Friday, 6 March 2015

What are a team of sociologists doing investigating emotions?

I am Andrea Stöckl, the co-investigator in the research team, and my area of interest is how emotions shape, form, and sometimes rule our lives.  This will be a key theme in our research.

Emotions not only shape our private lives, but they also inform policy makers, politicians, health care workers, and indeed personal assistants and disabled people. We usually think of research on emotions as being part of psychology and we tend to locate emotions in the individual.  We think that a person feels love or hate or anger towards another and this is certainly true. But while a psychologist would study how these emotions develop in a person, sociologists look at what these emotions do to people: how they bring people together, how they bring people apart, how they inform politics and shape the institutions we live in. Emotions makes us what we are as human beings: without them, we would not be able to survive as babies, we would not grow into adulthood, and we certainly would not know how to relate to each other in households and workplaces, build a society and a working democracy.

We sociologists also interested in how emotions develop between individuals and groups in a specific time and place. This means that even though we consider emotions to be universal, we think that, for instance, people have expressed love differently in bygone historical times. Another interesting example  is anger: how do we publicly allow for the expression of anger? Do women and men feel anger differently? Do they express anger differently? Is it true that men are allowed to express their anger whereas women can only be passive-aggressive? Can we understand anger better if we see it as an act to restore a violated sense of dignity rather than an inbuilt character trait of a person?

Similarly, sociologists tend to argue that to understand the feeling of shame and embarrassment, we need to look at who does the shaming, and who is shamed, not at how shame feels, which is what a psychologist might ask.  Where are the boundaries?   What is the role of shame in the relationship between two people?

In this project we will be exploring how different emotions play out in the personal assistance relationship: emotions like affection, pride, respect, dignity, resentment, anger.   How do people express those emotions?  How do people keep those emotions hidden?  How do they help personal assistance go well, or go wrong?

While emotions are very important in this project, they are only one aspect of the personal assistance relationship.  We are also studying ethics and power: questions about who is in charge, and what obligations people feel, and what the formal and informal rules are within the relationship.   We’ll write more about that in a future post.