TOWARD A WEB OF CONCEPTS:
THE CASE OF EMOTIONS AND AFFECTS
Thomas J. Scheff
Abstract: Most social science assumes that human conduct is
simple enough that it can be understood in ordinary language. But language
reflects culture: it carries a baggage of assumptions and ambiguities. The
single thread that unites all of Goffman’s work is his attempt to define new
concepts in order to escape cultural entrapment. This problem is first
discussed with reference to three general ideas: alienation, irrationality, and
context. The main purpose of this essay is to use the domain of emotions and
affects as an example of how one might begin to establish clear definitions of
basic concepts. Some of the main emotion words are reviewed, suggesting that
there is little agreement about their meaning. As in the case of the general
ideas above, many emotion/affect words are either residual categories or they
confound relational and dispositional elements, and cognitive and emotional
ones. One approach to overcoming these problems would be to develop definitions
of concepts that are either highly structured or one-dimensional. Tentative
conceptual definitions of love and of self-esteem provide examples of this
At this time scholarship and
research in social science is more dependent on vernacular words than on
clearly defined concepts. Most research is entrapped within a cultural web of
words. Any specific theory, method or data set is dominated by the vast
cultural web in which it is encased. For this reason, our technical
explanations are little better than laypersons’ understanding. To arrive at an
understanding of terrorism, or any other topic, it might be necessary to first
develop a set of clearly defined concepts.
Although the vernacular
language of any society can convey valuable insights into human conduct, it is
also a repository for preconceptions and ambiguities. For example, ordinary
usage in the English language, tied as it is to the first urban/industrial
society, emphasizes individuals much more than relationships, and cognition
much more than emotion. Traditional societies, to the extent that they are
small, localized, and static, make different assumptions: relationships are
more important than individuals, and emotion is just as important as cognition.
This essay will seek to show how these and other assumptions reflected in
ordinary language becloud social science.
Perhaps the first task facing social science is
conceptual, and therefore, pre-scientific. The scientific approach is organized
in terms of theory, method and data. But these tools are virtually useless
until concepts have been clearly defined, because scientists, like everyone
else, live in the assumptive world of their own culture. The ocean of
assumptions that each culture reflects and generates is virtually invisible to
its members. Unless these assumptions are avoided, the tools of science may
merely uphold the cultural/social status quo, rather than breaking new ground.
In Mannheim’s sense, they are ideological, rather than utopian.
Metaphors vs. Concepts
The way that cultural
assumptions impede science has been nicely caught by the philosopher Quine:
The neatly worked inner stretches of science are
an open space in the tropical jungle, created by clearing tropes [metaphors]
away” (1979, p. 160).
That is to say, it
usually happens that before scientific procedures are applicable, a
ruling trope has to be overthrown. Quine’s
formulation captures the radically intuitive element necessary for scientific
advance. Tropes are linguistic/mental routines that both reflect and hide
Goffman’s work may be a model in this regard, since it seems to have
deconstruction of tropes as its main goal (Scheff 2003). Each of his studies
can be seen as an attack on lay and social sciences tropes, rather than
establishing theory, method or data. His favorite target was the Western
individualized idea of the self. The self or person, he proposed in many
different contexts, can just as easily be seen as a social arrangement.
also attacked the tropes of established social institutions, such as “mental
illness” and gender roles. This goal would explain why he seemed to start
afresh with each work. “Look,” he could have said, “We need to construct
alternative universes. That’s why I start anew with each study, ignoring even
my own earlier work.” His work, in this regard, is much like the best science
fiction. It is an attempt to see one’s cultural tropes from the outside, like a
person from another galaxy. Goffman invented a special language that allowed
him to reach escape velocity from the pull of the cultural status quo.
The history of physical
science reveals many examples of obstructive tropes. Tycho Brahe, the Danish
astronomer, spent his adult life trying to determine the orbit of Venus. He
made accurate observations of the position of the planet during his lifetime,
but he assumed, like everyone else, that the planets revolved around the earth.
For this reason he was one frustrated scientist.
Kepler, Brahe’s assistant,
inherited the data after Brahe died. For years he made no progress. In his
exasperation, Kepler developed a bizarre model in which orbits were determined
by transparent solid polyhedrons. The model itself was mere fantasy, but in his
play he had unthinkingly placed the sun, rather than the earth, at the center.
Although Kepler’s scientific skills were far inferior to Brahe’s, he quickly
solved the problem (Koestler 1967).
Einstein began the theory of relativity with a joke concerning persons passing
each other on trains, trying to determine their speed relative to each other.
He realized intuitively that this situation challenged the ruling trope that
time and motion were absolute. Although he had a doctorate in physics, Einstein
knew little mathematics. He had to get help to put his anti-trope into
Quine’s formulation captures
the primitive, intuitive element necessary before scientific methods can be
applied. Scientific method, no matter how scrupulously applied, is helpless in
the face of ambiguous or empty tropes. Since social science often is based
on tropes, rather than precise
definitions, we have a long way to go.
Alienation as Metaphor
This discussion will begin
with a brief commentary on three commonly used ideas in social science:
alienation, irrationality, and context. I have been unable to find a viable
conceptual definition of any of these three words.
Although there are many
standardized alienation scales, there have been few attempts to decide what
they are supposed to be measuring.
There are also many theories involving alienation, but none provide
conceptual and operational definitions. Until definitions are agreed upon, we
won’t know what these theories mean, or how to test them.
In his review of the uses of the idea of alienation,
Schacht (1970) has shown that the more this idea has been used, the more
ambiguous it has become. Starting with Hegel and Marx, he shows that each
subsequent author has used the term in a different way. Schacht concludes with
twelve issues that need to be resolved before a clear meaning of alienation can
be defined. So far as I know, none of these problems has since been addressed
by later authors, much less resolved.
Several years later, Seeman (1975) came to a similar
conclusion from his review of alienation studies based on standardized scales.
His analysis revealed six different meanings.
isolation: exclusion or rejection.
Each of these categories, in turn, is somewhat
ambiguous. Powerlessness, for example, can mean a relational element, lack of
actual power relative to other people, or a dispositional element, the feeling
of powerlessness, whether grounded in comparison to others or not. Five of the
six dimensions can refer either to relational or dispositional elements, but
#5, self-estrangement, is solely intrapersonal. Similarly, five of the six
dimensions can refer to both emotional and cognitive elements, but #2,
meaninglessness, can refer only to cognition.
Furthermore, two of the six meanings implicate the
emotion of shame. The exclusion or rejection of social isolation is a correlate
of shame, as is the feeling of inadequacy that may accompany powerlessness.
Seeman’s study suggests many dispositional/relational and cognitive/emotional
Although this study was published almost thirty
years ago, no progress seems to have been made toward defining alienation, or
creating specialized scales that measure only one dimension. Nor did his study
slow the creation of new, general alienation scales, or studies using
standardized scales. As far as I have been able to determine, his study has had
Irrationality and Context
Many key concepts in social science are ambiguous in
a somewhat different way. Alienation, and as will be discussed below,
self-concept, confound a relatively small number of independent dimensions. But
irrationality and context are mere residual categories, empty boxes. Psychiatry
has long sought to define specific types of irrationality, and irrationality in
general. But an inspection of current diagnostic categories shows gross
confounding of behavior, thoughts, feelings, and dispositions. Diagnostic
categories, for the most part, are based on lay and professional folklore,
rather than clearly defined concepts and/or empirical studies.
The idea of context provides another example. Like
irrationality, this idea seems to be another residual category. In the
humanities, at least, it is portrayed as infinite: “Everything is the context
for everything else.” Most usage seems to make this assumption.
In an unpublished paper, I have argued (2004) that
the otherwise puzzling book by Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (1974),
can be read as an attempt to unpack and define the structure of context.
Goffman implied that context is a recursive assembly of premises, of frames
within frames. Although this idea is so complex that it may require
mathematical notation to express it, it is not infinite. Unlike most
qualitative researchers, Goffman doesn’t merely criticize acontextual studies,
but also attempts to provide a definition that would clear the way for
The idea of self-esteem, both in its vernacular and
research usage, seems also to confound cognitive, emotional, dispositional, and
relational dimensions. With David Fearon (2003), I have suggested that a
conceptual definition of self-esteem is needed. We focused on the
cognitive/emotional confound, but is also clear from our analysis of subjects’
discourse about self-esteem scale items that there is also a
Concepts such as alienation, love and self-esteem
involve several potentially orthogonal meanings, such as the individual,
relational, cognitive, and emotional dimensions already mentioned. According to
current understanding, scales are valid only if they measure a single dimension.
To the extent that scales confound independent dimensions, to that extent they
are not valid.
As already indicated, other key concepts, such as
irrationality and context, are residual categories, conceptually empty boxes,
because they encompass the enormously wide variety of different kinds of things
that remain after their polar opposite has been explored in detail. By
comparison, concepts such as alienation, love and self-esteem are much more
orderly, since they seem to involve only several dimensions. Assumptions of
simplicity hide both kinds of enigmas.
Emotional/Relational World in Modern Societies
societies have conquered in the material and intellectual worlds, and even in
outer space. But inner space remains a profound mystery and a secret. Just as
much as the material world and free intelligence were mysteries for traditional
small traditional societies, such as the Maori in New Zealand, the
emotional/relational world (the E/RW) was at least as important as any other
(Metge 1986). Indeed, there were only a few competing worlds. But in modern
societies, there are so many duties, opportunities and distractions that the
E/R W is increasingly dim in Western imagination.
societies focus almost exclusively on individuals and thought, traditional
societies on relationships and feelings. In the Japanese language, the extent
to which it focuses on relationships is suggested by the infrequent use of
personal pronouns and names. Even in the family, relationship terms are used:
older sister, younger brother. In traditional societies, relationships stand
out, individuals are virtually invisible.
psychological status quo in traditional societies emphasizes
relationships/feelings to the point that individuals and intellect lead a
shadow life. Modern societies focus on individuals and thought to the point
that relationships and emotions hardly exist. Traditional societies subordinate
individuals to relationships, and thought to feeling. Modern societies
subordinate relationships to individuals, and emotions to thinking.
types of societies tend toward profound alienation. In Western societies,
individuals are alienated from each other. Mobility and the quest for
achievement make it difficult to connect with others. In traditional societies,
individuals are alienated from self. Loyalty, conformity, and subordination of
intellect to feeling lead individuals to give up vital parts of self, even
creative innovation. The status quo in both types of societies is so taken for
granted as to be invisible to its members, but they nevertheless maintain it in
hiding of the ER/W in Western societies begins with the avoidance and disguise
of feelings. There seem to be three main lines of defense against emotions:
- Ignoring them. Most
discussions in lay language, and in the social and psychological sciences
as well, don’t mention emotions. Objects, behavior, thoughts, beliefs,
attitudes, images, and perception are discussed, but not emotions. This is
by far the most prevalent defense. Until recently the social sciences had
no sections devoted specifically to the study of emotions. Even after such
sections had been established, they remain small enclaves lost in the
almost continual denial of emotions.
- When emotions are
mentioned, as they are beginning to be, the references are usually at so
abstract and general a level as to amount to dismissal. The word emotion
and terms like feeling, emotional arousal or upset, refer to such a
variety of states as to be mere residual categories. Just as the idea of
“the rational man” in legal discourse leads to a dismissal of the vast
domain of irrationality, so the use of residual category emotion terms
dismisses the realm of emotions.
- The final line of
defense is that even words that seemingly refer to specific emotions are
wildly ambiguous and/or mask one emotion with another. The discussion
below outlines some of these usages, with specific reference to
grief/sadness fear/anxiety, anger, pride, shame, embarrassment, and love.
the realm of emotions in the West is beset by an elemental difficulty: the
meaning of words that refer to emotion are so ambiguous that we hardly know
what we are talking about. Virginia Woolf said it succinctly: “The streets of
London have their map; but our passions are uncharted” (Jacob’s Room).
Compared to maps of the material world, and the social science of behavior,
thoughts, attitudes, perception, and beliefs, the realm of emotions is terra
lay and experts disagree on almost everything about emotions. For example,
several studies have pointed out the lack of agreement on which emotions are
basic. Ortony et al (1988, p.27) show no agreement on this issue among twelve
investigators, some leading experts in the field. Even the number of such
emotions, much less the specific emotions, is in contention; the fewest
proposed is two, the most, eleven. There is not a single emotion word that
shows up on all 12 lists. (Plutchick 2003 also shows wide ranging disagreement:
see the table of 16 theorists on p. 73).
disagreement involves emotion words in only one language, English. The
comparison of emotion words in different languages opens up a second level of
chaos. Anthropological and linguistic studies suggest that just as the experts
disagree on the number and names of the basic emotions, so do languages.
Cultural differences in emotion words will be mentioned here, but it is so
large an issue that it will also be taken up in another paper.
supply of emotion words in the West, particularly in English, is relatively
small. Although English has by far the largest total number of words (some
600,000 and still expanding), its emotion lexicon is smaller than other
languages, even small languages like Maori. In addition to having a larger
emotion lexicon than English, its emotion words are relatively unambiguous and
detailed compared to English (Metge 1986).
indicated above, in Western societies, emotions are seldom even mentioned. Or
if mentioned, only abstractly, avoiding specifics. The last stage of defense is
that even when specific emotions are mentioned, usage of these words helps to
confirm the emotional/relational status quo. Some examples.
In this case, ambiguity might seem to amount only to the choice of words. Most
authors use the term grief to refer to the emotion of loss. But there is a very
large literature on attachment in which the authors use the term distress
instead. Since distress sis much
broader than grief, and implies consciousness and behavior more than grief, the choice of the word distress
can have serious consequences.
For reasons that he doesn’t make clear, Silvan Tomkins
(1962) seems to have started the use of the word distress. In the first three
volumes of Affect/Imagery/Consciousness (1962; 1963; 1965; 1992) the
word distress is used frequently, with the word grief occurring only on page 6.
However, In V. 4, there is a sharp change, distress disappears, its place
apparently taken by grief on many pages.
In the first three volumes it is fairly clear what he
means, because he connects distress to loss and crying. In IV, he makes this
connection using only the word grief. What happened? As far as I know, there
has been no published response to this dramatic change in nomenclature.
The original studies of facial expression of emotion
followed Tompkins first usage: neither Ekman and his colleagues nor Izard
refer to grief. However, later works, such as Harre’ and Parrott, refer only to
grief, never to distress. Plutchik (2003) also refers only to grief.
Others use the word sadness, rather than distress or grief.
I have found only one explicit discussion of the
relationship between distress and grief, in Izard (1977). What he proposed,
that grief is an affect of which distress is only one ingredient, seems to me
the exact opposite of the majority understanding: grief is a primary affect.
Sill another direction is followed by V. Volkan, in his
terrific book n collective conflict, Blind Trust(2004). He elides around both
grief and distress, by referring only to failure to mourn. It would seem that
anarchy rules in the naming of the emotion associated with loss and crying.
a mass level, there is widespread misunderstanding in Western societies about
the nature of grief. Even in societies that maintain collective rituals of
mourning, grieving the loss of a close attachment is apt to be lengthy and
consuming. But in Western societies the person in mourning is usually given
little time. After a few weeks, expressions of grief are not encouraged, if not
actively condemned: get a grip, take a pill, see a shrink. In modern societies
it is difficult to tolerate the necessarily long siege of grief and mourning.
The Western conception of grief and crying as a brief response to loss seems
unwarranted and unwise.
This emotion name provides another example of what seems at first to be merely
a matter of choice of terms. The majority of writers use it, but many others
use the word repugnance instead, or even the still softer term, aversion. As
was the case with the word sadness, there may be a slight difference: the
latter two words may imply more consciousness than the word disgust.
In this case, ambiguities are more flagrant. This word has two distinct and
confusing meanings in current usage in English, one positive, the other
negative. The dominant one is negative, as in the Biblical “Pride goeth before the
fall.” This usage confounds the positive meaning, authentic or justified pride,
with arrogance, egotism or self-centeredness. Negative “pride” may even be the
opposite of genuine pride, since it may be a defense against shame. This basic
contradiction creates problems of many kinds. One will be discussed below: the
meaning of self-esteem.
Before Freud, fear meant the emotional signal of physical danger to life or
limb, and anxiety was just a more diffuse kind of fear. But after Freud, the
meaning of these words began to shift. Anxiety became broader, enough to
include many kinds of diffuse emotion, but not as broad as “emotional
arousal.” Current vernacular usage is
so enlarged that fear can be used to mask other emotions, especially shame and
humiliation. “I fear rejection” has nothing to do with danger of bodily harm,
nor does “social fear” or “social anxiety.” These terms refer rather to the
anticipation of shame or humiliation. (When I explain this nicety to my
students, their eyes glaze over.)
Anxiety may be moving toward becoming an abstract, pliable word like
emotion or arousal.
the confusion over the meaning of this word seems to be different than any of
the above problems. It involves confounding the feeling of anger with acting
out anger. We don’t confuse the feeling of fear with running away, the feeling
of shame with hiding one’s face, or the feeling of grief with crying. But anger
is thought to be destructive, even though it is only a feeling.
feeling of anger is only an internal signal, like any other emotion. It is one
of the many pain signals that alert us to the state of the world inside and
around us. In itself, if not acted out, it is instructive, not destructive. The
condemnation of emotions as negative in Western societies is another aspect of
the chaos of emotion words. Normal emotions, at least, are not negative, since
they are brief and instructive.
anger is expressed as a verbal explanation, rather than acted out as screaming
or aggression, it is constructive. It explains to self and other where one is,
how one is frustrated, and why. Both self and other need to know this
information. The confounding of anger expression with acting out can be a seen
as a way of justifying acting out, rather than expressing anger, and the
prevalence of acting out, as in spousal abuse and road rage. “I couldn’t help
In contrast to the pliability of the word love, as discussed below, current
usage of shame in English involves only one meaning, and an extremely narrow
one at that: a crisis feeling of intense disgrace. In this usage, a clear
distinction is made between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment can happen
to anyone, but shame is conceived as horrible. Embarrassment is speakable,
shame is unspeakable. This usage avoids everyday shame such as embarrassment
and modesty, and in this way sweeps most shame episodes under the rug.
languages, even those of modern societies, treat embarrassment as a milder
version of shame. In Spanish, for example, the same word (verguenza) can
be used to mean either. Most languages also have an everyday shame that is
considered to belong to the shame/embarrassment family. For example, the French
pudeur, which can be translated as modesty, or better yet, a sense of
shame, is differentiated from honte, disgrace shame. If you ask an
English speaker is shame distinct from embarrassment, they will answer with an
impassioned yes. But a French speaker might ask “Which kind of shame?”
European language seems to be moving toward the English language model of
denying everyday shame. In contemporary German, since the word for disgrace
shame (schande) is seen as old fashioned, the word for everyday shame (scham)
is being used in its place. This usage is probably making shame less speakable,
as in the English language model. A similar phenomenom may be happening with
pride. The negative version (hochmut) is now seen as old fashioned, so that the
positive version (stolz) is confounding a positive feeling with a negative one.
in current usage, love is so broad as to include almost any kind of positive
feeling, including extremely dysfunctional ones. The title of the best selling Women
Who Love Too Much illustrates this usage. Women who are so pathologically
passive and dependent as to allow their husbands to abuse them and/or their
children explain that they don’t leave because they love their husbands too
much. Love, a positive word, is used to deny a highly negative relationship.
usage also confounds genuine love, which surely means loving someone that we
know, warts and all, with infatuation, which deletes warts and any other
blemishes in favor of an idealized fantasy. Infatuation is often based on
appearance alone. In this way, the word love may be used to hide a failure to
Emotional/Relational Status Quo
of these confusions and limitations help maintain the status quo in the ER/W:
individualism and the subordination of feeling to thought, and outright denial
and suppression of emotion. The broad use of the word love, and the narrow
meaning of the word shame may be central to this end.
to all kinds of slightly positive or even negative relationships with the
positive word love helps disguise the miasma of alienation and disconnection in
modern societies. Similarly, defining shame narrowly, as only disgrace shame,
helps mask disconnection. Since this latter idea is not obvious, it will be
necessary to discuss it further.
that just as fear signals danger of bodily harm, and grief signals loss, shame
signals disconnection. In modern societies, since connecting with others is
infrequent, we can hide that fact. Instead of saying that we were embarrassed,
we say “It was an awkward moment for me.” It was the moment that was awkward
(projection), not me that was embarrassed (denial).
English especially, there is a vast supply of words that can be used as
alternatives to the s-word (Retzinger 1995). She lists more than a hundred
vernacular codewords that may stand for shame, under six headings:
Alienated: rejected, dumped, deserted, etc.
Confused: blank, empty, hollow, etc.
Ridiculous: foolish, silly, funny, etc.
Inadequate: powerless, weak, insecure,
Uncomfortable: restless, tense, anxious,
Hurt: offended, upset, wounded,
The broadening use of fear
and anxiety seems to be another way of disguising shame. To say that one fears
rejection, or to use a term like social anxiety, is to mask the common
occurrence of shame and embarrassment.
can also disguise the shameful pain of rejection by masking it with anger or
withdrawal and silence. Similarly, the negative version of pride can be used to
mask a defense against shame as too much pride. Studies of stigma and of
indignities, even though these words signify shame, seldom take note of the
underlying emotion, concentrating instead on thoughts and behavior.
suggest another instance of the masking of shame with another emotion. The
ritual formula for an apology in the English language is to say that you are
sorry. But the word sorry (grief) serves to mask the more crucial emotion of
shame. ”I’m ashamed of what I did” is a more potent apology than the
conventional “I’m sorry.” (Miller 1996).
process of industrialization and urbanization has been influencing spoken
English longer than any other language, since it began first in England. I
propose that modernization has led to the downplaying of emotions and
relationships in spoken English to a greater degree than in any other language,
in favor of emphasis on thought and individualism. As this process continues,
the emotional/relational world seems to be vanishing from awareness in English
speaking countries, and to a somewhat lesser degree, in other Western
banishment of emotions from discourse and thought in modern societies both
reflects and generates alienation. One way of countering this trend would be to
acknowledge and define emotions, rather than denying them. Rediscovery of the
lost world of emotions and relationships might be a path toward a new
understanding of the enigmas of human conduct and experience.
On the Complexity of Social Relationships
The present paper has, like Goffman’s work, a
deconstructive/reconstructive goal with respect to love and to self-esteem, to
define them conceptually as a first step. Both are vernacular words whose
meanings are ambiguous. They appear to confound, at the least, cognitive and
emotional elements, on the one hand, and dispositional and relational elements,
on the other. This investigation will begin with the latter confound, leading
to an analysis of the meaning of love and other secure bonds.
The issue of the structure of
social bonds has come up in the literature of experimental social psychology.
Leary and Baumeister’s (2000) widely read analysis of what they call “the
sociometer” implies that some self-esteem scale items measure social
relationships rather than dispositions. In order to even begin the search for a
solution of the problem of confounding dispositional and relational dimensions,
a brief discussion of types of social relationships will be necessary.
Like other languages, English
has a large vocabulary for formal relationships: father, wife, nephew, cousin,
stepson, mother-in-law, etc. However, English is impoverished in comparison
with other languages when it comes to discussing the quality of a relationship.
As it evolved from the oldest urban/industrial society, England, emphasizing
mobility rather than place and relationships, English increasingly focused on
attributes of individuals, and gradually dropped most of the attributes of
For this reason it is difficult in English to even
imagine relational dimensions, because most of the attributes we might use are
themselves extremely ambiguous. For example, what does a “loving” relationship
mean, when the word love in English is wildly ambiguous? There are more than
twenty separate definitions in unabridged dictionaries, almost all of which
refer to types of relationships.
The word love is English is a blank check. In order
to give an idea of the complexity of vernacular words, I will pursue the
meaning of love at length. I have tried to deal with this problem by defining
love much more narrowly and stringently than the vernacular, but more broadly
than the main schools of thought about love. Although there is a vast scholarly
literature, most of the entries can be placed in one or the other of three
The Meaning of Love
There are three main schools of thought in current
scholarship. Two of them define love in physical terms: attachment, on the one
hand, and sexual attraction, on the other. There is a large body of literature
on attachment, a mammalian drive shared by humans and social animals. Some
commentary, such as a recent study of “limbic resonance” (Lewis et al 2000)
defines love as entirely defined by physical attachment. Undoubtedly, physical
attachment is an important component of any relationship: do we miss the person
when away, and grieve when they are lost? But it is not the whole story.
There is also a very large
literature on the sex drive. Some commentary sees love, or at least romantic
love, based entirely on sexual attraction (Fisher 1992). Fisher and many others
picture attraction as by far the most important component of romantic love. Of
course, sexual attraction, especially in the early stages of romance, is a
crucial component of romantic love. But once again, there is more to be
A third literature considers love to be a
cognitive/emotional matter. The most sophisticated version of the third
perspective is by the philosopher Robert Solomon. He defines the central
feature of love to be shared identity (Solomon 1981, p.xxx; 1994,
p.235): “ …love [is] shared identity, a redefinition of self which no amount of
sex or fun or time together will add up to….Two people in a society with an
extraordinary sense of individual identity mutually fantasize, verbalize and
act their way into a relationship that can no longer be understood as a mere
conjunction of the two but only as a complex ONE. “
The key idea implied in Solomon’s definition is not
only shared identity but also shared awareness: love is not merely attachment
and/or attraction, but involves knowing the other person well enough to know
some of what they know. Because Western societies impose an intense belief in
self-contained individuals, the idea of shared identity and awareness is a hard
sell, but yet necessary to understand the complexity of love relationships.
One immediate implication is
to rule out most infatuation (“love at first sight”) as genuine love. To love
someone, you need to know them well enough to accurately imagine, at least on
occasion, their thoughts and feelings. And to realize that just as you know
that they know, they also know that you know, etc.
As Solomon also indicates, in
passing, you can be too invested in the identity of another person to love
them. If you lose yourself in the other, then you are engulfed or obsessed with
the other, not in love. Genuine love requires a balance between investment in
one’s own identity and that of the other, no more, but no less. Genuine love
implies both unity, at times, and individual autonomy at other times. This is a
complex idea that has still not been adequately worked out.
This idea is caught in a poem by Marge Piercy, To
Have Without Holding:
to love differently is hard,
It hurts to thwart the reflexes
of grab, of clutch; to love and let
go again and again, as we make and unmake in passionate
diastole and systole the rhythm
of our unbound bonding, to have
and not to hold…
Most of the writing in each of the three main
schools of thought on love has little to say about any the other two schools.
Although the attachment and attraction literatures, since they both are
entirely physical, contain mentions of each other, neither refers to the
cognitive/emotional school, and vice versa. Each school oversimplifies the
meaning of a complex idea by referring to what I consider to be only one
component of love.
My own definition of romantic love requires all
three components (Scheff 2004). Family and other kinds of love is constituted
by two of the three, attachment and attunement (shared identity and awareness).
Romantic loveincludes all three “A’s”: attachment, attraction, and attunement
If one considers the levels of
identification/awareness with the other, and attachment, this table represents
the different types of non-erotic “love”:
Table 1: LOVE and its
Look-alikes (Non-erotic “Love”)
Attunement (shared identity and
Self-focus Balance Other-focus
1. Isolated obsesson
4. Isolated interest
With sexual attraction added,
a similar table would represent romantic love and it’s look-alikes. In each of the
six-fold tables, only one cell represents genuine love: #2 above and in a
similar place in the romance table, #8. Genuine love in both cases requires
attachment and a balanced identification between self and other. This
definition eliminates ten of the 12 types of relationships as “look-alikes”
rather than genuine love.
My definition complicates and limits the meaning of
love in a way that vernacular usage does not, but may be necessary if we are to
study it systematically.
Self-esteem as Trope
Reviews of the vast corpus of studies based on self-esteem scales suggest
that these measures are not valid. At this point, there are probably over fifteen
thousand such studies, using one or another of the two hundred standardized
scales that are available. These scales have been shown to be reliable; that
is, they repeatedly get similar results. But it is not clear what these scales
measure, and therefore what the results signify.
For this vast amount of labor, what have been the results? According to
reviews of the field, they have been trivially small. The average effect size
for predicting behavior over the last forty years has been under 3% of the
variance, and doesn’t seem to be increasing. With 97 per cent of the variance
unaccounted for, the field is treading water. If the instruments are not valid,
then reliability means merely repeating error.
What is the problem? One possibility already mentioned is that the scales
confound cognitive and emotional, and dispositional and relational elements.
With respect to cognition and emotion, they repeat an ambiguity in the meaning
of the English word self-esteem, casting doubt on the validity of the scales.
According to dictionaries, self-esteem has both
cognitive and affective components.
1.Pride in one’s self; self-respect. (American
Heritage Dictionary. 2000)
2.Holding a good opinion of one's self; self-complacency.
(Webster's Revised Unabridged
3.A feeling of pride in yourself [syn: self-pride] 2: the
quality of being worthy of esteem or respect [syn: dignity, self-respect,
self-regard] (Princeton University Wordline. 1997)
Two of the three definitions (1 and 3) offer a
definition in terms of an emotion, pride. Definitions # 1 and 3 also suggest
other synonyms that, if not emotions, are at least mixtures of feelings and
thoughts: respect, regard and esteem. These two definitions stress the
affective components of self-esteem. If we assume that shame is the emotion
opposite to pride, then two of the three definitions suggest that high
self-esteem involves pride proneness, and low self-esteem, shame proneness. In
addition, the scales seem to also confound the actual receiving of respect and
deference from others, a relational dimension, with a dispositional one, independent
of relationships with others.
The implication that the vernacular meaning of
self-esteem has a pride/shame component is supported by an empirical study of
the relationship between self-esteem scores and affect. Using two self-esteem
scales and a scale measuring positive and negative affect, Brown and Marshall
(2001) found that pride and shame were the two emotions having the highest
correlations with self-esteem scores.
But definition # 2 of self-esteem, above, points to
another component: it mentions no emotions or feelings. Instead, it defines
self-esteem cognitively, “holding a good opinion” of self. Note that a second
term, self-complacency, implies a negative inflection, as will be discussed
below. Self-esteem scales appear to emphasize this second, cognitive meaning.
They focus on that part of self-concept, self-evaluation, which is verbally
described and cognitive, rather than affective and social. With a standardized
paper and pencil test, it might be difficult, but not impossible, to get at the
affective component directly, especially if it is hidden.
I have been unable to find a single conceptual definition of self-esteem.
But the confound between self-evaluation and self-feeling discussed here has
come up indirectly. Baumeister et al (1996; 1998) have suggested that a too
high self-esteem, which they equate with egotism, can lead to aggression when
egotism is threatened. But if self-feeling is defined as constituting high
self-esteem, genuine pride, the Baumeister et al paradox wouldn’t arise.
Their discussion ignores the distinctions between genuine pride and false
pride (egotism), and between conscious shame and shame that is outside
awareness. Self-esteem can be defined conceptually as a ratio based on
proneness to genuine pride as against proneness to shame/embarrassment,
everyday emotions that are prevalent in virtually all kinds of encounters and
many states of consciousness (Scheff 2003). Since positive self-evaluation may
be based on egotism and false pride, scales confound egotism, high cognitive
self-evaluation, with high-self esteem (genuine pride).
This problem can be represented in a simple table.
ATTITUDES TOWARD SELF
Existing scales, since they
use vernacular words and don’t distinguish between cognitive and emotional
components, confound self-effacing attitudes and low self-esteem, and egotism
and high self-esteem. This possibility has not been much considered in the vast
literature on self-esteem, probably because everyday pride and shame are hidden
by the vernacular meanings of the words pride and shame in English.
The Rasch (1980) probabilistic model sets very
stringent conditions for establishing standardized scales. The condition that
is particularly relevant is the requirement of uni-dimensionality. He offers a
number of approaches to test for the existence of two or more dimensions in
scale materials. Since 1980, when Rasch published his extended volume on this
problem, a small literature has developed. As of this writing, there is one
book length treatment of the model (Bond and Fox 2001), and 366 references in
PsychInfo with Rasch in their title.
But out of the 6, 336 references with self-esteem in
their title, only two titles include the word Rasch. One (Beres 1981) was a
dissertation on self-esteem; there is no reference in PsychInfo to a subsequent
publication. The other (McRae 1991) appears to be an application of the Rasch
technique in the use of a single self-esteem scale. This application made a
significant difference in the outcome of the study.
There are over two thousand references on PsychInfo
and Sociological Abstracts with alienation in their titles, but none of them
have Rasch in their title. It would appear that attempting uni-dimensionality
in scales is an area that needs much more development.
The Seeman (1975) analysis of
alienation studies suggests the need for Rasch models of the six dimensions he
found. Allowing for emotional/cognitive and dispositional /relational
components for four or five of these dimensions could give rise to a large
number of uni-dimensional scales.
Similarly, for self-esteem,
the Leary and Baumeister study (2000) suggests the need for Rasch models of the
relational and the dispositional dimensions. The Brown/Marshall analysis (2001)
and the study by Scheff and Fearon (2004) suggest the need for Rasch models of
the emotional and the cognitive dimensions. These latter studies might provide
a way out of the dilemma reported by Baumeister and his colleagues (1996;
1998). Presumably only the cognitive scale, in which high self-evaluation
amounts to egotism, would be correlated with aggression. The pride/shame scale would
not. The development of a scale that measures the emotional dimension might
require, at least at first, a qualitative approach, similar to the one used in
the Scheff and Fearon study (2004).
The confounding of independent
variables suggests an answer to the riddle of the low correlation between
self-esteem measures and external variables. To use self-esteem for an example,
high values on a cognitive dimension, self-evaluation, would hide low values on
the emotional dimension. Since egotism is often a cover for low self-feeling,
it would seem fair to guess that the mixing of these two elements would lead to
low correlations with real world behavior.
Several problems that plague
the systematic study of self-esteem have been mentioned. 1. Existing scales surely
confound at least four dimensions: dispositions, social relationships,
cognition and emotion. 2. It has been found that results with existing scales
show a correlation between high self-esteem and aggression. 3. Studies using
self-esteem scales report, on average, a trivially small correlation between
self-esteem and real world behavior.
This paper has suggested that
a step toward solving the first two problems, and hopefully, the third also,
would be to define self-esteem as a purely emotional construct, the ratio
between proneness toward genuine pride in the numerator, and proneness to
shame, whether conscious or not, in the denominator. This definition could
mark the first step for salvaging the concept of self-esteem from the doldrums
that have befallen it.
Conclusion: This essay has
pointed out the ambiguity of several key ideas in social science, and proposed
conceptual definitions two of them, love and self-esteem. It also points to a
general issue: the need for a basic reform in the social sciences. Many
foundational ideas, such as context, alienation, irrationality, love and
self-esteem have not yet been defined in a way more precisely than vernacular
usage. Perhaps the next step needed most in social science is to begin the task
of deciding which concepts are most crucial, and attempting to define them
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