December 31, 2018

Emotional Intelligence and Sociology

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

There is a secret piece of your college education that I think we could talk more about. Despite its importance, I am only now I am realizing that it’s perhaps one of the most important skill sets you need to develop as an undergraduate. It is tucked into the classes and the general requirements, hidden between the lines. It’s called emotional intelligence, and I think it can be a profoundly sociological—not just psychological—phenomenon.

Psychologists have some disagreement on the term—including whether it is a useful one at all—but most see emotional intelligence as, roughly, the ability to monitor and regulate one’s own interior emotional states, and to assess and empathetically interact with other people’s emotional well-being. (Thank you, Psychology Today.)

As sociologists, I suspect we mistakenly cede some of this ground to psychology. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of emotional intelligence in a sociology class, and yet, perhaps sociology can bring something to the table. (A Google search for “the sociology of emotional intelligence” produced zero hits.)

Granted, the first part of the above definition of emotional intelligence is largely an internal one: being able to assess one’s own emotional health. While sociology certainly has theories on the self, let’s focus on the second part: the ability to assess and empathetically interact with the emotional states of others. How do we develop an understanding other another’s complex emotions? This is in the realm of what we learn in sociology. There is an interpretive, “looking glass,” aspect to it: I see myself how I think you see me.

First, empathetic understanding has been a part of the sociological project at least since Max Weber. He believed that sociology should be based on verstehen: the interpretive and empathetic understanding of others to better comprehend the social action. (Weber’s verstehende soziologie was more about establishing sociology as a science than about how sociological can be a powerful tool in everyday life, as I am suggesting here, however.)

And second, sociologists certainly study emotions. As Peggy A. Thoits wrote in 1989, the sociological approach is that they are “cultural delineated types of feelings or affects” (p. 318) that are different from more ephemeral moods and more physical feelings. More recently, sociologists have focused on emotional labor, and this is largely where emotional intelligence sits within our discipline. This makes sense. (We love to write about things in terms of work and labor. Emotion as a sociological concept finds great purchase through the lens of how it affects the workplace and organizational well-being!)

In a pivotal book, The Managed Heart, Arlie Hochschild (you might know her from her concept, The Second Shift) finds that a large part of service work is managing emotions—one’s own and the emotions of others—and that concept should be better conceptualized as a part of labor. In a brilliant move, Hochschild examines Delta Airlines flight attendants. (You’ll never fly on a plane and not think of this idea after reading this book!) Jim Jasper examines how emotions play a role in social movements—emotions “push” ideas, identities, and interests, and Randall Collins examines how our “emotional energy” is directed and amplified through interactional rituals (or “patterned social encounters”).

But that’s just a small sample of the research on emotions. I hope for something else: a sociological practice of emotions. My hope is that some of what we learned in our Intro to Sociology class will assist in augmenting your sociological-emotional intelligence.

You likely started the semester with the definition of the sociological imagination as a framing concept: for you to be able to connect your own lives with the larger social forces at work. Somewhat inadvertently, in the interest of sparking some engagement in the topics of the course, this entreaty to learn could underscore a rather egocentric instinct. I want to make sure that we end the semester underscoring an other-directed view. That the sociological imagination is not only a tool for self-discovery, but one also gives insight into the lives of others: your capacity to understand other people’s experiences, to build greater empathy.

Think of the concepts you learned in your introduction to sociology course. For example: Racial discrimination in housing shaping educational outcomes. How sexuality and gender are socially constructed and performed by everyone. How socioeconomic inequalities are shaped long before we make even our earliest independent decisions. How neighborhoods and zip codes can shape our destinies. How the idea of intersectionality should get you to think about how a whole battery of oppressions and challenges—the ones you know and those that you do not—shape a person’s life.

Through these concepts, you now have the ability to interpret the actions of others and, therefore, gain greater emotional intelligence. All those concepts will give you language for your empathetic understanding of any boss, colleague or co-worker, customer, subordinate; any passersby you casually know, strangers you’ve never met, friends you seek to hold dear, and whomever you wish to love in your long and hopefully wondrous lives.

I’m learning this a little late in the game as a professor, but I realize that this is a huge part of my job. Undergraduate students don’t know much about the work of their professors. The vast majority of students only see us for a few hours a week and, after that, I joke, students can only assume that we go back into our offices and power down until the next lecture. (The evocation that we are robotic is, indeed, to hint that we are somewhat emotionless!) Some students know we do research. At this stage in my career I’m doing much less teaching and research than I thought I’d be doing. Instead, I am going to a lot of meetings. Meetings with colleagues, grad students, undergraduate students, people in university administration. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just different.

But even when I am working with students who struggle with an assignment, who feel that they are drowning in coursework and awash in anxiety, I struggle myself, as I try to dig into that reserve of emotional intelligence with each interaction. I try, and I am often unsuccessful. Over and over I keep thinking one thing: What I was trained to do as a sociologist has very little to do with the kind of work that I’m doing now. I don’t read Bourdieu much lately, and I don’t obsess over research methods like I did in graduate school. I’m doing a lot of talking and listening.

I don’t think that I’m incredibly good at it, but I’m not bad (for a sociologist). I’ve been thinking that I want to teach a class on the sociology of emotional intelligence. I am starting to realize that being a sociologist has provided me with some conceptual tools that help with my empathetic understanding. I hope that you got them out of your Intro to Sociology class too.

Think of the kinds of careers that undergraduate sociologists go into: social work, criminal justice, education and educational administration, medicine and health care, public policy and non-profit work, business, human resources, marketing. In each case, what we can see as a sociological-emotional intelligence will play an important role. Even if you’re not going to be a sociologist—and there’s nothing wrong with that—I think that sociology can help anyone on this count.

Could it be that the critical secret to being successful at any career—not just your job but really interactions with other humans—is to think about emotional intelligence through this sociological lens? I don’t know. But what I do know is that the job you think you’re going to have out of college will likely last only a few years, or might not be there for you at all. You might move from place to place to find your career or community in this world. With every transition, your skills and motivations might change. Your sociological-emotional intelligence is something in your toolkit that could serve you everywhere you go.


Keep it up Jonathan from where you are now, you could find the sense and purpose of who you are and in what you are doing.

Inspirational,Great topic.

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