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A social relational account of affect

Christian von Scheve – 2017

Sociologists usually conceive of emotions as individual, episodic, and categorical phenomena while emphasizing their social and cultural construction. At the same time, the term emotion refers to a wide range of conceptually and ontologically distinct components and is therefore best thought of as a relatively unspecific umbrella term. This article argues that the routes leading to the social and cultural construction of emotion, for example, norms, rules, values, and discourse, are unlikely to be applicable to each of these components in the same way. This is particularly true for an element of emotion that is often portrayed as being most essential and basic and therefore to some extent avoiding the formative forces of culture and society, namely, affect. Although affect is an established notion in sociology, it has remained conceptually underdeveloped. The article therefore discusses different perspectives on affect from cultural studies that emphasize its relational and bodily character. In a second step, it contrasts and reconciles these views with existing theories of affect in sociology and social psychology and considers a number of essential characteristics that can be used to circumscribe affect and its social and cultural correlates. Finally, concepts from relational sociology are introduced and concrete examples to specify the relational character of affect and to develop an understanding of affect, that is both theoretically fruitful and conducive to empirical research, are discussed.

A social relational account of affect
Appeared in
European Journal of Social Theory, 21(1), 39–59.