The Sociology of Emotions: A Feminist Horizon of Symbolic Interactions

The Sociology of Emotions: One of the most prominent works on symbolic interactionism has been the theorization of human emotions. Arlie Russel Hochschild, one of the noted Sociologists in the field of emotions, is in fact considered the founder of a new sub-field in Sociology: the sociology of emotions. Through her books, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feelings and The Second Shift: Working Parents and Revolution at Home, she emphasized the commodification of feelings of women through their everyday experiences and analysis of the same. Hence, unlike theorists like Goffman, Mead, and Blumer who provided a limited view of emotion, Hochschild introduces us to a theory that encompasses a whole range of emotions, including grief, anger, fear, depression, contempt, anguish, guilt, frustration, jealousy, anxiety, embarrassment, shame and so on. She coined the term ’emotional labor’. She says:

“I use the term emotional labour to mean the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labour is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value. I use the synonymous terms of emotion work or emotion management to refer to those same acts done in a private context where they have use-value” (Hochschild, 1983).

Marxian Influence

Hochschild is influenced by two of Marx’s theories – product alienation and labour process alienation. The first inevitably deal with the worker’s loss of ownership or control over the products of their labour and the second emphasizes the removal of the worker’s control over the labour process. Emotional labour is also impacted by Marx’s critique of wage labour or the difference between use-value and exchange value in the commodification of emotions. However, while according to Marx, “alienated labour mortifies the flesh and ruins the mind”, Hochschild identifies emotive dissonance among the cabin crew or flight attendants, whom she studied. Emotive dissonance is when a worker experiences burnout, feel phoney, and is emotionally dead. It is a factored consequence of the worker’s investment of emotional labour in their performance over a prolonged period. They, thus, suffer from emotional malnourishment. As a result of their forced performance, lack of job autonomy, and insufficient exchange value, they engage in offering empty performance.

Feminization of Work and Emotional Labour

Hochschild claimed that jobs calling for emotional labour are characterised by three features, namely, face-to-face and voice-to-voice conversation, production of or triggering an emotional state of a person by the worker with whom they are interacting, and the freedom of the employer to exercise control over the emotional activities of their employees. Most of these jobs required women employees, studied from the position of flight attendants, and their ability to sympathize, trust, and care. Simply put, it reflects the commodification of their emotional intelligence.

The ‘emotional labour bandwagon’, as Bolton says, includes studies of childcare workers, nurses, psychotherapists, school teachers, call centre workers, and so on, who are majorly women. A feminist dimension of emotional labour shows a gendered commodification of emotion in organisations and feminization of certain work. Maintenance and commodification of compassion were studied by James in 1989 and 1992, by focusing on the cancer nurses’ roles.

Hochschild’s concept of ‘emotion work’ refers to the process of managing and expressing emotions in the private spheres of our life, such as in front of our friends and family. Emotional labour, on the other hand, requires the commercialisation of workers’ feelings through the transmutation of their private sphere emotions, the result of which is consumed by the customer through commodified service interaction (Brook, 2009). Brook (2009) claims that this commodification often alienates the frontline workers from their emotional product because of formal ownership and a timed display of their feelings disguised as responsibilities. The aftermath of such an ongoing process has reduced them into ‘crippled actors’ or bodies with the transmutation of feelings that are not allowed to exert a controlling and active force in relationship with the customers and the management.

Also Read: Feminization of Poverty

Choi and Kim (2015) say that when organizations keep pushing their workers to display emotions which aren’t genuinely felt, the workers witness a growing disparity between both, and as a result of it they isolate themselves from their family, friends, and society, in general. Hochschild says that workers are often ‘taken for granted’ with rising expectations of the customers and consumers and the entire process is normalised.

The Managed Heart‘s legacy remains a powerful one and serves as an early example of contemporary anti-capitalistic style critiques and alienation that its workers are subjected to. Her theorization also leaves enough space for further research. With advancing capitalism in every corner of the world, a resilient critique of emotional labour is a necessity.

Other Contributions to Sociology of Emotions

Nancy Chodorow is another feminist who has had important contributions. Her book, The Reproduction of Mothering emphasizes Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and argues that biologically male children tend to disassociate themselves from their mothers with whom they have had their first emotional relationship so that they can develop their masculine characteristics. In doing so, these male children look down on women and consider the feminine as inferior. However, biologically female children, identify with their mother, accept their emotions, and in the process, develop a high relational capacity.

Raphaela Best, while doing ethnographic research on the boys and girls in a grammar school, found many examples to show how children internalise gender roles through interaction. She noticed that girls were most likely to engage in helping and housekeeping chores while boys remained passive recipients of this help. While boys were most likely to argue with teachers and engage in fights, girls were considered to be more disciplined and they openly expressed their emotions through crying, hugging each other, and so on. Supposedly creative boys who would engage in similar helping and household chores were bullied by other boys as they would often call them as “sissies”, “mama’s boy” and so on.

Lillian Rubin, in her study of working-class families, reveals that men deny their feelings and often look down on their wives who are considered to be soft, kid-like, and irrational just because they expressed their emotions openly. Rubin says that the equation of emotions with nonrational and the inability to apprehend the reasons behind such emotions give rise to discontentment between men and women and inevitably makes marriage the most difficult relationship.

The work of Hochschild and other feminist sociologists thus provide us with a vivid picture of both the private sphere as well as public sphere emotions and probable reasons behind them.


  1. Best, R. (1983). We’ve All Got Scars: What Boys and Girls Learn in Elementary School. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.
  2. Brook, P. (2009). The Alienated Heart: Hochschild’s ’emotional labour’ thesis and the anticapitalist politics of alienation. Class and Capital, 98(2), 07-32. doi: 10.1177/030981680909800101
  3. Choi, Y.G. & Kim, K.S. (2015). A Literature Review of Emotional Labor and Emotional Labor Strategies. Universal Journal of Management, 3(7), 283-290. doi: 10.13189/ujm.2015.030704
  4. Chodorow, N. (1978). The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Hochschild, A.R. (1983). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  6. Marx, K. (1963). The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. In T.B. Bottomore’s (translator and editor) Karl Marx: Early Writings, pp. 121-131. New York, United States: McGraw-Hill.
  7. O’Grady, P. (2014). Stop Making Sense: Alienation and Mental Health. Irish Marxist Review, 3(11), 36-47. Retrieved from
  8. Rubin, L.B. (1976). Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family. New York: Basic Books.
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Sukanya is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is a feminist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist and hopes to document the lives of remarkable women so that their stories don’t vanish into anonymity.