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Emotions and Emergence in Sociology: The Critical-Realist Alternative

“…emotions are in themselves generative mechanisms with special tendencies toward action, inaction, and communication. In their most immediate effects, emotions motivate approaching or avoiding behavior.”

* This is a guest blog post by Dr. Benjamin Lamb-Books. Benjamin is the author of Angry Abolitionists and the Rhetoric of Slavery: Moral Emotions in Social Movements (New York: Palgrave Macmillan). He obtained his PhD from the University of Colorado in 2015. He lives in Boulder with his wife Danielle.

Emotions and Emergence in Sociology: The Critical-Realist Alternative

The subjectivity of emotions has been grounds for their dismissal by social science in the past. Emotions are nothing if not experienced, so how one views the nature of experience matters greatly for this topic as well as how one assumes ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are related. Human emotions exist in a (microsociological) life-world domain of subjectivity and intersubjectivity. They are felt, and without this element of feeling-towards objects, they do not exist. Because of their ontological status as unobservable inner-worlds, positivists have used the label ‘emotivism’ to repudiate them as unreal (along with values, moral beliefs, and anything else based on ‘desires’; Foot 2001; cf. Gorski 2013).

Although subjective in nature, emotion is as real as consciousness or as any other social phenomena that is concept-dependent. Emotions, minds, and social structures are in fact higher-level intentional phenomena that all call for nonreductive analysis. Hence the need for a critical-realist approach to human emotion, drawing upon Bhaskar’s critical naturalism (Bhaskar 1979; cf. Searle 2004) and the revival of Aristotelian hylomorphism in the philosophy of mind (Jaworski 2011, 2016). Recent critical-realist writings by Archer (2000), Sayer (2011), Smith (2011, 2015), and Porpora (2001, 2015) have jumpstarted this project, though tangentially so far. The argument I make here reaches a conclusion diametrically opposed to positivism’s emotivism: emotions are real generative mechanisms with irreducible causal powers and tendencies toward social action, inaction, and communication.

In the American sociology of emotion, interpretivism is the reigning paradigm. Emotions are socially constructed and to be interpreted through the language used to express them. This paradigm works fairly well in enhancing our understanding of people’s understanding of emotion, if that’s what your epistemic aim is. The critical realist would rather know what emotion is, why it exists, and how it works. If interpretivism is the theoretical orthodoxy in the sociology of emotion, then positivism is, ironically, the heterodoxic revolt in this subdisciplinary domain. For example, Kemper (2011) is probably the most unapologetic positivist among sociologists of emotion. His theoretical system presents a bunch of covering laws about the relationship between power-/status- claimsmaking and biophysiological emotional pain or pleasure. As in other positivisms of this sort, constant conjunctions abound without any depth realism, for example, conceptualizing how multiple mechanisms interact in open systems.

What’s wrong with the positivist approach to emotion in making such generalizations and predictions (or even ‘postdictions’)? Critical realism would identify at least three major fallacies:

  1. Empiricism, or a reduction of emotion to observables. In its extreme form, this is evident in reductions of emotion to neurobiology, mislabeling neuro-circuitry or other states of physiological activity as emotional in itself without reference to the experiential dimension of life. It’s a category mistake on par with Ryle’s “ghost in the machine” (Ryle 1949).
  2. Closed-system theorizing. Positivism explains emotion and emotion outcomes through constant conjunctions as if they could be modeled uniformly and regularly in abstraction from how they operate in open systems. This leads to the sort of false universalism and covering-law style of predictive explanation we see in those dreaded long lists of propositions describing some invariant set of relations between emotions, social situations, motivations, behaviors, and/or social structures.
  3. Actualist assumptions: Positivists assume that powers only exist insofar as they are exercised. This occludes recognition of real powers that may have unrealized tendencies in conjunction with multiple mechanisms. Reality is flat for positivists, whereas it is deep and dispositional for critical-realists.

What about interpretivism with its constructivist assumptions? Does the reigning orthodoxy in the sociology of emotion fare any better? Unfortunately not given three additional conceptual problems widely repeated in this immense literature:

  1. Downward conflation (from language and culture structures; see Archer 1995): Interpretivism frequently confuses emotion talk, displays, and labels for the emotional experience. Social constructivism in its extreme forms relies upon a one-level omnipresent causality from above and posits the irreality of lower levels. Poststructuralist theorists especially seem to revel in conflating levels of reality, confusing “affect flows” and “affective economics” with higher levels of social reality. Yes, social relationships are crucial parts of the phenomenological context of emotion. But emotions are not social relationships, nor transpersonal field states, nor ligamental attachments between people, nor forcefields of power and energy. A general rule of thumb would help here: no minds, no emotions.
  2. Unexplained ‘demi-regularities.’ Interpretivism denies any natural stability and coherence to the inner ‘logic of emotions’ across societies and across time. All is culturally contingent in constructivism, despite the obvious error of treating fear, anger, sadness, jealousy, etc., in this way (that is, emotions that possess intrinsic and repeated form and function). Interpretivists are loathe to admit that key findings about the cross-cultural universality of basic emotions are, in fact, fact.
  3. Anti-naturalism. At times interpretivism rejects the scientific investigation of emotion altogether. It cares not what other sciences say about emotion, nor what exists at other levels of ontology other than the social. These interpretivisms devolve into disciplinary policing and symbolic boundaries.

Thus, both positivism and interpretivism fall short when it comes to causal questions about emotion. This is because emotion ontology requires a non-reductive emergentism, as forged by Bhaskar in exploring the possibility of a critical naturalism toward intentional social phenomena (namely, his Synchronic Emergent Powers Materialism [SEPM] in Bhaskar 1979). According to the best philosophers working in this area, emotion exists as a unique kind of intentional state: they are something somewhere in between that of cognitive beliefs/judgments on one hand and perceptual representations on the other (but reducible to neither; Nussbaum 2001; Price 2015). And since psychology is the science of intentional states (the so-called science of mind), emotion ontology inevitably requires some reference to the psychological or microsociological level of reality. No matter how inherently social or relational emotions are, they do not exist without human minds, which in turn depend upon but are not reducible to human nervous systems.

Instead human emotions are emergent phenomena. While emotional experience is always qualitatively thick and messy, emotions also possess emergent form (their repetitive form being easily recognizable in anger, sadness, fear, jealousy, etc.). This means autonomous emotional properties or dynamics exist sui generis at the level of emotion. The basic emotions are remarkably coherent in spite of their situational contingency and source complexity. Specific emotion types like anger or jealously each have their unique emotional form that is instantiated across manifold social situations and with diverse mental contents. It would seem that human emotions have a sui generis emotional form with its own non-derivable shape and dynamics. The most apparent emergent properties of emotions are its experiential dynamics, i.e., the specific qualitative structure emotions seem to possess and put us in. In this respect, emotions are an essential dimension of human life and experience. They are the generative mechanisms of ‘sentience,’ i.e., our consciousness when understood in the broadest sense (see Wendt 2015). Not only are emotions a vital token of our human sentience, but they are orienting capabilities through which the sentience of selves interfaces with nature and the social environment.

As emergent real phenomena, human emotions have three basic ingredients which together merge and transform inputs from biological, psychological, and sociological domains. Each of the three ingredients could be broken down by further functional analysis of human capabilities and structure:

  • Biological organisms with nervous systems: This ingredient refers to the physiological component of emotion. Bodily changes are not only a common constituent of emotion; they can be part intentional object in an emotional experience. The proper role of the body in emotional experience has been an ongoing controversy in the philosophy of emotion, ever since the James-Lange theory made bodily feelings definitional. The best way to understand the prominence of bodily feelings in emotion is through emergence theory: neurobiological processes of (autonomic) physiological arousal are a base-level constituent of emotional experience. Bodily arousal is part of the composition or internal structure of emotional experience. But the organization of bodily feelings comes from the higher-level phenomena of emotion itself (as in SEPM).
  • Sensory information: The human senses and their gathering of multimodal sensory information about the self, social others, and the environment is the second base-level ingredient. Sensory capabilities follow closely from the first ingredient, namely, biological organisms with nervous systems. I include this as a separate component to emphasize the autonomy of sense-perception as an informational system in its own right. Emotions also seem predicted upon the physical and social well-being of the whole biological organism as it struggles through sensory feedback to thrive in a physically and socially treacherous environment. Sensory information about affordances is an important ‘anchoring’ input of emotional composition. This grounding in the real-life vicissitudes of the organism is what gives emotions their ethical value (as affirmed in Sayer 2011).
  • Intentional heuristics: Emotions are intentional in the minimal sense of object-directedness, which can even be fairly involuntary and non-conscious, even though intentionality is a distinguishing mark of human consciousness in general. The object-directed intentionality that goes into emotion is heuristical in the cognitive-psychological sense. The mind uses basic psychological heuristics to construct and evaluate intentional objects (such “System 1”-level cognitive-affective computing being another necessary ingredient of emotion; see Kahneman 2011). Some set of heuristics is used in the affective processing of sensory information: information inputs are scanned heuristically to see if there is a match with something pre-programmed or learned to be emotionally significant. But such affective processing of information inputs per se is the higher-level process dictating the internal relations between emotion’s ingredients (we could think of emotion’s synchronic emergence as the ‘affective computing’ capabilities of the mind, which organizes these three ingredients into the intelligible structure of emotional forms).

Given this complexity, the marvel is that many emotions have the coherence they do as well as their seamless, unitary qualities of experience. Hence the likelihood that we are dealing with true emergent phenomena, requiring a nonreductive yet naturalistic account of its higher-level functional organization (such a functional analysis having close affinities with Aristotelian hylomorphism, but I cannot go into that here). Emotion capabilities seem very closely integrated with the organic and heuristical structure of human beings and human minds. Further, emotion capabilities are very closely related to human sensory capacities and human conscious intentionality. Some minimum of mind and perception are always present in the synchronic emergence of specific emotional experiences. From a hylomorphic point of view, nothing about this tight functional integration of organismic components is unexpected (see Jaworski 2016).

From here, it is a small step to analyze the causal powers emotions have by virtue of their functional organization (qua emergent structure). By referring to emotions as ‘causal powers,’ I mean that emotions are in themselves generative mechanisms with special tendencies toward action, inaction, and communication. In their most immediate effects, emotions motivate approaching or avoiding behavior. Objects are valenced positively or negatively through the heuristics used by our affective computers. Resultant emotions can operate as situational dispositions to both action and inaction. For example, among social psychologist, anger is known as a prepping emotion: it exaggerates feelings of potency so as to motivate corrective action (or ‘payback’ but not necessarily in violent forms). Anger thus has approach tendencies toward negatively-valenced objects (see Lamb-Books 2016). Fear and anxiety, in contrast, have avoidance tendencies: they discourage confrontational action and are more likely to motivate exit behaviors away from such negatively-valenced objects. Approach/avoid (in)actions can thus be motivated by basic emotion, and this is one way in which the causal power of emotions is actualized. Of course, such emotional tendencies to action are not necessary realized given their operation in open-systems full of potentially counter-acting higher-level mechanisms.

A second major causal power of human emotions is communicative. As stated above, emotions have physiological constituents, including sympathetic arousal, posture, voice, and facial expressions. These physiological components serve as a subliminal ‘semiotic’ of emotional experience. Emotions signify mental states and likely behavior by marking the body with changes. Indeed, for many people in dialogue, these communicative properties of emotion are easily processed without any intention or awareness, both on the sending and receiving ends of interaction. Emotional communication is bodily communication: it does not need the medium of language to propagate its messages. However, human behavior is complex: open systems and higher-level mechanisms can variously amplify, impede, or neutralize these communicative tendencies and powers of emotion.

Both ‘downward’ and ‘upward’ causation are emergent properties of emotion. Action, inaction, and communication are the most important and most immediate causal powers of human emotion—powers made possible by the organic, compositional structure of our emotions.  Emotions are especially interesting to sociological theory because of their upward causation, that is, their potential influence upon and interactions with higher-level macrosociological processes (e.g., in Lamb-Books 2016, affect plays a crucial role in the causal sequence of the abolition of American slavery). Emotions may be important motivationally in morphogenetic processes of the diachronic emergence of social structure (Archer 1995). At least this is what we should expect from reading the work of Collins (2004) and others on the determinative role of emotional energy in the organization and stratification of power- and status- rituals. Emotional energy however clearly plays a much less important role in morphostasis, or the enduring reproduction of emergent social structures (in which material artefacts are pivotal; Gorski 2016). These are just several of the future directions opened up in the sociology of emotion by a critical-realist critique.


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