Strange familiar territory

Emotion, Social Theory and Social Structure - Intimacy
May 8, 1998

Sociology has traditionally been better at dealing with some aspects of social life than others. Like many disciplines, it has catered more efficiently for social action and inaction in the public than in the private realm; it has favoured those structures, processes and interactions associated with the typically unselfconscious world-view of the dominant group, at the expense of insights to be gained from privileging the world as seen by minority groups. Emotions and personal relationships are, of course, the very stuff of life itself. But it can also be argued that this closeness to nature - the raw alignment to essences and meanings, the elision with the nuances and shadows of the domestic and the profane - is exactly what has proved beyond the comprehension of sociology.

Whatever the reason, emotions and intimacy have been getting more of the attention due to them in recent years. These two books by sociologists (Lynn Jamieson is a senior lecturer in Edinburgh and J. M. Barbalet a reader at the Australian National University) both draw on, and contribute to, sociology's newly enlarged sensitivity to the forms of private life and personal experience. They make an odd couple. Jamieson's book is strikingly evidence-based; she looks to research studies to explain the constituents of intimacy in different forms of personal relationship. Her thesis is often hung around, if not actually on, the peg of gender; for one cannot get very far in discussing personal relationships without entering the territory of dualistic thought-forms: public/private, culture/nature, work/family, reason/emotion, man/woman. Barbalet's treatment of emotion, on the other hand, comes over as highly abstract by comparison. It is almost as weakly rooted in empiricism as the speculations of the Oxford school of linguistic philosophy. The landscape interrogated has the appearance of being a mental one bereft of almost any real figures.

But the two books also share common purposes, most significantly the aim of promoting the importance of private experience. One of Jamieson's other goals is a critical examination of the notion that intimacy is central to personal life in modern societies. According to Anthony Giddens and others, our personal lives today are increasingly dominated by a specific and new form of intimacy: one in which our relationships exist for themselves alone, feeding off themselves in a kind of self-enclosed fermentation, like a well-bred compost heap. "Pure" relationships, combined with the apparently endless plasticity of human sexuality, do not need, and do not have, any reason for existence other than themselves. They owe much to an ethic of individualism, in which self-fulfilment and pursuit of egotistical pleasure are as much moral obligations as altruism or service to one's family or country have been in other eras and places. Much of Jamieson's book is a demolition of the postmodern view, a systematically argued effort to show that most people's lives are not like this, and there are good social-structural reasons why many personal relationships are still in thrall to unequal power relations, issues of control and negotiated management, divisions of different forms of labour and all the other factors that get in the way of a breakthrough to a paradise of equal and unfettered love.

Sociology's traditional neglect of personal relationships was manifested in a blinkered vision of marriage and the nuclear family as the only legitimate domain for intimacy and self-fulfilment. Thus, wider kin groups, friends, and parent-child relationships (beyond the psychoanalytically conceived) got left out of the picture. An important contribution of Jamieson's book is to examine each of these areas of relationship separately, scouring each for evidence of the "disclosing intimacy" considered the hallmark of the "pure" relationship. What she finds is more talk than action. A general feeling that this is what relationships might be abounds, but on the level of everyday experience the evidence is thin. It is not unlike the old parable of men and housework. Most people believe that men ought to do, and do, more than they actually do.

Because Barbalet's aim is more ambitious than Jamieson's, it is more likely to fail. What he struggles with is the project of linking various particular emotions to aspects of social structure at a conceptual level. Emotions are self-evidently social things (what is not, to a sociologist?); they therefore have considerable explanatory power. But this has been ignored by sociology to the detriment of both theory and explanation. Had Descartes turned to emotional expression rather than intellectual control when suffering from the overwhelming effects of bad dreams, the history of western thought, social science included, might well have been different.

As Barbalet rightly notes, it is difficult to make much sense of emotion as a general category. The intuitive sense and the sociological meaning lie in particular categories of emotion. So he explores emotions (emotions?) such as confidence, shame and resentment for their potential to fill in gaps in sociological understanding. An example is class conflict. How is this manifested on an individual level except through feelings of resentment? Somewhat strangely, Barbalet ignores the considerable ammunition for his case which might be provided by theories of relative deprivation as "explaining" the links between unequal material resources and class-differentiated health and other outcomes. It is not the absolute but relative differences between what you have and what everyone else has. Perceptions of social justice enter the picture here; but are these emotions?

Barbalet argues that the contemporary focus on emotions has come at the same time as a narrowing of emotional experience. Discovering the world we have lost is hardly a new idea, but I doubt whether we know enough to say whether people's emotional landscapes have contracted or expanded. If oppression and lack of personal freedoms can be considered to limit emotional experience, then the historical shift might well have gone the other way.

Beyond the evidence, ideologies of relationships do, of course, have significant social control functions. For example, the postwar consensus relied heavily on ideas of the happy conventional family as a placatory ideology that would paper over the cracks of class, gender and ethnic visions. Notions of maternal "instincts" served particularly to draw women closer to their children than was probably good for the health of either, but which nonetheless, and crucially, enabled married women to be returned to the home and day nurseries to be closed. In the same way, it is interesting to speculate what functions the idea of the "pure" relationship might serve today. Does it make us happier to believe in the right to personal happiness? What does it do to people when the difficulties born of gendered and classed socialisations bring their own weight of disillusionment, as they often do, to the task of finding and keeping the perfect mate?

I ended up feeling that it would be a good idea to integrate the approaches taken in these two books. The evidence-based perspective is needed to inform conceptual thinking. Theories about intimacy and postmodernity are all very well, but without resonances in everyday life they are just theories. We need both a hard look at people's experiences of intimacy, and more inspired thinking about how our feelings shape social processes.

Ann Oakley is director, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

Emotion, Social Theory and Social Structure

Author - J. M. Barbalet
ISBN - 0 521 62190 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 210

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments