Data Type: Journal Article

Talking feelings: The collaborative construction of emotion and in talk between close relational partners

Staske, S. A. (1996). Talking feelings: The collaborative construction of emotion and in talk between close relational partners. Symbolic Interaction, 19(2), 111-135.

Staske notes that the social constructionist literature on emotions fails to discuss the nature of close human relationships. In order to rectify this gap, her article concerns the emotional discourses between individuals in close relationships. Staske is particularly interested in learning the mechanisms by which the construction of emotions occurs between two partners.

This study utilized “44 half-hour videotaped and transcribed conversations of participants discussing an emotionally influential issue” (111). Subjects were students from a Midwestern university who solicited the participation of a person with whom they were in a close relationship with (e.g. a same-sex friend, an opposite-sex friend, or a romantic partner). At the beginning of the study, subjects were asked to rate a series of four issues on a five point scales based upon how “emotionally influential” they were to their relationship. The partners in the relationship then were asked to talk about the area that they jointly found most influential, a conversation that was videotaped and subsequently transcribed. Analysis consisted of a primary screening of the videos in order to determine which emotions were referenced during the conversations, and three forms of “instantiating emotions” were developed from this process. Those forms were: “employing emotion terms, emotion metaphors or metonymies (behavioral or physiological reactions associated with a particular emotional state which are used to represent that emotion; e.g., ‘her face got all red’ may refer to anger or embarrassment), and emotion narratives” (115-116). The videos were then viewed a second time and sorted based on type. Frequencies were calculated for each type of instantiation. Finally, the “instantiations” within each respective form/category were “analyzed in terms of their placement within the global organizational structure of the conversation as a whole (i.e., how the reference fit into the major topics and activities of the on-going interaction), the local organizational structure of the instantiation itself, and the interactional consequences of placing emotion in the conversation at that point” (116). Staske’s main finding is that emotional experiences are constructed between the partners by “downgrading and upgrading emotional expressions” (i.e. having one’s partner either respond to an emotional “instantiation” more or less extremely), and by “developing characteristics of the situation seen to have produced the emotion so as to justify it” (i.e. offering a reason for one’s emotional reaction) (111).

This study is relevant to the study of symbolic interactionism because it suggests that (emotional) meaning making can occur between partners in a close relationship. However, this may also have implications for the sociology of mental health; not only does the study suggest that emotions are important, it suggests that it would be extremely difficult to understand the emotions between close relational partners may without seeing both individuals together; for, the creation of emotion is an interactive process carefully negotiated between two actors. This may have important implications for psychotherapy, as well, in that it suggests that one working out emotional issues with a partner ought to bring in said partner in order for a therapist to understand the nuances of emotional meaning making which occurs between the client and her partner.

Categories: Social Construction, Symbolic Interaction
Publication Date: 1996