotions via the brain cortex. Essentially, emotions are regulated by sub-cortical areas of the brain that are integrated into, and controlled by, cortical areas; and the cortical areas process symbols which are culturally derived. In other words, cortical centers transmit cultural symbols to subcortical areas of the brain (which they control) and on to emotions. Contrary to popular opinion, lower brain processes, and elementary functions in general, do not retain their primordial character and use it to govern emotions. Lower brain centers have lost their primordial character as they have been subsumed within the more powerful cortical processes. Lower biological mechanisms only govern behavior in organisms with undeveloped or impaired cortical centers (cf. Armstrong, 1999; Goldstein, 1940/1963).

Specifically, the "emotion center" of the brain, the limbic system, is comprised of subcortical structures such as the amygdala, septal area, and hippocampus, and cortical structures such as the hippocampus and the cingulate gyrus. The limbic system is further connected to the orbital-frontal area of the cerebral cortex, Wernicke's area, the inferior parietal region, and the lateral prefrontal cortex. These cortical areas process language comprehension and planning (Armstrong, 1999). These cortical areas impart their symbolic, semiotic, and cognitive functions to the limbic system. The limbic system is thus not specifically devoted to feelings per se; it actually appraises the meaning or value of stimuli (including social information and autobiographical consciousness), coordinates perceptions with memory and behavior, activates arousal, learns and remembers information, and coordinates bodily responses and higher cognitive processing. The limbic system thus does not produce feelings as a specialized function. Feelings which are mediated by the limbic system are integrated within it's function of processing information (Siegel, 1999, pp. 122, 131-132; Armstrong, 1999). As the limbic system regulates the autonomic system, hormones, arousal, posture, and facial expression -- which are all vital to emotions -- it does so on the basis of symbolic understandings and interpretations that derive from the cortex (Schore, 1994, p. 35, 41-42). As Schore explains, "The internal working models that guide interpersonal behavior and regulate affect are stored in the orbitofrontal cortex of the right hemisphere" (ibid., p. 191). It "determines which particular modular hypothalamic motivational system and thereby which emotion-specific action tendency is activated by the external, environmental socioaffective stimulus change" (ibid., p. 190). Lower brain centers reciprocally send information that stimulates the cortex, however, the cortex is dominant in this interaction. For instance, interpretation of a stimulus as fearful causes the cortex to activate the amygdala, however activating the amygdala alone does not generate fear (Whalen, 1998, p. 178). Lower brain centers can sometimes be inoperative and emotions still occur. Chemically blocking the sympathetic nervous system produces no reduction in reported anxiety (Reizenzein, 1983, p. 246).

Cortical control of emotions in higher animals was demonstrated in 1937 when H. Kluver & P. Bucy found that removing the temporal lobes of rhesus monkeys produced complete loss of fear and anger. The cortex and mind produce emotions by providing essential information to the lower brain centers. Without this information lower centers do not mediate true emotions, they only mediate reflexive behavioral outbursts.

The cortical and subcortical brain centers which mediate emotions are greatly affected by social experience. "A critical period of synaptic growth and differentiation of an affect regulating limbic structure in the prefrontal cortex of the right hemisphere commences at the end of the first year, and this developmental process is significantly influenced by the stimulation embedded in the infant's socioaffective transactions with the primary caregiver" (Schore, 1994, p. 13). Because the cortex reflects social experience and thinking, it acts as the internal representation of external human relationships in biologically regulating emotions and other psychological processes (Schore, 1998, p. 69)." In short, the cortex allows culture to organize emotions (Armstrong, 1999, pp. 269-270).

Since emotions depend upon cognitive-cortical mediations, they are not immediate reactions to external stimuli or internal biological mechanisms. Emotions are not linked in a one-to-one relationship to physiological antecedents or consequents. One emotion can be associated with various physiological antecedents and consequents. Conversely, different emotions can occur on the same physiological substrate -- "Discrete emotional percepts can occur even when the autonomic changes do not fully discriminate the emotions that are experienced" (Cacioppo, et al., 1993, pp. 132-133). Social concepts determine the specific emotions that are related to particular physiological mechanisms.

The absence of a one-to-one relationship between emotions and physiological mechanisms means that the latter have little determining influence over characteristics of emotions. The only way a physiological mechanism could strictly influence emotional characteristics is if it connected up to a specific emotion. The absence of such a definite, one-to-one connection deprives any specific mechanism from exercising control over a particular emotion. Evidence about this is plentiful and fascinating. It deserves to be presented because it contradicts strongly entrenched, prevalent myths of a one-to-one causal connection.

Physiological antecedents. Regarding physiological antecedents of emotions, changes in estrogen level which precede menstruation and menopause do not directly predispose women to experience any particular emotion. Menopausal women experience depression, serenity, or joy depending upon social-cognitive factors. The same holds for pre-menstrual women. Mandler (1980, p. 227) expressed the relationship between emotions and hormonal precursors in the following words, "There is currently no evidence that different patterns of autonomic activity occurring prior to the experience of an emotion determine that experience."

Neurotransmitters have an equally general relationship with emotions and do not determine them in a one-to-one manner:

It is not uncommon for a single neurochemical system, or a single psychoactive drug, to have effects on nearly every behavior that is measured. For instance, the list of behavioral functions that brain serotonin does not modify is very short, containing no items, whereas the list of functions serotonin does affect includes everything the animal does. Essentially the same conclusion holds for acetylcholine, dopamine, norepinephrine, glutamate, and GABA. This indicates that many neurotransmitters can exert global effects on brain and psychological functions...For instance, facilitation of serotonin typically suppresses behavior [in general] while drugs that promote dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine activity typically facilitate behaviors [in general] (Panksepp, 1998, p. 103).

Neurotransmitters which are touted as controlling specific emotions actually have broad effects on numerous psychophysiological responses. Norepinephrine can enhance the experience of anxiety in humans, but it can mediate other emotional experiences as well. The particular emotional experience "may simply reflect general arousal effects that amplify whatever tendencies already exist in the nervous system, rather than reflecting any specific type of emotional arousal" (Panksepp, 1998, p. 218). The benzodiazapenes (BZ's) are touted as reducing anxiety, however they also inhibit sleep disorders, muscle spasms, and symptoms accompanying withdrawal from alcohol. BZ's are even effective in taming wild animals, which was their first known effect and led to using them to treat anxiety! Panksepp (1998, p. 219) articulated the generalized effect of benzodiazapenes on emotions: "BZ's are now tailor-made and marketed for [several] specific disorders, even though the basic neuronal action is the same for all of them." "Antidepressant drugs" such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil, (which are serotonin selective reuptake inhibitors) have similarly broad effects. They are now being used to alleviate entirely different problems, obsessive-compulsive disorder and social phobia. Social phobia is extreme shyness including fear of public speaking and eating -- it is the third most prevalent psychiatric disorder in the U.S. after substance abuse and depression, affecting 13% of the population in contrast to 3% 20 years ago (Keck & McElroy, 1997).

Other experiments have demonstrated that emotions are functionally independent of neural and hormonal processes. An emotionally aversive film was shown to subjects' right and left hemispheres separately. Cortisol and blood pressure rose to higher levels when the film was presented to the right hemisphere (through the left visual field) than when it was presented to the left hemisphere. However, adult subjects did not report greater emotional arousal when the aversive film was presented to the right rather than the left hemisphere (Kagan, 1998, p. 41). Thus, the physiological arousal was unrelated to the emotional state.

Even sexual feelings do not follow physiological activity in the genitals: "Women who watched erotic films often experienced engorgement of the vaginal wall but the degree of engorgement was not positively correlated with the women"s reports of the intensity of sexual arousal they felt. Many women reported feeling no sexual arousal when the engorgement occurred" (Kagan, 1998, p. 21).

Melzack & Wall (1965) argue that in humans, even the sensation of pain (which Aristotle considered an emotion) is not fully determined by somatic trauma. Physical trauma to the soma is mediated by cognitive processes such as attention, evaluation, and memory which notice, interpret, and react to physical inputs. Melzack & Wall (1988, pp. 17-19) report that sensation thresholds are determined by physiological mechanisms and are universal; however, pain thresholds and pain tolerance levels -- the level of pain which subjects refuse to tolerate -- are culturally variable. "Psychological evidence on pain fails to support the assumption of a one-to-one relationship between pain perception and intensity of the stimulus. Instead, the evidence suggests that the amount and quality of perceived pain are determined by many psychological variables in addition to the sensory input...Phantom limb, causalgia, and the neuralgias provide a dramatic refutation of the concept of a fixed, direct-line nervous system" (ibid., p. 156). "No neurons in the somatic projection system are indisputably linked to a single, specific psychological experience" (ibid., p. 164). In other words no specialized neurons determine that pain and only pain must be felt when they are activated. Nor is it the case that we can never experience pain unless they are activated (ibid., p. 165).

This conclusion is supported by Flor & Turk's (1989) extensive review of pain studies. The authors found few physiological differences between patients experiencing pain and individuals not experiencing pain.

Similarly, the experience of free fall is entirely dependent upon one's interpretation of it despite an initial similarity of physiological processes in such experiences. The sudden change in atmospheric pressure on the body along with the sudden increase in heart rate that attend free-fall while riding a roller-coaster at Great America are experienced as exhilarating and exciting -- moreover, this cognitively and socially mediated psychological experience generates ensuing "positive" physiological reactions such as the release of excitatory hormones and peptide neurotransmitters (endorphins and enkephalins) in a ratio that promotes health via the immune system. On the other hand, the same change in atmospheric pressure and heart rate while free-falling in a crashing airplane is experienced as terrifying -- and the ratio and rate of release of ensuing hormones and neuropeptides creates a deleterious effect on the body's internal tissue systems (Chopra, 1989).

The foregoing evidence demonstrates that physiological antecedents do not cause specific emotional states to occur. A given precursor can result in many different experiences, and diverse precursors can result in the same experience. Physiological arousal typically has weak effects on the intensity of emotional states (Reizenzein, 1983, p. 258).

Physiological consequents of emotions are equally nonspecific. For example, there is no relation between the degree of embarrassment a person feels and the amount of dilation of facial blood vessels when she blushes (Kagan, 1998, p. 41). (Kagan, 1998, p. 41).

A large body of research indicates that testosterone secretion follows a wide range of experiences and emotions. Testosterone levels change as chess players win or lose a match, as an individual increases or decreases in status, after divorce, and as a spectator sees his favorite team win or lose a sporting event. In addition, testosterone in men rises after viewing erotic material and after intercourse (Mazur & Booth, 1998, p. 356; Bernhardt, 1997). Testosterone also rises in men who have legal problems, extramarital affairs, tatoos, and alcohol and drug abuse (Brody, 1999, p. 110). Interestingly, it is the person's attitude toward an experience, not the experience itself, that causes variation in testosterone level. Athletes who win a competition but do not regard the win as important manifest little or no elevation in testosterone level (Mazur & Booth, 1998, p. 358).10

Epinephrine is secreted in response to both pleasant-amusing and aggressive films. ACTH release similarly occurs in a wide variety of charged situations and emotional arousals (Ratner, 1991, pp. 220-223, 240 footnote #9).

Even the contradictory emotions of happiness and sadness generate extremely similar physiological response patterns of GSR, heart rate, skin conductance, blood pressure, respiration rate, temperature, and pulse. Other sets of contrasting emotions -- anger and happiness, fear and happiness, anger and sadness, and fear and sadness -- also generate similar autonomic effects (Ratner, 1989; Cacioppo, et al., 1993, p. 131). Cacioppo, et al. (1993, pp. 132-133) conclude that "The research on autonomic differentiation of emotions is provocative, but the cumulative evidence for emotion-specific autonomic patterns remains inconclusive."

In the latest review of the field, Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin (2000) similarly conclude that, "the same emotion may lead to different [autonomic] profiles depending on the situational variables within which the emotion is induced, and different emotions may be associated with the same [autonomic] profiles in some instances" (p. 892). Specifically, "The data certainly cannot support a primary role for autonomic patterning in the determination of emotional experience because reported emotional experience is far more differentiated than the autonomic changes that have been observed" (ibid., p. 892). "Of particular note in the literature on autonomic correlates of emotion is the fact that no systematic, replicable differences that distinguish between positive and negative affect have been reported, despite the fact that this valence dimension is an extremely salient one and arises in every major conceptual scheme for the structure of emotion" (ibid., p. 892).

Studies on EEG activity in different areas of the cortex have found that diverse emotions such as joy, interest, anger, pride, bliss, concern, and jealousy all entail relatively greater activitation of the left frontal area than the right. Other diverse emotions, such as distress, disgust, fear, sadness, resentment, and anxiety all manifest relatively greater activation of the right than the left frontal area. Cortical differences do not differentiate individual emotions (Dawson, 1994, pp. 347-348, 371).

Some researchers have argued that at least global categories of emotions are asymmetically represented (processed) in different cortical areas. They have labelled joy, interest, anger, pride, bliss, concern, and jealousy as emotions that approach the environment, and distress, disgust, fear, sadness, resentment, and anxiety as emotions that withdraw from the environment. They then argue that different parts of the frontal cortex are specialized to process these broad categories (ibid., pp. 347-348). However, even this attempt at specializing broad categories of emotions fails. For the categories are incoherent. Joy, anger, bliss, pride, and jealousy do not necessarily lead to engaging the environment. They equally lead to withdrawing from it. I may be so happy that I relax or leave a situation; I can be so angry or jealous that I leave; I can be too proud to respond. Similarly, distress, disgust, fear, sadness, resentment, and anxiety can motivate me to engage the environment to alter it. If the proposed emotional categories of approach and withdrawal are untenable, then the brain cannot be specialized to represent, or process, them in different areas.

Figure One summarizes the variable, indefinite relationship between emotions and antecedent and subsequent physiological processes.

Indefinite Relationship Between Physiology and Emotional Experience



















Somatic Injury

Low Pain
High Pain







Noxious stimulus
Neutral stimulus










No Pain

Equivalent heart rate, blood flow, temperature




Equivalent heart rate, blood flow, temperature, GSR, blood pressure




Equivalent ACTH and epinephrine




Equivalent testosterone




Equivalent EEG in left frontal cortex




Equivalent EEG in right frontal cortex

Cultural concepts determine the emotional quality that global visceral reactions take on. Physical states which have no properties of emotions do not determine or comprise the features of emotions (additional evidence is summarized in Ratner, 1991, pp. 219-224; Ratner, 1989). Emotions are part of cultural-cognitive processes and have no independent causes or markers (Kagan, 1988, p. 22). Schachter arrived at precisely this conclusion from his classic experiment.

Candland explained that this relation between physiology and emotions enhances human adaptability and creativity: "It may be that this increased availability of energy is the most important function of hormonal changes following or during exposure to emotional situations, since this increase in energy would aid the individual's adaptation to the stresses of 'being emotional'" (Candland, 1977, p. 127). Humans can creatively adapt to their environment precisely because they are unconstrained by biological mechanisms which dictate fixed responses. Animals are less creative because their biology determines fixed action patterns. The volitional, creative, cognitively-socially mediated character of human responsiveness is only possible if emotions have a variable, indeterminate, functionally autonomous relationship with physiological mechanisms and are not rigidly tied to them. Human biology is distinctive in acting as a substratum which allows the human mind to decide how to act. As Kagan (1998, pp. 34-35) said, "The events of the individual's past and the context of the present can produce different psychological experiences, thoughts, and actions in individuals who are, for a period of several seconds, in the same brain state."

The evidence presented above indicates that the biological functions which mediate psychological phenomena are integrated with cultural-psychological functions. The integration occurs because biology adapts to cultural activities. Biological functions are raw material which is forged by cultural activities. Biology is indispensable to psychology and culture. However, it does not determine their specific content. Thus, the system of mind, biology, and culture is monistic because culture predominates over, and unifies, all the components. The components are all differentiated aspects of culture. The system of mind, biology, and culture is a differentiated unity, as Hegel said all systems are. Biological processes which mediate psychological phenomena are not autonomous functions possessing their own intrinsic, fixed characteristics which are added to cultural processes.

Vygotsky advocated this very relationship of biology, psychology, and culture. He emphasized that multiple factors accommodate to dominant principles which unify them: "heterogeneous material [e.g., physiological mechanisms and psychological phenomena] is not united merely by adding one kind of material to another...nor through simply joining or adding parts so that each part preserves its balance and independence while being included into the new whole..." (Vygotsky, 1997a, p. 239; cf. Vygotsky, 1987, p. 197). Psychology, culture, and biology are unified by the dominant character of culture which pervades the other factors. Therefore, "the acceptance of the unity of the mental and the physical...should not lead us to identify the mental and the physical...Dialectical psychology... does not mix up the mental and physiological processes. It accepts the nonreducible qualitatively unique nature of the mind" (Vygotsky, 1997a, p. 113).


The evidence which has been presented in this article demonstrates that emotions are culturally specific and variable. It also supports a systematic theory of emotions which could encompass other psychological phenomena as well. This theory, known as activity theory, maintains that emotions are cultural phenomena because a) they are socially constructed artifacts which are functionally independent of biological determinants; b) their characteristics reflect (recapitulate) the social organization of activities and the cultural content of concepts; c) emotions are formed through socialization which ultimately reflects social activities and cultural concepts; and d) emotions support, or reproduce, cultural activities. Specifically, emotions rest upon a biological substratum which potentiates a wide range of emotional reactions but does not strictly determine any of them. The socially organized ways in which people act, think, and are treated in their cultural activities -- e.g., their responsibilities, rights, obligations, behavioral norms, opportunities, rewards -- stimulate the development of emotions, are reflected in the characteristics of emotions, and are the ultimate function of emotions.

Emphasizing the activity basis of emotions produces the most vivid description and explanation of emotions because it ties them to the vibrant richness of real life. It relates emotions to the dynamic changes which are occurring in the world economy, to the kinds of governments and legal systems people live in, to the manner in which medical care is dispensed, to changes in family relations and the educational systems children grow up in, to the art that is produced and the media that people are exposed to, to spectacular technological innovations/artifacts, and to the changing physical infrastructure of towns and cities. Overlooking activity leads to overlooking many specific cultural features of emotions. It also leads to incomplete explanations of emotions' characteristics, formation, and function (cf. Ratner, 1993; Ratner, 1997a, chap. 3; Ratner, 1997b; Ratner, 1999 for discussion).

My revised activity theory places emotions within the realm of rational analysis and transformation. Inappropriate, debilitating, and antisocial emotions can be overcome through altering their cultural characteristics. Since these characteristics rest upon cultural concepts and activities, substantive emotional change among large numbers of people requires changes in cultural activities and cultural concepts -- as historical evidence on anger, fear, and love demonstrate. Changes in socialization practices are vital to enhancing emotionality, however such changes also require broad improvements in social activities and concepts. Disregarding activities prevents altering the social fabric that fosters particular emotions. It thus consigns people to living with inappropriate, debilitating, and antisocial emotions.

Of course, individuals can change certain aspects of emotions without considering their links to cultural activities and concepts. One can express anger less intensely and love more intensely without engaging in a cultural analysis of emotions. However, these changes are superficial in the sense that they do not challenge the basic content, or quality, of emotions. They do not challenge the cultural content of love to make it more realistic, rational, and socially oriented. They do not challenge the conceptual underpinning of anger which holds people personally responsible for harm which they inflict. Substantial changes in the characteristics of emotions require understanding and altering the cultural activities and concepts which organize them. These are the practical implications of a cultural-psychological analysis of emotions from the standpoint of revised activity theory.


1.I am grateful to Susan Frances, Guli Bao, Valerie Prueger, Wolfgang Friedlmeier, Manfred Holodynski, George Ellis, Jaan Valsiner, and reviewers for Culture and Psychology for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

2. Vygotsky emphasized the conceptual basis of psychological phenomena as follows:

Various functions (attention, memory, perception, will, thinking) do not develop side by side like a bundle of branches placed into a single vessel; they even do not develop like various branches of a single tree that are connected by a main trunk. In the process of development, all of these functions form a complex hierarchic system where the central or leading function is the development of thinking, the function of forming concepts. All the other functions enter into a complex synthesis with this new formation; they are intellectualized and restructured on the basis of thinking in concepts (Vygotsky 1998, pp. 84-85).

Concepts which mediate psychological phenomena may be spontaneously formed by individuals through their empirical experience (as one learns the concept "brother"), or they may be concepts which have previously been formulated by others and are adopted by individuals (e.g., the concept "exploitation") (Vygotsky, 1987, chap. 6).

3. Men in ancient Greece generally believed that women were unworthy of love and so they bestowed affection on young males rather than women (Collins & Coltrane, 1995, p. 108). "Passionate love between the sexes is alien to the Greeks and the Romans. Whenever passionate love manifests itself in the literature of Antiquity, it is either regarded as a chastisement inflicted on men by the gods -- as in Euripides, to whom the love of Phaedra for Hippolytus is a punishment visited upon the young man for his neglect of Aphrodite -- or -- as in the case of Ovid -- it is viewed simply as sensual gratification" (Capellanus, 1957, p. iv).

4. Gender differences in anger and fear were undoubtedly qualitative as well as quantitative. In other words, men not only experienced more anger and less fear than women; they would have experienced a different quality of anger of fear that reflected their social role.

5. A caveat concerning Stearns' and Matt's data is that it was derived from published material -- advertisements, fiction, essays, and advice columns in magazines -- rather than from surveys of the population. Stearns acknowledges that the emotional experience of the population may differ from published material about emotions. However, he also stresses the likely overlap between what media present and what people experience, and he notes that surveys and personal letters -- as well as the data on phobias -- revealed this congruence to be real.

6. Hejmadi, et al. use a different, inappropriate, statistic to conclude that universal recognition of emotions has been achieved in their study. They calculate whether the predicted emotion received the highest number of responses by Ss. They found that for most of the 30 emotions, the predicted/correct one was the most frequently selected by Indian and American subjects. This is a meaningless statistic however, because the most frequent response does not mean it was selected by most subjects. The most frequent response may only have been selected by a very few Ss. For example, 8 of 48 Americans correctly identified sadness in a dance, and although sadness was the most common response to that dance, 40 of the 48 Ss did not select it and selected an incorrect label instead. The number of Ss who correctly identify an emotion is far more meaningful than whether an emotional label was the most utilized. Hejmadi╣s conclusion about high recognition of emotions is an egregious misstatement of his data.

7. Socialization transmits cultural norms in a two-pronged fashion. It transmits culturally specific content. In addition, most socialization processes are themselves culturally specific and variable. Socialization processes impart cultural characteristics to children's psychology by structuring their actions. Thus, cultural themes are transmitted in the content and the process of socialization (Kemper, 1984, p. 370; Ratner, 1991, pp. 172-173).

8. Brody (1999, pp. 2-3) correctly expressed the imbalanced contribution that innate and social processes make to emotions when she said that, "Biological sex differences contribute to gender differences in emotion only insofar as representatives of the culture, in the form of parents, peers, teachers, and the media, respond to these biological differences in dissimilar ways, in accordance with cultural values and stereotypes."

9. Of course, the socialization process is affected by the child's developmental maturity. Children cannot immediately and fully conform to social influences. They assimilate social material to their own level of development and only gradually reach adult level of functioning under stimulation and guidance from caretakers. Cf. Vygotsky, 1987, p. 176.

10. The purported positive correlation between testosterone and aggression is as mythical as touted relationships between the hormone and emotions. Actually, no relation exists between testosterone levels and aggressive behavior. For instance, testosterone increases 20-100 fold during puberty in males yet their aggression during this period does not change from its level in early childhood (Brody, 1999, pp. 108-109).


Abu-Lughod, L. (1990). Shifting politics in Bedouin love poetry. In C. Lutz & L. Abu-Lughod (Eds.), Language and the politics of emotion (pp. 24-45). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Armon-Jones, C. (1986). The thesis of constructionism. In R. Harre (Ed.), The social construction of emotions (pp. 32-56). New York: Blackwell.

Armstrong, E. (1999). Making symbols meaningful: Human emotions and the limbic system. In A. Hinton (Ed.), Biocultural approaches to the emotions (pp. 256-273). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Asch, S. (1946). Forming impressions of personality, Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology, 41, 258-290.

Averill, J. (1980). Emotion and anxiety: Sociocultural, biological, and psychological determinants. In A. Rorty (Ed.), Explaining emotions (37-72). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Barbalet, J. (1998). Emotion, social theory, and social structure: A macrosociological approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Beck, A. (1988). Love Is Never Enough. New York: Harper & Row.

Bernard, L. L. (1926). An introduction to social psychology. New York: Holt.

Bernhardt, P. (1997). Influences of serotonin and testosterone in aggression and dominance: Convergence with social psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 6, 44-48.

Brenneis, D. (1990). Shared and solitary sentiments: The discourse of friendship. play, and anger in Bhatgaon. In C. Lutz & L. Abu-Lughod (Eds.), Language and the politics of emotion (pp. 113-125). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Brody, L., & Hall, J. (1993). Gender and emotion. In M. Lewis & J. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 447-460). New York: Guilford.

Brody, L. (1999). Gender, emotion, and family. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cacioppo, J., Klein, D., Bernston, G., & Hatfield, E. (1993). The psychophysiology of emotion. In M. Lewis & J. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 119-142). New York: Guilford.

Camras, L. (1992). Expressive development and basic emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 6, 269-283.

Candland, D. (1977). Emotion. Belmont, Ca: Brooks/Cole.

Capellanus, A. (1957). The art of courtly love. New York: Ungar Publishing Co.

Carothers, J. (1947). A study of mental derangement in Africans, and an attempt to explain its peculiarities, more especially in relation to the African attitude to life. Journal of Mental Science, 93, 548-597.

Chao, R. (1995). Chinese and European-American cultural models of the self reflected in mothers' childrearing beliefs. Ethos, 23, 328-354.

Chopra, D. (1989). Quantum healing: Exploring the frontiers of mind/body medicine. New York: Bantam Books.

Collins, R., & Coltrane, S. (1995). Sociology of marriage and the family: Gender, love and property. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Copp, M. (1998). When emotion work is doomed to fail: Ideological and structural constraints on emotion management. Symbolic Interaction, 21, 299-328.

Davidson, R., Jackson, D., & Kalin, N. (2000). Emotion, plasticity, context, and regulation: Perspectives from affective neuroscience. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 890-909.

Dawson, G. (1994). Development of emotional expression and emotion regulation in infancy: Contributions of the frontal lobe. In G. Dawson & K. Fischer (Eds.), Human behavior and the developing brain (pp. 346-379). New York: Guilford Press.

Denham, S. (19998). Emotional development in young children. New York: Guilford Press.

DeSwaan, A. (1981). The politics of agoraphobia. Theory and Society, 10, 359-385.

Dewey, J. (1910). The influence of Darwin on philosophy and other essays on contemporary thought. New York: Holt.

Durkheim, E. (1938). The rules of sociological method. New York: The Free Press. (originally published 1895).

Ekman, P. (1972). Universals and cultural differences in facial expressions of emotion. In J. Cole (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation, 1971 (pp. 207-283). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Elias, N. (1991). The society of individuals. Cambridge, Ma: Blackwell. (Originally published 1939).

Fernandez-Dols, J., & Ruiz-Belda, M. (1997). Spontaneous facial behavior during intense emotional episodes: Artistic truth and optical truth. In J. Russell & J. Fernandez-Dols (Eds.), The psychology of facial expressions (pp. 255-274). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Flor, H., & Turk, D. (1989). Psychophysiology of chronic pain: Do chronic pain patients exhibit symptom-specific psychophysiological responses? Psychological Bulletin, 105, 215-259.

Gauvain, M. (1993). The development of spatial thinking in everyday activity. Developmental Review, 13, 92-121.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Harper.

Goldstein, K. (1940/1963). Human nature in the light of psychopathology. New York: Schocken.

Gordon, S. (1981). The sociology of sentiments and emotion. In M. Rosenberg & R. Turner (Eds.), Social psychology: Sociological perspectives (pp. 562-592). New York: Basic.

Haidt, J., & Kelter, D. (1999). Culture and facial expression. Cognition and Emotion, 13, 225-266.

Hejmadi, A., Davidson, R., & Rozin, P. (2000). Exploring Hindu Indian emotion expressions: Evidence for accurate recognition by Americans and Indians. Psychological Science, 11, 183-187.

Hemphill, C. (1998). Class, gender, and the regulation of emotional expression in revolutionary-era conduct literature. In P. Stearns & J. Lewis (Eds.), An emotional history of the United States (pp. 33-51). New York: New York University Press.

Hochschild, A. (1979). Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure. American Journal of Sociology, 85, 551-575.

Illouz, E. (1997). Consuming the romantic utopia: Love and the cultural contradictions of capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jadhav, S. (1996). The cultural origins of depression. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 42, 269-286.

Kagan, J. (1998). Three seductive ideas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kasson, J. (1990). Rudeness and civility: Manners in nineteenth-century urban America. New York: Hill and Wang.

Keck, P., & McElroy, S. (1997). New uses for antidepressants: Social phobia. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 58, suppl. 14, 32-36.

Kemper, T. (1984). Power, status, and emotions: A sociological contribution to a psychophysiological domain. In K. Scherer & P. Ekman (Eds.), Approaches to emotion (pp. 369-384). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kleinman, A. (1980). Patients and healers in the context of culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kleinman, A. & Good, B. (1985). Culture and depression. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kovecses, Z. (1990). Emotion concepts. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Labarre, W. (1947). The cultural basis of emotions and gestures. Journal of Personality, 16, 49-68.

Laski, H. (1936). The rise of liberalism. New York: Harper & Row.

Leach, W. (1980). True love and perfect union: The feminist reform of sex and society. New York: Basic Books.

Lee, Z. (1999). Korean culture and sense of shame. Transcultural Psychiatry, 36, 181-194.

Lutz, C. (1986). The domain of emotion words on Ifaluk. In R. Harre (Ed.), The social construction of emotions (pp. 267-288). New York: Blackwell.

Lutz, C. (1990). Engendered emotion: Gender, power, and the rhetoric of emotional control in American discourse. In C. Lutz & L. Abu-Lughod (Eds.), Language and the politics of emotion (pp. 69-91). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Macpherson, C. B. (1962). The political theory of possessive individualism, Hobbes to Locke. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mandler, G. (1980). The Generation of Emotions: A Psychological Theory. In R. Plutchik & H. Kellerman (Eds.), Emotion: Theory, Research, and Experience. (Vol 1, chap. 9). New York: Academic Press.

Matt, S. (1998). Frocks, finery, and feelings: Rural and urgan women's envy, 1890-1930. In P. Stearns & J. Lewis (Eds.), An emotional history of the United States (pp. 377-395). New York: New York University Press.

Mauss, M. (1985). A category of the human mind: The notion of person; the notion of self. In M. Carrithers, S. Collins, S. Lukes (Eds.), The category of the person: Anthropology, philosophy, history (pp. 1-25). New York: Cambridge University Press. (Originally published 1938)

Mazur, A., & Booth, A. (1998). Testosterone and dominance in men. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21, 353-397.

Melzack, R., & Wall, P. (Nov., 19, 1965). Pain mechanisms: A new theory. Science, 150, 971-979.

Melzack, R., & Wall, P. (1988). The challenge of pain. New York: Penguin.

Murphy, H. B. M. (1978). The advent of guilt feelings as a common depressive symptom: A historical comparison on two continents. Psychiatry, 41, 229-242.

Oatley, K., & Jenkins, J. (1996). Understanding emotions. Cambridge: Blackwells.

Olson, E. (1981). Socioeconomic and psychocultural contexts of child abuse and neglect in Turkey. In J. Kobin (Ed.), Child abuse and neglect: Cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 96-119). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. Oxford University Press.

Ratner, C. (1989). A social constructionist critique of the naturalistic theory of emotion. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 10, 211-230.

Ratner, C. (1991). Vygotsky's sociohistorical psychology and its contemporary applications. New York: Plenum.

Ratner, C. (1993). Review of D'Andrade and Strauss, Human motives and cultural models. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 14, 89-94.

Ratner, C. (1994). The unconscious: A perspective from sociohistorical psychology. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 15, 323-342.

Ratner, C. (1997a). Cultural psychology and qualitative methodology: Theoretical and empirical considerations. N.Y.: Plenum.

Ratner, C. (1997b). In defense of activity theory. Culture and Psychology, 3, 211-223.

Ratner, C. (1998a). Prologue to L.S. Vygotsky, Collected works, vol. 5. New York: Plenum.

Ratner, C. (1998b). The historical and contemporary significance of Vygotsky's sociohistorical psychology. In R. Rieber & K. Salzinger (Eds.), Psychology: Theoretical-historical perspectives (pp. 455-473). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Ratner, C. (1999). Three approaches to cultural psychology – A critique. Cultural Dynamics, 11, 7-31.

Ratner, C. (2000). The necessity of a coherent, comprehensive concept of culture. Cross-Cultural Psychology Bulletin.

Ratner, C. (forthcoming). Cultural Psychology: Theory and Methods. New York: Plenum.

Reizenzein, R. (1983). The Schachter theory of emotions: Two decades later. Psychological Bulletin, 94, 239-264.

Robarchek, C. (1977). Frustration, aggression, and the nonviolent Semai. American Ethnologist, 4, 762-779.

Rosaldo, M. (1984). Toward an anthropology of self and feeling. In R. Shweder & R. LeVine (Eds.), Culture theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion (pp. 137-157). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Russell, J. (1991). Culture and the categorization of emotions. Psychological Bulletin, 110, 426-450.

Russell, J. (1994). Is there universal recognition of emotion from facial expression? A review of the cross-cultural studies. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 102-141.

Schneirla, T. (1972). Selected writings. San Francisco: Freeman.

Schore, A. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schore, A. (1998). Early shame experiences and infant brain development. In P. Gilbert & B. Andrews (Eds.), Shame: Interpersonal behavior, psychopathology, and culture (pp. 57-77). New York: Oxford University Press.

Siegel, D. (1999). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York: Guilford Press.

Shweder, R. (1993). The cultural psychology of the emotions. In M. Lewis & J. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 417-431). New York: Guilford.

Solomon, R. (1978). Emotions and anthropology: The logic of emotional world views. Inquiry, 21, 181-199.

Southall, R. (1973). Literature and the rise of capitalism. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Stearns, P. (1993). Girls, boys, and emotions: Redefinitions and historical change. Journal of American History, 80, 36-74.

Taylor, C. (1985). The Person. In M. Carrithers, S. Collins, S. Lukes (Eds.), The category of the person: Anthropology, philosophy, history (pp. 257-281). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1971). The psychology of art. Cambridge: MIT Press. (Originally published 1925)

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Collected works (volume 1). New York: Plenum.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1997a). Collected works (volume 3). New York: Plenum.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1997b). Educational psychology. Boca Raton, Fla.: St. Lucie Press. (Originally written 1921-1923).

Vygotsky, L. S. (1998). Collected works (volume 5). New York: Plenum.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1999). Collected works, volume 6. New York: Plenum.

Whalen, P. (1998). Fear, vigilance, and ambiguity: Initial neuroimaging studies of the human amygdala. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7, 177-188.

Wierzbicka, A. (1995). Emotion and facial expression: A semantic perspective. Culture and Psychology, 1, 227-258.

Wolfe, B. (1984). Gender ideology and phobias in women. In C. Widom (Ed.), Sex roles and psychopathology (pp. 51-72). New York: Plenum.

Back to Dr. Ratner's Home Page