Emotion, Thought, and Estrangement: Emotion as a Cultural Category

Essay Excerpt

In this article, I explore the concept of emotion as a master Western cultural category. An examination of the unspoken assumptions embedded in the concept of emotion is important for several reasons. In the first instance, those assumptions guide the investigation of people's lives in social science, including anthropology. Exploration of the cultural schema with which any anthropological observer begins fieldwork provides a methodological key, as translating between two cultural systems requires explication of the relevant meaning systems on both sides of the cultural divide. The cultural meaning system that constitutes the concept of emotion has been invisible because we have assumed that it is possible to identify the essence of emotion, that the emotions are universal, and that they are separable from both their personal and social contexts.

Secondly, to look at the Euroamerican construction of emotion is to unmask the ways in which that schema unconsciously serves as a normative device for judging the mental health of culturally different peoples. Despite an assiduous rejection within anthropology of explicit value judgments in the description of other cultural systems, we necessarily import a variety of Western value orientations towards emotions (as good or bad things to have in particular quantities, shapes, and sizes) whenever we use that concept without alerting the reader to the attitudes toward it that have developed in the West, attitudes that are necessarily invoked in the anthropological audience when the claim is made that "the Xeno people are prone to anger" or that they recognize fewer emotions than do we. [...]

Emotion stands in important and primary contrast relationship to two somewhat contradictory notions; it is opposed, on the one hand, to the positively evaluated process of thought and, on the other, to a negatively evaluated estrangement from the world. To say that someone is "unemotional" is either to claim that that person is calm, rational, and deliberate or that he or she is withdrawn or uninvolved, alienated, or even catatonic. Although each of these two senses of the emotional has played an important role in discourse, the contrast to rationality and thought is currently by far the more dominant and common use of the concept. (Lutz, 288-289)

About the Author

Catherine Lutz is a Professor of Anthropology at Brown University. She focuses on Military, War, and Society; Cars in global perspective; Race and Gender; Democracy; Subjectivity and Power; Photography and Cultural History; Critical Theory; Anthropological methods; sociocultural contexts of science; U.S. twentieth century history and ethnography; Asia-Pacific. 

"I have researched and taught in a number of areas, including militarization and its shaping of social life beyond the battlefield, the car and its place in US culture, cultural understandings of the emotions, popular photography and ideas of race and gender in the U.S., and changes in local democracy with economic restructuring in the last part of the 20th century.

Each of these diverse subjects share relevance to the question of how to better understand power and inequality as they are culturally articulated. For the last 15 years, my research has focused on questions of militaries, war, and society. Through research around military bases in North Carolina, Guam, Okinawa, South Korea, and the Philippines, I have examined the impact of military spending and military practice on communities in political economic and cultural historical perspective. A large collaborative project on the costs of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is ongoing (costsofwar.org). With an interest in the relevance of anthropological research for social change efforts, some of my research has been conducted for service and activist organizations, including the United Nations, Guam's criminal justice system, a domestic violence shelter, Cultural Survival, and the American Friends Service Committee."

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