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To define the affective state, four terms can be used: passion, state of mind, emotion, and sentiments. The term "passion" is linked with the philosophical and literary tradition and designates a violent tension that the individual sustains for a certain duration. States of mind or moods are affective states of low intensity that are durable and pervasive, lack an immediately perceptible cause, and can influence initially neutral events. The term "emotion" indicates an intense affective state of short duration with a precise external or inner cause, a clear cognitive content, and the ability to reorient attention. Most scholars agree that emotion is a psychological construct with several components: (1) cognitive: finalized by the stimulus caused by emotion, (2) physiological: from the participation of the neurovegetative system, (3) expressive: linked with movement, (4) motivational: linked with intentions and the tendency to act or react, and (5) subjective: consisting of the sentiment felt by the individual.

Sentiments are more enduring than are emotions (e.g., hatred compared with a momentary explosion of anger) and are more cognitively structured. Sentiments may last seconds (embarrassment) or months (mourning) and may be more or less intense, conscious or unconscious, and controllable or outside one's control. When an individual names a sentiment by using a certain terms he or she refers to different elements: affection, cognitive contents or structures of evaluation, awareness of the level of readiness for action, and awareness of the body. Sentiments pervade daily life and are found in several artistic forms: music, poetry, literature, and painting.

In the philosophical tradition, the affective dimension appeared as a perturbation of human behavior that was considered the result of reasoning. Plato was the first to define passions as "diseases of the spirit." For the Stoics, passion was a disease that gets hold of the entire spirit at the expense of reason: Crisippo considered it an unbridled agitation, an unstoppable force that makes the ego leave the self. For Aristotle, passions act as a destabilizer of the rational powers of the individual. An ambivalent attitude toward passions developed at the beginning of the modern age. They were execrated during the age of illuminism, exalted during the romantic era, condemned during the period of critical rationalism and rehabilitated in the postmodern age.


For a long time sociology, evidently influenced by the hegemonic philosophical paradigm, excluded the study of the affective dimension from its theoretical concerns. Affects thus were relegated to anthropology and psychology. The founders of sociology saw the role of sentiments in social life as rather marginal. An interest in sentiments can be found in Durkheim, who saw them as agents and factors of cohesion in the formation of solidarity and morality. In his view, sentiments are learned and internalized during rituals and collective ceremonies through the sharing of emotions.

In Pareto's terminology, residui are sentiments or the expressions of sentiments inscribed in human nature and derivazioni are the conceptual systems of justification with which individuals disguise their passions or give an appearance of rationality to propositions or behaviors that are not rational. People rarely behave in a logical way but always want to make their fellow people believe that their conduct is logical. The main characteristic of human nature is that it lets itself be guided by sentiments and puts forward pseudological justifications for sentimental attitudes. According to Pareto, nonlogical is not necessarily equivalent to illogical: Emotions follow some principles. The logic of sentiments Pareto identified can be summarized in five points. First, while reason is analytic, sentiment is synthetic. Second, sentiment follows justificational and persuasive principles. Third, sentiments are inaccurate, indefinite, and indeterminate. Fourth, sentiments may be ambivalent and conflicting. Fifth, sentiments can take on extreme, absolute characteristics that prevent learning from reality.

Weber begins by distinguishing four types of action: rational action in relation to an aim, rational action in relation to a value, affective or emotional action, and traditional action. The action Weber calls affective results from the state of mind or mood of an individual: the slap a mother gives to her unbearable child or the fist of a soccer player who loses his temper. Action, that is, is defined with reference not to an aim or system of values but to the emotional reaction of an agent who finds himself or herself in certain circumstances. The distinctive characteristic of the world in which people live is rationalization: a firm is rational, as is the bureaucratic management of a state, while scientific action is a combination of a rational action in relation to an aim and a rational action in relation to a value, which is truth.

The importance of the emotional factor in the formation of charisma and the religious spirit is mentioned explicitly by Weber. Perhaps the spirit of capitalism is seen by Weber as deriving from the pressure of strong and pervasive emotions such as anxiety, desperation, and fear on which Calvinist doctrine was founded. Weber does not ignore affection, but he considers it a parasite of reason, a noise producer, a disturber in the ascent to rationality.


Sentiments are central in the work of Simmel, who thoroughly analyzed their role and formation, especially in his essay on love and his reflections on sociability. For Simmel, emotional reality is the foundation of an individual's experience and social interactions. Individuals, he maintains, enter into relationships with one another through the sentiments. Social relations produce other sentiments that therefore are always connected to interactions. The Italian protosociologist Ferrero studied fear and tried to read the historical existence of civilizations in the light of such sentiments. For Ferrero, fear is the spirit of the universe. People, like all creatures, are molded by fear: To overcome fear, people arm themselves, but because they are armed, they cannot help fearing each other. Consequently, people become the most frightening and the most frightened beings because they are the only ones able to manufacture deadly and thus frightful instruments of offense. Moreover, fantasy creates imaginary dangers of all kinds. The human condition therefore is characterized by a permanent dialogue with fear. Even sacrificial rituals are interpreted as expedients to exorcise the fear that every person has of her or his fellow creatures, who are seen as potential bearers of death. Thus, the salute is a technique of mutual reassurance, a ceremony through which one manifests the absence of aggressive intentions toward others. The main instrument for defeating the original fear is power: the institutionalization of the monopoly of violence. This solution transforms people into subject by taking away their freedom. As a result of the monopoly of violence among those who exercise command, peace is guaranteed, but its price is very high. The fear of war of all against all is eliminated, but it is replaced by fear of power.

However, Ferrero emphasizes that those in power fear the subjects over whom they exercise command. No government is certain of the total obedience of its citizens, and a revolt can break out among the most compliant subjects. In this way, feedback develops between the use of force and fear: The more those in power fear their subjects, the more they resort to instruments of repression, the more they are repressive, and the more they feel fear. For the usurper of power there is not only an external threat, as Plato, Senofonte, Machiavelli, and Montesquieu showed, but also an internal torment: fear of one's own illegitimacy. In Community and Society, Toennies, in theorizing about the fundamental category of "community," emphasized the sentiment of belonging. He recognized in sentiments a relative autonomy when he assumed that they were a guide for action and that the fundamental directions of human action depend largely on inner conditions (dispositions) and to a lesser extent on external conditions (circumstances). Veblen based his concept of the wealthy class on a complex mix of sentiments (superiority and inferiority, emulation and imitation) and showed their influence on collective behavior.

Scheler showed, through a phenomenology of resentment, the tight link between the sphere of individual sentiments and that of collective behavior. For Scheler, the forming of resentment and its mode of expression have an individual component tied to temperament and a social component: "The way and the measure in which resentment takes shape in entire groups and in individuals is linked in the first place to the disposition of the human material at issue, in the second place to the structure of society in which this lives." Therefore, there is constant interaction between individual attitudes and collective mentality. The manifestation of resentment is linked to social inequalities and the inability to heal an offense, true or presumed, through vengeance or rebellion. The spreading of resentment creates the psychological premises that become linked with the structural premises, leading to the explosion of mass movements.

For Scheler, "the formal structure of the expression of resentment is always the same: A is approved of, supported and praised not for his intrinsic qualities, but with the intention—that remains unsaid in words—to deny, devaluate and reprove B." The refusal of wealth is nothing but a repressed desire for wealth among the poor, who despise what they want but cannot have. Like Tocqueville, Scheler sees in democracy the fuel of resentment. He maintains: "It will possess a maximum charge of resentment a society in which political rights and others of almost equal kind, jointly with a formal social parity publicly recognized, go together with great differences of power, of effective possession of assets and effective cultural formation."

In the 1960s, MacIver explored the sentiment of attachment to a community, referring to the complex of memories, traditions, customs, and institutions shared by the members of a community. This sentiment of community, which is acquired through the socialization process, has three main elements: (1) the sentiment of we, (2) the sentiment of role, and (3) the sentiment of dependence. The first leads to the identification of a person with the others; the second is associated with the functions individual members perform in the community and expresses the way in which the individual normally realizes his or her belonging to the entire community. The sentiment of dependence expresses the dependence of a person on the community, which is considered a necessary condition for his or her existence, lessening his or her isolation. In modern society, an individual belongs not only to a single community but also to specific associations, as social life is subject to the process of differentiation and specialization. Moreover, the sentiment of belonging to the community seems to persist only in rural areas; in urban areas, it is replaced by attachment to other, less inclusive and more sectorial groups. In rural areas, the sentiment of attachment to the community remains strong because of people's longer periods of residence. An enlarged sentiment of community is the sentiment of nationality, which is produced by historical circumstances and supported by common psychological factors.

Helen Lynd was the first to recognize the importance of shame in the complex dynamics of identity growth. According to Lynd, the values of a culture do not stimulate the experience and communication of emotions such as shame, joy, wonder, and love. However, once trust has been created—allowing one to reveal oneself and thus look for the ways in which to communicate shame—the risk of being exposed may become an experience of abandonment, self-revelation, and intimacy with others. Once accepted, shame leads a person to a greater awareness and to an enrichment of his or her personality.


Sociologists' interest in emotions and sentiments can be traced to the mid-1970s. In that period, one of the foundations of sociology—the idea of a rational social actor guided in his or her conduct, motivation, and choices by a utilitarian and instrumental logic while sentiments play a residual and socially insignificant role—was questioned. This model started showing its abstractness and rigid partiality and its inadequacy in explaining the complexity of individual and collective action, which depends on how people feel and manage their emotions. Thus, emotions started losing their residual and even disturbing function and were recognized as integral parts of social action.

This crack in the rational actor construction went together with a new cultural climate characterized by attention to the self and to the world of private and interpersonal relations, a desire for authenticity, and the revaluation of sentiments. Emotions and sentiments became objects of knowledge, attention, and communication both in daily life and in sociological reflection. In women and youth subcultures especially, the expression of one's sentiments was encouraged. Advertising saw the positive value of the affective dimension and used it in its campaigns by linking it to products potentially able to stimulate emotions, such as sports, film, television, cars, and even food. The revaluation of the affective dimension also was stimulated by the increase in the number of magazines dealing with psychoanalytic issues and the growth of university courses on psychological subjects: In many textbooks, at least one chapter is devoted to the dynamics of sentiments and emotions. A widespread representation of emotions has resulted from cinematic and television fiction.

In the growing social sciences literature on sentiments and emotions, five approaches can be singled out: (1) sociohistorical, (2) positivist, (3) functionalist, (4) conflict, (5) interactionist, and (6) socialconstructivist.

The Sociohistorical Approach. According to Elias, the phenomenon of civilization is a matter of controlling emotions and natural impulses. From the documents he collected, it can be inferred that anger, which now seems psychopathic, was in medieval times considered normal, and that the desire to destroy was openly confessed, while it now is admitted with shame or used to attract attention.

For Elias, emotions and their expressive forms are strongly correlated with the social contexts in which they manifest themselves. Every social structure, he maintains, corresponds to a structure of emotions and sentiments, and their inhibition, repression, or free expression depends on their being functional to different social systems.

According to Elias's theory of the process of civilization, daily life in the Middle Ages was characterized by abuse and violence. People, lived in a permanent state of insecurity and fear. The situation began to change when a stronger territorial power prevailed on the weaker ones and the monopoly of the state's legal violence gradually was established. Violence, reserved to specialized bodies, began to be excluded from other areas of life, and some calm, protected zones started to form. Within those areas, "good manners" developed and eventually replaced violence and abuse in interpersonal relations. Starting in the higher ranks, individuals began to abandon spontaneity and impetuousness and learned to dominate themselves, control their impulses and passions, and regulate aggressiveness.

For Elias, institutionalized sports channel and often divert people's natural emotions. Hunting, for example, often has been recognized as a substitute for war. In their free time, people can carry out activities that incite emotions closely tied to those of normal life.

The Positivist Approach. According to Kemper's positivist approach, people have philogenetically inherited a set of primary emotions—fear, anger, joy, and depression—that serve evolutionary and adaptive needs and are sensitive to certain contingent environmental situations. For human beings, the main contingent environmental situations are of a social nature; therefore, social vicissitudes determine emotions unless society intervenes normatively with different demands.

Kemper states that emotions are universally elicited by two fundamental dimensions of social relationships: power and status. Possessing adequate power produces feelings of security, possessing excessive power produces feelings of guilt, and possessing inadequate power produces anxiety. Fear develops when the power of two interacting individuals is uneven.

Anger emerges from interactions in which an expected, habitual status is denied or withdrawn by an actor considered responsible for the status reduction. Depression is tied to a loss of status, and the person considers himself or herself responsible for the loss. Individuals feel shame if they perceive that their status is too high; in the opposite case, they feel depression. Satisfaction results from interactions in which power is not felt as threatening and the status is expected and desired.

The positivist approach to the study of emotions attempts to (1) treat emotion as a variable, (2) undertake studies that embrace various cultures, (3) develop the history of particular emotions, and (4) examine the link between emotions and sociological variables such as social class, gender, and ethnicity.

The Functionalist Approach. In the functionalist perspective, innate emotional behavior may have developed in the course of evolution because of its value in being functional to adaptation. The purpose of emotions is to face emergency situations by estimating the importance of the events in order to organize appropriate action. First, emotions prepare the body to react to hostile or dangerous situations, predisposing the organism for the emergency and thus leading to rebalance and adaptation. As Darwin noted, fear is an emotion common to various species, as it is conducive to survival, aids in adaptation, and is linked to a safeguarding mechanism that is evident in the first phases of life.

Emotions also have the function of interpersonal signaling. That is, they produce the effect of communicating the state of the organism to the outside world. The variety and specificity of emotions reflect the flexibility of the forms of adaptation to the environment. Therefore, for example, fear helps avert danger, sadness is a call for help, and happiness is a phase of recovery after the attainment of a goal.

The Conflict Approach. The conflict theory of emotion can be found in the works of Coser and Collins, according to whom the crucial determinant of emotion is membership in competing groups and classes. Emotion, Coser says, is a resource that can be mobilized, directed, and exploited in conflicts over power. Moreover, it can be used to create emotional loyalty and solidarity. Human biological nature supplies emotional energy, but the differentiation and management of emotion are achieved by competing groups that fight for control over the means of emotional reproduction, that is, the resources for assembling the ritualistic arousal of emotions in support of one's group. According to conflict theory, persons not only manage their own emotions but also to stimulate, suppress, or transform emotions in other people. This also happens at the collective level. For example, hostility perceived as coming from external groups increases in-group solidarity, and emotion is intensified by the presence of a large number of people in an expressive ritual.

For Collins, emotional energy is an essential part of the model of chain ritual interaction, and he maintains that the basis of every interaction is a minimum feeling of positivity toward others. Thus, a person accepted in a conversation receives from that experience not only an increase of positive emotional energy but also additional emotional resources (trust, warmth, enthusiasm) with which to negotiate in the next interaction.

The Interactionist Approach. In the interactionist approach, emotions essentially result from social interaction. They differ according to the social and cultural worlds one belongs to and thus continuously change.

Symbolic interactionists draw a distinction between biological emotions and social sentiments. An emotion is fixed in the human organism, is experienced concurrently with bodily change, and consists of a fixed configuration of bodily sensations and gestures in response to simple, standard stimuli. In contrast, a sentiment originates through cultural definition and social interaction and continues over time in enduring social relationships. The expressive gestures and internal sensations of a sentiment are culturally defined and can be altered according to the situation and on a broader cultural scale, since sentiments are not fixed in human biological nature. In the course of interaction, differences among sentiments are developed, and sentiments are redefined continuously through encounters and relationships.

Goffman has examined the system of rules that dominate interaction and the efforts made by individuals to be in tune with the emotional states of a situation. This control of impressions essentially is a strategy for avoiding embarrassment or shame and is inspired by pride and the desire to make a positive impression.

According to Goffman, embarrassment is linked to the impression of people transmitted to others and is a phenomenon that blocks interactions among individuals and makes them unable to interact. The attitudes deriving from this process violate behavioral standards shared with others and cause inappropriate behaviors. Embarrassment, however, is a normal part of everyday life, since it is a manifestation of adaptation to social organization. One structures in several ways other people's perception of oneself according to the various roles one takes on. What creates embarrassment and uneasiness for an individual is the diversity of multiple interactive situations, which imply different and often discordant rules of behavior. Goffman also describes the process of emotion management: By managing the impressions others have of them, people facilitate their goals and attract the responses they need. Often, however, expression management involves inauthentic sentiments to avoid situationally inappropriate emotional gestures, such as laughter at a funeral or a forced smile on meeting an enemy. Emotion management is guided by implicit and shared social rules about appropriate or inappropriate displays of sentiment and emotion. These emotional rules constitute a normative framework of expectations that people take into account.

The Social Constructivist Approach. For costructionist theorists, emotions are not natural answers but experiential and expressive models determined by the sociocultural context; they are learned answers that have neither natural contents nor functions and are tied to the conservation of the individual and the species. From the costructionist point of view, emotions are complex syndromes whose meaning and function can be understood only by referring to the social system of which they are part.

According to costructionists, emotions are functional, as they are socially constructed and prescribed to maintain and support a certain system of values. Therefore, a community will try to promote emotional manifestations that are functional to the maintenance of a socially founded moral order and will try to penalize and remove emotions that are in opposition to the moral order. Examples of how an emotion with a negative connotation, such as hatred, can be promoted and prescribed by a community include Nazi Germany and the Ku Klux Klan. In both cases, hatred became the accepted emotional behavior, as its negative side was socially nationalized. Does the ethics of success on which contemporary Western culture is founded not use in a functional way the emotion of envy as a motivational force for the individual?


Imagining a passionate individual in total isolation is impossible: Passions require sharing, participation, and a common horizon of values and rules. A person perceives his or her passions through those he or she is able to stimulate in other people and decodes them on the basis of their reactions. There is no passion without a mental or a real relational context.

"Others" are necessary interlocutors for the expression of sentiments that involve a mutual exchange: Often children wait to be in the presence of an obliging listener before venting their emotions. Moreover, some places are considered socially more suitable than others for expressing certain emotions. For example, aggressiveness is more often shown in a stadium than in a church.

Research on large social groups shows that the distribution of specific emotions (pain, jealousy, love) varies from one social group to another, while studies conducted at the micro level indicate that the experience and expression of an emotion, as well as attempts to control it, are influenced by socialization and the prevailing situational factors.

A society is certainly founded on some sociostructural presuppositions, but it cannot function if it does not also rest on sentiments, beliefs, and obligations. These factors act as a social glue, as an "a priori" that, without being the object of codification or knowledge from individuals is nonetheless necessary for society to function.

One of these psychosocial elements is trust, which represents a precontractual requirement of the fulfillment of social exchanges. As Simmel maintained, society would disintegrate in the absence of trust among men.

It is not trust alone that supports social order, but trust is one of the psychosocial elements that play a fundamental role in maintaining the social system, even if structural theories neglect it. Trust is a powerful cultural resource, a precondition for a full use of other resources, such as entrepreneurship, citizenship, and legality. It is an intangible resource, like the spirit of belonging or consent.

Different social objects can be invested with trust, and so there can be various types of trust:

  1. Generalized trust gives people an ontological security about the system.
  2. Segmental trust involves entire institutional segments of society, such as the economy and justice.
  3. Technological trust involves the expert systems such as transportation and computer science networks.
  4. Organizational trust refers to real organizations such as the army and the university.
  5. Commercial trust refers to goods with a specific trademark or produced in certain countries.
  6. Positional trust is invested in particular social roles, such as priests and doctors.
  7. Personal trust can refer to virtues revealed by public or private persons.

The social objects in which trust is placed can be found in one's own society or in foreign societies. From this fact arises the distinction between inner trust and outer trust. One speaks of focused trust when trust is placed in a particular category of objects; one speaks of diffuse trust when one metaphorically refers to the trustful or distrustful atmosphere that pervades the society. This climate can be incorporated in a culture as well as in a normative perspective. For example, a large part of Italian fiscal legislation appears to be based on distrust of the honesty of the contributors. Trust in a specific object can be justified in an indirect way, when its reliability depends on the trust that is placed in bodies of supervision and control. In contrast, distrust feeds conflict and social atomization, therefore becoming a powerful destructive force.

Once distrust has been initiated, it soon becomes impossible to know if it was justified, since it has the ability to fulfill itself, to generate a reality that is coherent with it. Observing events that refute past fiduciary relations, for example, finding out that certain scientific data have been counterfeited so that one can publish spectacular results, can cause an unexpected loss of trust. The absence of trust involves an excessive increase in vigilance and the creation of more complex systems of control.

The slump in institutional trust is reflected in a generalized loss of trust in monetary means of exchange, the authorities' legitimacy, the credibility of the political system, and the effectiveness of specialized spheres such as scholastic and religious institutions. A similar collapse of institutional trust can lead to a loss of trust in individuals.

In the postcommunist societies of eastern Europe, there is a widespread lack of trust that leads to a spreading syndrome of diffidence. The Polish sociologist Sztompka has cited some indicators. The strongest behavioral indicator of generalized distrust in the society to which one belongs is choosing to emigrate. This is the obvious form of escape people choose when living conditions become unbearable and signs of improvement cannot be seen. Another form of escape is withdrawing from public life and taking refuge in primary groups. Here there is a horizontal trust that compensates for the lack of vertical trust in institutions. Another indicator of public distrust is the number of protest demonstrations. Yet another is reluctance to think about the long-term future. In the economic field, an indicator of distrust is neglecting investment forms and spending a lot on consumer goods, especially foreign-made goods. The opening and dissemination of casino chains are also important indicators of distrust. Finally, in the postcommunist societies of eastern Europe, trust is undermined because of normative disorganization and the high level of expectations after the "glorious" revolution of 1989.

Some sentiments may derive from the social order, such as loneliness and historical contingencies that generate fear. Some demographic transformations, such as the lengthening of life, and other social changes, such as breaking the bond of marriage or choosing to remain single, amplify the sentiment of loneliness. Feeling lonely has two sides: It is a sad sentiment connected with loss, refusal, and isolation, but it is also a source of serenity, as it means staying with oneself. This develops the inner world and fosters creativity and the birth of the new.

A large amount of the research on loneliness has established only simple correlations between loneliness and other variables. On the whole, it seems that loneliness is more common among women than men, poor people than rich, and adolescents than elderly people. Data on attitudes and sentiments generally indicate that a person who feels lonely also feels distrust and hostility, is rarely attracted by other people, and expects to be rejected. A large number of studies have found positive correlations between loneliness and feelings of impotence and inadequacy, a tendency to self-devaluation, and self-deprecation. A gap can be found in research on loneliness concerning the etiology of the phenomenon. Sociologists are not in a position to establish which factors cause loneliness and which are facilitating conditions. Sociologists do not know, for example, the relationship between objective causes (mournings, transfers, separations) and subjective causes (introversion, shyness, low self-esteem).

In regard to fear, it is necessary to assume that in the past, some events connected to the adversities of nature generated emotional reactions that were stronger than those of today. The historian Delumeau showed how in past centuries, primary concrete fears (of war, scarcity, plague, tyranny, and earthquake) were grafted onto secondary fears that resulted from cultural processes and movements that singled out dangers and adversaries (the heretic, the Hebrew, the witch, the demon, the vampire, the plague spreader) on which it was easier to unload the anguish caused by real but frightening and unmanageable phenomena.

In modern society, fear of machines has sometimes developed. In England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Luddites were organized bands of laborers who destroyed textile machines, which caused layoffs of many craftsmen. Fear of the dominion of the machine is found in many science fiction, utopian, and dystopian novels in this century. In Erehwon by Samuel Butler, there are no machines; in Spengler, the machine is devilish and is seen as the dissolver of Western civilization. In the Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell, pervasive technology supplantes people's individuality. Similarly dark scenes are accompanying the current computer science phase that features the presence of apocalyptic Cassandras afraid of the effect of computers on the human brain.

In the second half of the 1980s, after the Chernobyl accident, a strong fear of nuclear energy developed, while the 1990s were characterized by the fear of ecological catastrophes tied to the greenhouse effect or the perforation of the ozone layer. The modern age has brought new threats in the form of drugs and the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Sometimes a social fear may be born, the perception, that is, of a "barbarization" of social life, of a progressive loss of freedom, the feeling of being a pawn in the mosaic of daily life, impotent before the great bureaucratic and occult powers. Another source of fear is food, which in Europe was manifested after the Chernobyl accident and during the mad cow crisis. Today a great fear is that of being killed by someone whom one does not know and who has no reason to direct his anger against an individual. Bodyguards represent a new defense against this fear, while the fear of burglars, especially in cities and urban areas, is causing a rush to purchase electronic systems for defense for the home. In Europe, the fear of a demographic decline accompanies the fear of immigration and of being submerged by other ethnic groups.


A common question among those who study sentiments and emotions is whether these affective states are culturally universal or vary from culture to culture. There are two schools of thought. According to the universalistic school, emotions are always the same in all cultures, while for the relativistic school, they vary in time and among different cultures. Cross-cultural studies have shown differences among cultures concerning the language, the meaning, the objects, and the appraisal of emotions: One therefore would have to speak of ethnotheories of emotions.

One of the distinctions made by anthropologists is based on the prevalence of sentiments of shame versus guilt. In regard to the fact that a certain culture attributes a preponderant importance to the former or the latter emotion, one speaks of "cultures of shame" and "cultures of guilt": cultures of shame regulate individual behavior through external sanctions, while cultures of guilt are based on interiorized sanctions; that is, guilt is caused by the knowledge of having transgressed important moral or social norms. The cultures of guilt would therefore be those of Western societies, characterized by the Judeo-Christian tradition or the Protestant ethic.

In cultures that systematically resort to humiliation as an educational method, the sentiment of shame is present in massive doses. This happens, for example, in the Japanese culture, which is defined by anthropologists as "the culture of shame." Anthropological data on some cultures of New Guinea show that shame may have a paralyzing effect. In New Guinea, people who have not made a good impression shelter under the porch of the house, cover their faces in chalk powder and wait for the others members to come and playfully reproach them. After a few days, such a person washes his or her face and reenters the group.

The geography of jealousy also shows some variation. In fact, anthropological research shows that jealousy is more widespread and accepted in cultures that are based on private property, authorize sex only within marriage, and grant the status of a responsible adult only to married persons.

In some cultures there are social classes in which a quarrel is unthinkable and an accusation of another person makes clear one's own victimized state. Examples are ritual sounds among the Australian aboriginals, accusing the object of one's anger of witchcraft, and the icy silence of the English bourgeois. In some cultures, such as the Korean, a person who offends is treated with intensified respectful manners, that is, with an increased formality of words and intonation. It is said that the Tasaday did not have in their language a word to express anger. Among the Ibo in Nigeria, anger also seems to be completely absent. A culture, such as the Tahitian, in which social life is little differentiated, produces few emotions; in this case, one speaks of hypocognition or underidentification.


Emotion norms indicate the expected range, intensity, duration, and target of a specific emotion in specific situations. The principles that govern emotion are of four types:

  1. Rules of appraisal that define how a situation is perceived and evaluated
  2. Rules of behavior that establish how an emotion has to be expressed
  3. Prognostic rules that indicate the correct duration of an emotion
  4. Rules of attribution that legitimate an emotion in regard to the social system

The rules of expression defined by a given culture and subgroup influence how much the emotional state is expressed in self-description, behavior and bodily expression. Emotion rules prescribe the depth and duration of feelings and provide a measure of how much a certain feeling is unusual, crazy, unsuitable, or normal in a certain social context.

Feeling and expression rules are an integral part of what has been called "emotion culture." Moreover, emotion culture includes beliefs concerning sentiments as well as concepts regarding the way in which one should lend attention, codify, evaluate, control, and express feelings. Emotion culture is reflected in films, religion, psychiatric theories, and the law. Many systems of law mention, for example, two sentiments, widespread among the population, that are worth of being safeguarded: decency and honor.

Decency. The sentiment of decency concerns the intimate sphere of one's personality, the area a person thinks should be private and confidential. Analyses carried out in the social sciences reveal extreme variability in the sphere of decency: In different epochs and cultures, different actions and behaviors are considered as damaging this feeling, whereas in other contexts they appear totally legitimate. However, the sentiment of decency is present in all ages and cultures, and through it, a peculiar relationship occurs between subjective perceptions and objective images of confidentiality, especially in the sexual sphere. Reflecting on the characteristics of the sentiment of decency in a society makes it possible to individuate the prevailing values of a social group concerning the protection of confidentiality but also to explore in depth the reasons for behaviors that do not fall within the sphere of the individual. For example, the meticulous and detailed Starr report on President Clinton disseminated by electronic mail all over the world is an example of the absence of decency in the American judicial system.

Honor. Honor is the pretension and the right to be proud, but it also means that society acknowledges this individual pretension. The sentiment of honor spurs honored behavior. Honor is the social acknowledgment of those who fulfill the duties of their status.

In contemporary society, there are a great number of ritual situations in which specific persons are given, while alive, special honors or special offices, degrees, or prizes. After death, these persons are honored with symbolic actions: A recent example was the garlands of flowers that were laid on Mother Teresa's coffin.

A call to honor is made when a citizen sees his or her name and respect wounded by his or her fellow citizens. Civil and penal laws protect honor legally. There are professional groups that supervise the observance of specific norms by means of a code of honor. In this epoch, honor brings to mind retrograde and fragmented elements. In past societies, honor was not only a particular type of sentiment linked to occasional events and one that operated as a cultural superstructure: The conceptions of honor were more than simple accessories of life; they went beyond abstract values one referred to only occasionally. For centuries, they determined the style of life of wide layers of people in premodern societies, orienting their social and private conduct.

Through honor, the individual identifies as member of a group, which in turn confers a status, that is, a dignity and a value in the social relations occurring within and outside the group to which one belongs. The functional cost an individual has to face consists of control of morals through endorsement mechanisms whose most qualifying phase is the formation and application of honor codes. Acts of violence in defense of the honor of one's family were widely tolerated by the law until relatively recent times.

The Mediterranean culture of honor has been characterized as a phenomenon of archaic societies that have not reached a high level of civilization. With modernization, it was maintained, this dark phase would disappear. Instead, the culture of honor has succeeded in preserving its importance among immigrants in the industrialized metropolis.

The fact that the code of honor has not lost its valence, at least in the Mediterranean area, makes one question whether the linear concept of modernization is truly valid or whether a concept based on a permanent dialectic between persistence and change is more valid.

The regulation of emotion comes largely from social sources that consist partly in the interests that others have and in the norms of social interaction and partly in the expression and feelings rules of society: Boys should not cry, and mourning should not be shown too much, at least in the Nordic countries. Expression rules are specific to a given culture or social role: English people, for example, are little inclined to express how they feel, and the clergy behave with dignity. In some cultures, jealousy cannot be felt, while in others, it must be; in some cultures, an offense to honor is strongly felt, while in others, the honor concept is almost nonexistent. The rules are often explicit to the point of being codified in books of ethics and good manners. In the Western culture, the ethic of control of emotional impulses prevails.

Anger also is subject to social rules. For every class, there are prescriptive rules that indicate the choices that have to be made and proscriptive rules that indicate those to avoid. For example, one can show anger for a behavior that attacks one's honor, freedom, or property (prescriptive rule), but anger cannot exceed the limits of what is necessary to correct the situation (proscriptive rule).


In the contemporary world, several indications seem to point to a situation in which the consumer society is increasingly inviting people to be passionate but people are distanced from passion. The threshold of emotional involvement has become high to protect people from a useless daily mobilitation: In post-modern culture, emotions and social action seem more and more separated.

The process of "blaseization" that Simmel saw at the beginning of the century thus has accelerated. However, certain episodes occur, like Princess Diana's death, that are experienced with a sentiment of pain that is almost cosmic, so that Pareto's residuo of "displaying sentiments with exterior acts" seems still present, although only latently.

The relevance of the affective dimension also is evidenced within the religious and family domain. In religion, several scholars maintain that once people get rid of ritualistic and pretentious display and once reciprocal aggressiveness has disappeared, the prevalent function of religion is to provide affective support of people against the uncertainties of the world. The family which has lost some of its fundamental functions, such as economic and socialization, has maintained and perhaps strengthened its function of affective support both horizontal and vertical.

Within the job world concerns about feelings of alienation during the assembly line period, have been replaced by concerns about the burnout phenomenon, which is a feeling of powerlessness and indifference, which affects especially the health, helping, and education professions.

According to some management scholars, in the next decades a resource to contrast these negative phenomena could be the development of emotional intelligence, which is the ability to effectively perceive, realize, and apply the strength and perspicacity that emotions—meant as sources of energy, information, relations and influence—provide human beings with.

In the 1990s, different authors tried to individuate the prevalence of some sentiments in society or in parts of it. At the beginning of the twenty-first century a sentiment that seems widespread is narcissism, understood as self-complacency and desire to be admired. Some indicators of this feeling are the cult of the body, abandoning every emotional involvement, the proliferation of interpersonal relationships governed by appearance, and a flight from the social. Post-modern society thus seems to be pervaded with a dominant passion: love for the self, which is translated into vanity and desire for power, wish to control anxiety over self-approval, self-interest, and egoism. Such syndrome, however, seems to co-exist with an altruistic dimension, normally rather latent but that grows in emergencies. The prevailing sentiments seem however to be linked to the spreading of post-materialistic values, such as love and friendship. Along the continuum localism—cosmopolitan, following Huntington, it seems that we are moving towards an attachment for intermediate cultural areas, essentially configurated according to the religious tradition.

Contrary to the expectations raised by the fall of the Berlin wall, in various parts of the world (Burundi, Algeria, Bosnia, Kosovo) during the 90s there were carnages caused also by feelings of interethnic hatred.

Another sentiment, felt especially by younger generations, is a worry about the future that generates anxiety and is capable of determining behaviors that are aggressive and antisocial.

Lately mass media scholars complain about the spreading, especially in television and movies, of a certain provocative impudence, together with the weakening of feelings of shame. Moreover, some psychologists have noticed an increase in interpersonal aggressiveness that parallels the increase in the time devoted to city mobility.

In a time of increasing globalization of markets the McDonaldization of tastes, the process of conforming seems to proceed also in the affective sphere, with the consequent weakening of passions and the misting over of the ability to suffer but also to feel joy, indignation, and pity. All these worries had been expressed by the antiutopians, by Riesman, and by the supporters of the critical theory of society. Leading to the valorization of sentiments as bulwark against any attempt of hegemonic oppression. In postmodernity, it thus seems appropriate to place Homo sentiens near Homo faber and Homo sapiens.


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Bernardo Cattarinussi