Working on feelings : discourses of emotion at a crisis hotline

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2001-08

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This dissertation was driven by two primary goals. The first was to explore the therapeutic culture in action, including not only its theories and assumptions but especially its practices. The second was to examine the cultural dimensions of the construct of emotion, thereby addressing a shortcoming of mainstream psychology's research on this construct. To accomplish these goals, I conducted an ethnographic study with a group of dedicated counselors at a crisis hotline, where their assumptions, beliefs, and practices related to emotion were the subject of investigation. Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s conceptualization of discourse, the central questions of my study were the following: What are the discourses of emotion at the crisis hotline, and, How do they structure subjective experience? I observed two discourses of emotion in this setting: the discourse of romantic expressivism and the discourse of emotional self-control. The former, which is linked to the romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, emphasizes the centrality of emotions to human identity and advocates the intense experience and full expression of feeling. Explicitly voiced in multiple contexts at the hotline, this discourse appeared to dominate assumptions and practices related to emotion at the hotline. In contrast, the discourse of emotional selfcontrol, which echoes the Enlightenment belief in the importance of self-restraint and mastery over feelings, was largely tacit. Operating outside the awareness of most counselors, this discourse was nonetheless powerful, constraining almost every verbalization and expression of feeling and exerting continual pressure on emotion practices at the hotline. At the crisis hotline, then, the two discourses were both in effect, competing in some contexts and coalescing in others. The staff members were continually compelled to balance their demands, and to reconcile their sometimes conflicting goals. Immersed in these discourses, the counselors and supervisors were far from neutral. Like healers in every society, the counselors both enacted and offered instruction in culturally specific ways of thinking, speaking, and acting--variously defining, interpreting, authorizing, or invalidating experience according to the imperatives of romantic expressivism and the discourse of emotional self-control.

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