47. A Taxonomy of Emotions: How Do We Begin?
Thomas J. Scheff
Abstract: This paper
proposes the need for a taxonomy (system of classification) of emotions, and a
way we might go about developing one. We need a web of emotion names clearly
defined as concepts, rather than using vernacular words. The first question is:
why? It would seem that the meaning of vernacular emotion names, even in
research, is extraordinarily ambiguous.
The second question: aren’t existing taxonomies adequate? It is clear
that there is no consensus, or even much similarity, between the various
proposals. The third question: if we wish to develop a new taxonomy, how should
we go about it? Most of the paper is devoted to this last topic. The problem is
to devise a way of generating emotion concepts that are closely related to the
actual particulars that the concepts are to represent. This question can be
treated as a part/whole problem, with the concepts being wholes, the empirical
particulars the parts. Studies by Goffman are considered that conceptualize
embarrassment/shame, on the one hand, and attunement (mutual awareness) on the
other. His forte was analyzing many
concrete examples, the parts, before using them to help define a concept, the
whole. In conclusion, several implications of the method proposed here are
1. Why Do We Need A Taxonomy?
there are by now a large number of studies of emotions, almost all of them fail
to define the emotion they are investigating. Existing studies, by and large,
use vernacular words for emotion names. One reason that we need concepts is
that in the English language, particularly, these vernacular words are
For brevity, only a few of the many possible examples will be offered:
pride, love, grief/distress, and shame/embarrassment. In English, unlike most
other languages, the word “pride” can mean either genuine/justified pride, on
the one hand, or arrogance/hubris (“Pride goeth before the fall”), on the
other. Oddly, in English, if the word pride is used without an adjective, as it
usually is, it connotes hubris rather than justified pride.
The word love in English, far more than in any other language, is so
broad and inclusive as to be wildly ambiguous, as Solomon (1981; 1982) has
There are 24 meanings attributed in unabridged dictionaries, so that diverse
feelings are all included: infatuation, lust, and heartbreak, for example. The
broadness of usage allows the inclusion of even highly pathological states
(Women Who Love Too Much).
The meaning of the word shame in English, on the other hand, is so
narrow as to exclude most of the kind of feelings that other languages define
as members of the shame family. In English, shame refers to an intensely
painful emotion of disgrace. But other languages include many more feelings,
such as ordinary embarrassment, modesty, and even the anticipation of shame
(modesty or “sense of shame.”)
There is also a second reason that emotion concepts are needed. Emotion
researchers use a wide variety of emotion names: there are many different names
used for what seems to be the same emotion, each seemingly connoting a subtle
or sometimes a flagrantly different meaning.
One example would be the emotion that is usually called grief in the
clinical literature, that follows from loss of an attachment, or anticipation
of that loss. There very large literatures on attachment and on child
development that use the term distress instead. Distress is much broader
than grief since it connotes physical as well as emotional pain, and implies
consciousness more than grief.
Silvan Tomkins (1962) seems to have started the use of the word
distress rather than grief. 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 one page (V.2, p. 6). However, in Volume 4 (1992), there is
an abrupt change: distress disappears,
its place apparently taken by grief.
In the first three volumes it is fairly clear what Tomkins means by
distress, 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. Volkan (1988, 1997, 2004), one
of the leading theorists of conflict, uses an entirely different nomenclature.
What I would call unresolved grief, a standard diagnostic category in
psychiatry, plays a central role in his work. Yet instead of referring to it,
he uses only the phrase “the failure to mourn.”
I have found only one explicit discussion of the relationship between
distress and grief, in Izard (1977). What he proposed, that distress is the
primary affect of which grief is only one ingredient, seems to me the exact
opposite of the majority understanding: grief is the primary affect. However,
in a recent publication (2004), it is clear that Izard has, like Tomkins,
switched terminology. He doesn’t switch from distress to grief, as Tomkins did
in his 1992 volume, but from distress to sadness. As with Tomkins, there is no
explanation of the change.
There are many other emotions words run amok in studies and discussions
of emotion. The word anxiety, for example, has come to mean almost any diffuse
emotion. The ambiguities of the word fear, and the cover words that are used in
its place, is a smaller but still highly significant domain. If, as it seems
reasonable to believe, that fear should refer only to the instinctive reaction
to physical danger, what could it mean in
“I fear rejection?” In the English language, at least, many, many words
are used to avoid saying the word shame. Perhaps the use of the word fear in
the sentence above is just one of these instances.
There have been several surveys of the occurrence of specific emotions
in populations, but the results are ambiguous. For example, when a subject is
asked about his or her anger events, a detailed definition of anger that is
inclusive of the cognate emotion words the subjects might use is not offered by
the researcher. Without such a definition, however, it is not clear whether the
distribution that results refers to emotions or to the meaning of emotion
words. I have noticed for example, that my students often use the term
“pissed off” rather than angry, and surprisingly, that some of them do not
connect this feeling with anger. These latter students, if asked about their
anger events, might reply that they don’t have them.
Aaron Lazare told me about a similar experience he had in an actual
anger study he did. Apparently he was meeting with a large group of elderly
Jewish women in NYC to investigate their experiences of emotion. When he came
to anger, however, they all denied its occurrence. He tried many cognates (irritated,
annoyed, etc) , but there was silence until he tried “aggravation.” Everyone
responded enthusiastically with raised hands and murmurs of recognition. One
woman cried out: “Oy gewalt! Have we got aggravation!”
In studies in English in which emotions go undefined, there are likely
to be different understandings by researchers, the subject, and readers. We
need concepts of emotions so that these different groups will understand each
other within and between the three groups.
2. What about existing taxonomies? As far as can be seen in
publications, experts disagree on almost everything about classifying emotions.
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 complete disagreement
(see the table of 16 theorists, p. 73.)
This disagreement involves emotion words in only one language, English.
The comparison of emotion words in different languages opens up a second 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 can only be mentioned in passing here; it
is so complex as to require a paper in itself.
There are also several monocultural and crosscultural studies that seek
to classify vernacular emotion words in terms of emotion concepts. These
studies may be premature because we lack a taxonomy of emotion concepts that is
consensual among researchers, and between them and the subjects. A
classification of vernacular emotion words, a second taxonomy, will be needed,
but only after we have organized the first one.
There are by now many studies that compare either emotion words or
still photos of facial expressions in different languages/cultures, finding
mostly similarities. The problem with these studies is that in order to use a
quantitative format, they have focused entirely on the words or still photos
themselves, omitting nonverbal and contextual elements. But the meaning of
emotion words, particularly, is largely dependent on these extra-verbal
components. As already indicated, the phrase “I love you” can mean everything
or nothing, depending on how it is said, and in what context. Leaving out either
nonverbal components (as in Shaver )
or contextual ones (as in the many still photo studies of facial expressions)
may invalidate the findings.
In their study of limbic communication, Lewis et al (2000) make a
similar observation with respect to formulaic approaches to psychotherapy.
Applying their idea to the present topic, comparisons of languages that ignore
nonverbal and/or contextual components of emotion words will find them “like
Reader’s Digests condensed books --- where, by purging the particular, the
stories are strangely identical (p. 184).”
3. How should one begin to develop emotion concepts, which as Lewis et
al suggest, means getting down the particulars? Most of the attempts to
generate taxonomies referred to above not only disagree with each other, but
also seem arbitrary. In the “theoretical” studies, there is no attempt to link
the classifications to particulars, such as data or even examples. They are
theoretical in the sense that they seem to be generated out of thin air.
The few taxonomic studies that are based on data also seem arbitrary,
but in a different sense, as discussed above.
Surveys of the meaning and/or occurrence within a single language group,
and those which are cross-cultural, are acontextual, and fail to sufficiently
explore the meaning that subjects attribute to the emotion names. Similarly,
the many studies that employ still photos have the same limitations.
It may be that there
is a step preliminary to systematic theoretical and empirical investigation.
This step would involve the clearing of tropes, since vernacular emotion words
are all tropes (taken-for-granted metaphors).
The idea of trope
clearing has been proposed by the philosopher Quine (1979):
The neatly worked inner stretches of science are
an open space in the tropical jungle, created by clearing tropes [metaphors]
away” (1979, p. 160. Quoted by Manning 1992, p. 147).
That is to say, it
often happens that before scientific procedures are applicable, an
obstructive metaphor has to be overthrown. A trope is a ruling metaphor that is
taken for granted. The history of the physical sciences is full of examples of
the clearing away of obstructive tropes. Progress in the astronomy of planetary
motion was delayed for over a century because of the trope that the earth was
the center of the universe.
everyone else, took for granted that the planets circled around the earth. In
the l6th century, Brahe, a great scientist and mathematician, had made an
accurate charting of the transit of Venus.
But he could not plot the shape of the orbit because he assumed it was around
the earth. Kepler, who inherited the data after Brahe’s death, was equally
puzzled for many years.
The idea of
logocentric universe was so ingrained that Kepler hit upon the solution only
inadvertently. In his frustration, he devised a geometric model of the
planetary orbits based on solid figures representing polyhedrons. The model was
ridiculous except for one feature; Kepler had inadvertently placed the sun,
rather than the earth, at the center.
began work on relativity as a joke that challenged the trope of the
absoluteness of time and space. Although he had a doctorate in physics,
Einstein knew little mathematics. He had to get help to put his anti-trope into
mathematical form. He was a trope clearer before a scientist.
Parts and Wholes
If we don’t seem to be making much progress with emotion concepts
either by theoretical taxonomies or by systematic empirical studies, what is
left? How can we develop emotion concepts that are closely related to the
reality they are supposed to represent? One way to approach this problem is to
treat it as a part/whole problem: how to relate abstract concepts, the wholes,
to the particulars of actual experience, the parts (Scheff 1997).
This problem came up in an unusual way in an interview with the
novelist Muriel Spark concerning her novel The Bachelors. The novel
describes the lives of bachelors of varying ages and stations in life in London
in remarkable detail. Ms. Spark, a
middle-aged unmarried woman at the time, was asked how she could possibly know
so much about such men. Her answer was “A lifetime of combing lint.” By lint,
Spark seems to be referring to the particulars of the lives of many people that
she had learned out about over her own lifetime. This idea might be as useful
in the early stages of science as it seems to be in the writing of novels. As
William Blake put it, “...
Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.”
In one chapter of Richard Lazarus’s last book (1997), he suggests a new
approach, at least for him, to the study of emotion. His initial discussion, at
least, implies that with respect to emotions, some lint-combing might be in
order. At the beginning of Chapter 8, he proposes that one might derive a
classification of emotions by close study of narratives. He gives one example,
a paragraph describing what seems to be an actual marital quarrel. From this
one narrative, he derives four types of anger: inhibited, righteous, and sullen
anger, and hostility.
However, he provides only one narrative. In the rest of the chapter, he
goes on to derive still another theoretical taxonomy for all the major
emotions, seemingly forgetting his own suggestion about the use of narratives. He
proposes many abstract concepts of emotions, but only one particular, the
narrative about the marital quarrel.
One last problem. Although narratives are much better than thin air,
they are still quite abstract, being verbal descriptions. To get to the real
core of emotions, we will need verbatim recordings of discourse. Such records,
whether audio only, or video, make available for study the verbal and
non-verbal indicators of emotion.
The idea that concepts and theories need to be closely linked to concrete
particulars is the central theme of what is called “grounded theory” as
proposed by Glaser and Strauss (1967). A drawback of their work is that it
isn’t sufficiently explicit about specific steps in this direction. They imply
that ethnographic work is usually a prerequisite to theory formulation, but
without specifying much about the actual methods of getting from parts to
In particular, for the development of a concept, how many parts as
compared to how many wholes? It doesn’t seem likely that there should be
many more wholes than parts, as in Lazarus’s chapter 8. More likely, there
should be many more parts than wholes, as is the case in the research to be
described here: how the concepts of embarrassment/shame and attunement are
generated in Goffman’s work. Using his approach as an example, it may be
possible to be explicit about the steps needed in order to ground concepts and
theories in concrete particulars.
In his Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959),
Goffman seems to be developing, in a round about way, two concepts:
embarrassment/shame, on the one hand, and attunement
(intersubjectivity), on the other. In this particular book, he provides many
concrete examples of both ideas, but no definitions of either concept. However,
in later work, he is clear that he is seeking to define both concepts. In the
chapter on embarrassment in his 1967 book, he actually provides a conceptual
definition, and at least a preliminary operational definition. In still another
work, in 1969, and several other places, he seems to be attempting to define
attunement (intersubjective states that Goffman calls “mutual awareness.”)
Although he casually uses
metaphors (such as “mystic union”) many times to refer to speakers who are
talking to each other, he also offers a fairly elaborate and complex definition
of “being in a state of talk.” Since
his definition requires an entire page of text, I will not repeat it all here.
Suffice it to say that it contains phrases that imply mutual awareness, and
awareness of that awareness: “…An understanding will prevail [among the
speakers] as to how long and how frequently each speaker is to hold the floor…”
(1967, 35; a similar formulation occurs earlier, on p. 34). The definition that
comes closest to explicitly defining attunement also comes in this line:
“…A single focus of thought and attention, and a
single flow of talk, tends to be maintained and to be legitimated as officially
representative of the encounter (Goffman 1967, 34, emphasis added).”
The phrase “a single focus of
thought and attention” implies not only that the speakers are attending to the
same thing, but they are having the same thought about it. Its significance
becomes more apparent if it is compared to a similar phrase, “joint attention”
used by the psychologist Bruner (1983), when he is explaining how an infant
learns to become attuned with its caretaker. The mother, he says, is
only trying to teach a new word. She
places an object (such as a doll) in her own and the baby’s line of gaze,
shakes it to make sure of the baby’s attention, saying “See the pretty DOLLY.”
In this situation, the baby is likely to learn not only the meaning of a word,
but also, since both parties are looking at the same object, how to have,
jointly with the mother “a single focus of thought and attention”, to use
A conceptual definition of intersubjectivity is as far
as Goffman goes in attempting to explicate this idea; he didn’t provide
objective indicators. Perhaps Goffman was uncomfortable about the implications
of flatly stating and following up an idea that is anathema in individualistic
modern societies, that we are all “members one of another.” Although church
members recite this idea every Sunday, most would be loath to take its meaning
literally, as Goffman did.
But with the other interior
strand of Goffman’s work, embarrassment, he was not content to give only a
conceptual definition, but also followed up, offering elements of an
An individual may recognize
extreme embarrassment in others and even in himself by the objective signs of
emotional disturbance: blushing, fumbling, stuttering, an unusually low- or
high-pitched voice, quavering speech or breaking of the voice, sweating,
blanching, blinking, tremor of the hand, hesitating or vacillating movement,
absentmindedness, and malapropisms. As Mark Baldwin remarked about shyness,
there may be "a lowering of the eyes, bowing of the head, putting of hands
behind the back, nervous fingering of the clothing or twisting of the fingers
together, and stammering, with some incoherence of idea as expressed in
speech." There are also symptoms of a subjective kind: constriction of the
diaphragm, a feeling of wobbliness, consciousness of strained and unnatural gestures,
a dazed sensation, dryness of the mouth, and tenseness of the muscles. In cases
of mild discomfiture, these visible and invisible flusterings occur but in
less perceptible form (Goffman 1967, emphasis added).
This definition links an
interior emotion with surface observables.
With uncanny instinct, in the last sentence he hints at the need for
further elaboration of the operational definition: “these visible and invisible
flusterings [that accompany embarrassment], but in less perceptible form.” This
clause seems to point toward the development of more elaborate coding systems
for the vernacular verbal and gestural indicators of shame and embarrassment,
such as the one by Retzinger (1991; 1995).
A weakness in Goffman’s method
is that in some cases he resorts to hypothetical situations. Although they help
the argument along, hypotheticals have many serious drawbacks in science. The
most glaring one is that they always lack the ambient details, the minute,
seemingly irrelevant particulars that often provide the key. Elias’s work on shame, whatever else its
deficiencies (as discussed below), at least used only verbatim material as
Yet Goffman’s attempt at
defining embarrassment is extraordinary in the context of the then contemporary
social science. The few social science theorists who emphasized emotions seldom
defined them, even conceptually.
An example would be Elias’s masterwork, The Civilizing Process (1939).
His proposition that the threshold for shame is advanced in the civilizing
process is the central thread of the entire work. In a later work of Elias’s, The
Germans (1996), shame is again frequently evoked, though not explicitly as
in the earlier study.
Elias offered no definition of
shame in either book, seeming to assume that the reader would understand the
concept of shame in the same way that he did. The absence of any definition of
shame and a systematic way of identifying it is particularly glaring in The
Civilizing Process. This study
entailed an extensive and detailed analysis of verbatim excerpts from advice
and etiquette manuals in five languages over six centuries. The analysis of the
excerpts is completely intuitive, and in most cases, highly inferential. That
is, the word shame is sometimes used in the excerpts that he selected, but much
more frequently it is not.
Elias relied on intuitive and
unexplicated interpretations of what Retzinger (1995) would call cue words, in
context. Even if his interpretations were fairly accurate, which they might be,
he still gave little direction to future research on the subject. Unlike Elias
and most other analysts of emotion, Goffman took at least the initial step
toward overcoming this problem. Like Muriel Spark, he was a lint comber
This paper has proposed that a
new taxonomy of emotion names is needed, and a way that we might go about
generating such a scheme. Perhaps the first step would be the forming of a
group dedicated to creating a new taxonomy, since it would be too much for one
or even two persons to handle. The second step, following Goffman’s example,
would be for each for each of the parties to amass and analyze a large number
of verbatim examples that might involve the particular emotion that each party
is to investigate. As a result of their separate investigations, each party
might contribute a trial emotion concept to the group. Working as a group, each
concept could be located with respect to every other concept, resulting in a
new taxonomy. The next step would be to use the new emotion concepts to
generate a taxonomy of vernacular emotion words, so that we could understand
how emotions are conveyed in ordinary language.
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