Book Review: Emotion and Culture
Kitayama S. & Markus H. R. (editors) (1994) ‘Emotion and Culture: Empirical Studies of Mutual Influence’, American Psychological Association, Washington DC
This was a book that I picked up for a couple of dollars at the closing-down sale of a bookshop. I had just finished reading Paul Ekman’s ‘Emotions Revealed’ and my interest was primed to learning about a contrary view, which this book certainly is. Its genesis was The International Conference on Emotion and Culture in 1992, and is a collection of articles and papers on how emotion is at least partially cultural rather than the universal biological and physiological responses that Ekman argues.
From the get-go, it is clear that you are reading a psychological text rather than a psychotherapeutic one. There are statistics, tables and charts, and there often seems to be a different terminology than I am used to. There is also no guidance on how you might employ any of this is clinical setting; it is purely a series of articles on the intersection of emotion and culture.
I found the tone of the opening article a little flustered and belligerent. They seem to take exception to Ekman’s wildly successful work in particular and seem determined to set the record straight, as if he was an unruly child running through the street yelling lies. However, it did set out their central thrust; that emotional processes are ‘significantly influenced, sustained or modified by the systems of meanings in which self, others, and other social events or objects are made significant” (p.2). In other words, we can only understand emotions from their cultural context, and that Ekman’s work seems to be deeply embedded in a Western cultural context.
The authors use the emotion of ‘anger’ to illustrate. Anger, in their terms, is an expression of an individual’s reaction to having his or her rights blocked. However, the concept of ‘rights’ is one that is particularly meaningful to Westerners with their focus on the individual and self-differentiation. For those who are not Westerners the authors contend that the concept of ‘rights’ is less important – community and ‘fitting-in’ is more important – so anger does not seem like a basic emotion to non-Westerners. Chapter 4 interestingly compares these two different (and admittedly stereotyped) perspectives on culture in some detail and how this seems to translate into emotions.
Contrasts in emotion
The articles varied in interest to me. I particularly liked Anna Wierzbicka’s ‘Emotion, Language and Cultural Scripts’ (Chapter 5). Wierzbicka, an Australian academic who lectures at ANU and in Poland, contrasts emotions from Australian and Polish points of view. Interestingly, she feels that even the basic categories of emotions that we might be familiar with (happy, angry, sad or disgusted) don’t actually mean the same thing in their closest Polish equivalents. She contends that Australians have a basic belief that our normal state is composure, and that emotions are a departure from this normal state.
In contrast, in Poland, emotionality is the normal state and composure is seen as a somewhat pathological deadened state. She nicely points out how our tendency towards introspection leads Australians to sometimes simplistically conceive of the psychotherapeutic process as an introspective one of trying to work out what you feel, trying to work out why and then wondering what to do so you don’t feel it anymore. In Poland, it’s different; your communications need to be accompanied by emotion; feelings are for conveying. This chapter also has an interesting discussion on the differences between feeling and emotion.
Two of the authors (Markus & Kitayama ‘The Cultural Construction of Self and Emotion: Implications for Social Behaviour’) also directly address Ekman’s claims that because people from all cultures have the same facial expressions in response to emotional situations, then emotions are a universal. He proves this to his satisfaction by posing the faces of people from different cultures in emotional configurations and then noting that this causes the same autonomic changes. Fair enough. However, Markus & Kitayama argue that although the faces might be the same and even the autonomic reactions are the same, the reported subjective feelings are different between cultures – and isn’t this an important part of emotion?
I was also interested in Chapter 7’s examination of the moral dimension of emotions, and how they impel us towards making changes to situations that we find unacceptable, which is this author’s explanation of why there seem to be so many more emotions that we might label as negative than there are positive.
An interesting collection of articles to read in conjunction with Ekman’s book, and I think some of their arguments are persuasive. Certainly, you’ll come away with a different perspective on emotion, one with an emphasis on context. You can buy a second hand copy of this book on Amazon for 10 cents plus postage.
I welcome your comments.
– Tim Hill
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