‘Late Modern’ Love and the Transformation of Intimacy

Isn’t it nice to be in love? Isn’t the feeling of love wonderful? But wait – are we talking about the enticing, heart-pounding, sexualised passionate form of love, or the steady-as-she goes companionate form of love we feel for friends, families and partners we’ve known a long time? Or are we talking about something else? Should love be overwhelming or considered? Perhaps it depends on our social context.

The experience and structures of love and intimacy in society have changed over time. Love in the Victorian Era involved published etiquette-based rules of courtship, and considerations of many things besides how one simply felt – there was one’s gender, class, finances, and the social respectability that came with marriage and family to keep in mind. Moving into contemporary times, Anthony Giddens describes the ‘transformation of intimacy’ in the later 20th century ‘late modern’ period, which continues today. We have so much more independence now from the constraints of traditional family and gender roles, that we can (and do) seek love and the ‘pure relationship’ in any number of forms. And Eva Illouz argues that this has created a society of commitment shy people – men in particular – and new inequalities in gender and intimacy.

What do you think? Has love changed? Is ‘all fair’ in love and sex these days?

#S327UOW16 #Tut5

How many emotions are there? Is our society building new, complex emotions?

When was the last time you felt something ambiguous? A feeling that you couldn’t name? Was it perhaps a mixture of two, three, or many other more familiar emotions? Are there basic emotions that everyone feels and understands? The evidence seems to suggest that there are at least four to six universal basic emotions, based on Paul Ekman’s analysis of facial expressions across cultures. These have a genetic basis, and are experienced by all humans. The great majority of emotions seem to be more complex amalgams of these basic emotions. Indeed, in 1980, the psychologist Robert Plutchik developed a fascinating ‘colour wheel’ of emotions to depict the various possible combinations and intensities of basic emotions and their resulting ‘complex emotions’.

However, many of the psychological studies into basic and complex emotions do not account for the inherently social way in which emotions are combined and experienced. Norbet Elias’ Civilizing Process, and Michel Foucault’s studies of discipline and punishment (compounded in the construction of Jermeny Bentham’s famous Panopticon as a vehicle for moral reform) are historical examples of how society engenders complex, socially constituted emotions such as shame and guilt to maintain social order and police the boundaries of class and status. Think about how the modern institutions of society – work, family, church, government, market, media, social networks – shape and assemble your emotions in ever more complex forms.

Reflect on your feelings right now. Are they basic or complex? Individual or social?

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Can we change society? Do we have ‘social agency’?

So how do we change things? Our lives and our society? We learnt last week how there are social structures all around us, determining so much of what we do. How can we resist them, or change them? Don’t we have agency? Sure we do. Classic interactionist sociologists such as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, or dramaturgists such as Erving Goffman helped us understand that social life is improvised. We aren’t robots. Our lives aren’t totally determined by the big ‘social structures’ in our lives – gender, class, race etc. We joke, and laugh, and burp, and dance; we start music subcultures or pop-up cafes in old factories, carparks, or online; we cross-dress and come out as gay politicians and church ministers; we run marathons at 60, 70 and 80, or ski with a disability; we successfully manage companies as women and successfully raise children as men, we drop out of the capitalist market and make and swap our own clothes and food;we buy ethical products, and we build amazing tiny houses because the big ones have become too expensive. We improvise and play around every time we interact with others, and this gives us agency. We can change ourselves. We can change others. We can change society.

But it takes time.

Our interactions can free us, but they can also reinforce what is already there. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed that even our improvised habits are structured by society, and form a system of conscious and unconscious prescribed actions he called a habitus. How to say hello, whether to burp, or when to observe the etiquette of sitting at a table or driving a car; we collectively shape, reinforce and build these habitus through repeated interactions with each other. They eventually become the norms and even institutions (or structures) of our society. However, Bourdieu stresses the collectively improvised origins of these structures means that they are always at least a little bit flexible, and they can change over time.

It’s like a river flowing through a desert. A billion water droplets have no choice but to flow through the pre-existing path of the riverbed. However, over time, some of those droplets will spill this way and that, carve out new rivulets and channels, and eventually change the entire path of the river altogether. We can change society, and help each others to change it, a little bit every day – but only a little bit.

And it is important that we think and reflect on what we do. Unlike water, we have the capacity to be aware of where we flow as a human river, and to try and alter the path deliberately, adjusting for the influences and fluctuations in the social structures around us. The British sociologist Anthony Giddens describes this as reflexivity, or taking account of how society affects us in trying to change it (and ourselves), rather than ignoring or disregarding its influence. He is optimistic that this gives us the greatest agency in leading our lives and changing society.

What do you think? How much agency do you have? Can you change yourself? Can you change society?

#S103UOW16 #Tut4

Is mind superior to body and emotion?

We have long conceived of a separation between mind and body in western society, with supremacy of mind over body. This basic idea that reason should dominate is captured in the classic statement by Descartes ‘cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore I am’. However, if your thoughts are affected by your bodily feelings, or even your perceptions of how the society around you sees you, then what are you? What are your thoughts? Are they really separate from your body and your feelings? And do we have a better understanding of the relationship between reason and emotion as a society today? Compare Disney’s take on the role of emotions in human action in 1943 and in 2015 (and note that the producers of the 2015 ‘Inside Out’ film considered including ‘logic’ as an emotion, but later decided to drop it). Which of these depictions makes more sense to you?

#S327UOW16 #Tut2

How do you rate your chances of a good life in this society?

How do you rate your chances of a good life in this society? You might think that you can do anything in life if you work hard enough, and there’s a good chance that you can (you made it to university after all!) However, have you considered how the structures of our society might enable or constrain your chances? Or those of the people around you? Social structures include norms of culture, gender, race, class, ethnicity, age; policies and legal frameworks; and the operation of big, bureaucratic institutions like the government and corporations, and big systems like global political, financial, and technological systems and networks. We call these things structures because they are quite solid (they persist over time), they work in fairly systematic (structured) ways, and because they ‘structure’ our lives. They constrain what we can do, and they shape who we become.

Take a few examples. In Australia, the way that family, care and work life is structured means that full-time working women on average earn 17.9% (or $284 per week) less than similar men, and the way that indigenous health, education, housing and government support are structured mean that even in 2015, non-indigenous people are likely to live ten years longer than indigenous people. Internationally, the way colonial history and modern global finance are structured mean that the richest 1% of people in the world receive 14% of its income, while the poorest 20% receive 1% of its income. This is not just a failure of government policy. Social structures incorporate social, cultural, political and economic aspects that entrench inequalities over time and space.

The recent best-selling ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’ by Thomas Pickety argues that rising inequality both between and within countries is inevitable in modern capitalist society. Labor MP and former Economics Professor Andrew Leigh points out that Australia has certainly seen inequality rising again, after falling in the post-war period, and research released last week by UOW economists shows that inter-generational mobility in Australia is not nearly as good as we thought it was. Inequality and the division between rich and poor seems to be a core structural feature of modern societies and economies – something pointed out by Karl Marx over 150 years ago – and it means that you are likely to prosper more quickly if you are born with resources, and less quickly (or not at all) if you are not.

So how will these social structures affect you? How will they affect others? What can you do as an individual to change them? What can we do together, collectively, to change them? Can we shape the structures of our society to serve us instead of the market, or instead of the entrenched interests of the powers that be?

#S103UOW16 #Tut2