Comm Tech & Emotional Work

This is a paper presentation given at the International Communication Association Conference, June 23, 2010, by Lynn Schofield Clark for the Philosophy of Communication division’s panel, Erving Goffman Matters. Drop me an email for the full length & citable version.

Erving Goffman, Arlie Hochschild, and the Emotional Work of Family Communication Technologies


Erving Goffman has long been influential within the fields of media and communication studies.  In this paper, I explore some key concepts developed by Goffman’s student Arlie Hochschild, whose work has been influential in the studies of emotions and of the relationships between families, work, and time use.  Reflecting upon empirical data from a large-scale interview-based study of families and media practices, I argue that Hochschild’s concept of emotional work sheds light on a significant lacuna in the current theoretical approaches to family media studies.  I propose several future directions that a consideration of the emotional work of communication technologies opens for further inquiry.


As a friend of mine was getting on a plane, she observed a mother and a teenage son getting into an argument.  After some heated words, the young man whipped out his cell phone and composed a text.  His mother, who was seated by my friend, heard her cell phone beep.  The son had texted his mother: “I am not talking to you for the rest of this trip.”  The mother then quickly typed back, and the son’s phone beeped.  The message she’d written was this: “That’s juvenile and I won’t play this game with you.”

There are many reasons why this exchange is funny.  For media scholars, it is one of the more humorous examples of how family communication is now mediated, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before, by communication technologies.  In this paper, I would like to suggest more seriously, however, that in media studies, we can use analyses of these kinds of exchanges to get insights into the roles that communication media are playing in our everyday lives and our relationships.  And we can rely upon the work of Erving Goffman and one of his students, Arlie Hochschild, to develop a line of inquiry into what I will call the emotional work of communication technologies. What I will argue is that people interact with and about technologies not as a result of the rational choices they make, but because of the emotions they feel.  And not solely as individuals, but as people in relationships.

A number of people in the field of media studies have already paid a great deal of attention to the role of emotions in relation to entertainment media, such asKatrin Doveling, Dolf Zillman, and Singer & Schacter.  We know that people don’t consume media based on what they think is good for them; they consume it because they want to experience emotions.  In short, we know that emotions are the engine that drives the media industries.

But in U.S. media studies at least, we have tended to approach emotions as the province of individuals: people watch horror films because they enjoy feeling scared, or play games because they want to feel triumph and satisfaction.  What we don’t think about is how emotions are the province of social groups.

Within the sociology of emotions and in anthropology, the collective aspects of emotions have been a main focus of research over the course of the past few decades.  Research has explored how emotions are defined differently within different cultures (as anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo first pointed out in her work on the Liongot tribe in the Philippines).  Emotions aren’t fixed and immutable; they are things we learn.  This has been the major area of research for Arlie Hochschild, a student of Goffman’s who looked further into the emotional reasons why people engage in impression management and how this relates to their management of what Goffman termed the “front” and “back” regions. Whereas he was interested in how people seek to avoid embarrassment or how to avoid contradictions between the front and back regions, Hochschild has developed his ideas in relation to a fuller range of emotions, looking at how people’s emotional responses to situations are a part of a repertoire of culturally learned behaviors.

Goffman has enjoyed a resurgence of interest as those studying mediated communication have increasingly looked to interpersonal communication to understand how and why people interact on a one-to-one, a one-to-many, or a many-to-many basis.  This move to what Jensen calls a three step flow in communication challenges our field’s tendency to separate interpersonal and mass communication. And because of this turn to exploring intersections of interpersonal and mass mediated communication, I think that Hochschild’s work can contribute to our own field.

Emotions & Family Media Studies

In the longer version of this paper I offer a brief review of three current strands of research into media, young people, families, and parents.  The first strand is influenced by sociology of childhood and new literacy studies, each of which focuses on young peoples’ experiences – the kind of work that Sonia is doing, as well as work by Mimi Ito and her colleagues.  The second strand is research that’s focused on parental mediation practices, which I’ll discuss in a moment.  And finally, in the vein that forms the most important bridge to what I’ll propose, the third strand offers research into patterns of household uses of media that shape family life, such as Morley and Silverstone’s work on the “moral economy” of the household and on the domestication of technologies, Jane Brown’s and Sonia’s work on teen bedroom culture, Elizabeth Bird and Jane Jorgensen’s work as well as Elaine Lally’s on placement of media in the home, and work on how digital and mobile media are changing the spatial and temporal relations between family members that’s being done by Rich Ling, Barry Wellman, James Katz, Heather Horst, and Danny Miller, among others.

What I’d like to address today is how we might move toward a more fulsome understanding of what’s going on with parents when it comes to media, and I will argue that a focus on emotions that occur in relation to interactions around media use is one way of doing this.

Parental mediation is the area of media studies that has looked at how parents choose to mediate their children’s media use, by either restricting content or use, talking about it, or enjoying media alongside their children. (Amy Nathanson, Michael Eastin, Patti Valkenburg) What this area of research does very well is tell us about the time in young peoples’ lives when they are in need of protection, and when parents, policymakers, and educators are anxious to identify risks and potential harm.  What it doesn’t do is tell us much about what happens when preteens and teens get to the point where they are making more of their own decisions about their experiences with media, and when parents can no longer protect them by shielding them or forbidding them from it.

How parents and teens negotiate that time in life has long been a particular interest of mine.  It’s especially interesting now, given that digital and mobile media intensify two characteristics that have long defined the adolescent years in western cultures: they give more opportunities for freedom and autonomy, and they intensify the lack of separation between adult and child culture that Joshua Meyrowitz first identified in No Sense of Place.  As parents and teens work out the way that digital and mobile media will play a role in their lives both together and separately, they are doing so through differing sets of emotions that relate to the experiences of greater freedom and autonomy: parents feel anxious about how media provide more freedoms and hence more possibilities for risk.  And teens and preteens feel happy about how media provide these things (this is a point Sonia makes in Children and the Internet and in Kids Online). And because parents, and especially mothers, are charged with the tasks of negotiating what Roger Silverstone called the “moral economy of the household” in a dynamic system where the needs of various children and relationships between those children and their parents are constantly changing, parents find themselves in situations where they have to make decisions about media, often decisions that involve or result in conflict.  It’s not that parents don’t act rationally; it’s that their decision-making when it comes to media also involves their emotions. This was brought home to me when I was participating in a workshop on how parents should be dealing with digital media in their homes.

At that workshop were moms of preschoolers, elementary aged kids, and some parents of preteens.  A media literacy expert showed a very lengthy and persuasive presentation about the powerful negative influences of commercially-generated media in a powerpoint that included an important statistic: that the American Pediatric Association recommends that young people should have no more than 2 hours of screen time.  At this point in the presentation, a mom in front of me raised her hand.  She said she agreed that limiting screen time was a good idea.  But, she asked, “then what should they do instead?”  What occurred to me was that what people want to know from us doesn’t really involve the question, “do the commercial media have effects on our children, and how should we mitigate them?”  Parents agree that media have effects, and they know that they are responsible for mitigating those effects; that’s why, when asked about their media regulation practices, parents give what my colleagues and I termed “accounts of the media:” stories, or accounts, about how they regulated media that were always inflected with the knowledge that as parents, they were accountable for how well they were doing at that regulation (Hoover, Clark, & Alters, 2004).

What parents such as the mom in the workshop seem to want to know from us as media scholars is when should they assert authority about the media, and how do they make the calculation that the cost of asserting such authority is worth it?  In other words, the mom might have asked: when should parents force kids to get offline and do something else?  And what are parents supposed to do with kids who resist their efforts or become resentful, sneaky, or manipulative? And moreover, how are parents supposed to oversee the doing of something else when they’ve also got to manage work or domestic duties while they’re supervising the kids?  I’d like to argue that this ongoing calculation is the work of what Arlie Hochschild called emotional work. By emotional work of communication technologies, I mean the tasks of making decisions about media that involve the negotiation of such issues as authority and autonomy, connectedness and individuality, trust and risk – all of which are at stake in relation to interactions with digital and mobile media uses.

Arlie Hocschild on Emotional Work

Hochschild’s work on what she calls the “deep acting” and “surface acting” of emotions is especially relevant to how we might think about the emotional work of communication technologies.  She characterizes “surface acting” as the self-conscious decisionmaking that happens when we feel what she calls “the pinch” between what we actually feel and what we think we should feel.  This is when we consciously choose to act in a certain way that may not reflect our real emotions, but that are appropriate for the given situation.  One single mom my research team interviewed illustrated this type of surface acting when she admitted to us that she felt angry, disappointed, and frustrated that her son, a high school dropout, was home playing games all day while she was at work. But in addition to these frustrations, she also harbored a fear that he’d end up like many of the other men in their impoverished neighborhood: unemployed, or involved in drugs. So, she did emotional work by engaging in surface acting: she feigned interest in his games and offered to enroll him in classes where he could learn computer programming. She did this because she felt that showing him her true feelings were counterproductive, because she wanted to encourage him to figure out on his own that it’d be better for him if he chose to do something with his life rather than playing games all the time.

The “deep acting” that Hochschild discusses contrasts with surface acting.    “Deep acting” involves the kind of acting that seems to people to be spontaneous.  It’s the “natural” response – or it seems natural, although Hochschild’s point is that it’s a response that’s learned through culture and hence is still a way we have learned to act.  Deep acting therefore has connections with how parents want to see themselves as parents, caregivers, individuals, friends, or members of society.  Sometimes, these various roles raise contradictions.  Parents in our interviews didn’t talk about the “deep acting” they did, but it was observable in how they talked about what they chose to do.  And thus deep acting also involved a form of emotional work, a kind of cost/benefit analysis in which parents engaged when it came to digital media, such as: Will I feel more guilt and shame if I have a dirty house, or if I have a kid who’s watching tv by himself all afternoon?  Will I feel happier if I give in to my daughter in order to avoid this conflict over whether or not she can have the cell phone on at dinner, or will I feel happier if I hold my ground on the cell phone because then I can feel like I helped her more in the long run by establishing and maintaining boundaries?

All of the parents involved in my study engaged in “deep acting,” which is another way of saying that they acted out of strong beliefs they hold about parenting that, in turn, generate strong emotions for them.  These emotionally laden beliefs about parenting and authority shaped how they managed conflicts, enforced rules, or encouraged positive uses when it came to digital and mobile media.

But although everyone engaged in deep acting, a number of parents in my study also engaged in “surface acting” when it came to various aspects of communication technologies, attempting to think through how they wanted to act on their emotions when it came to their teens’ and preteens’ digital and mobile media use.  At first I was quite surprised by this self-consciousness.  However, being a self-conscious parent is touted throughout self-help literature for parents:  “think and then respond,” engage in “love and logic.” Notice that this doesn’t assume that people are rational, but rather it assumes that they are guided by emotions and must self-consciously adopt a rational position.

The emotional work of communication technologies: a new research agenda

Several new research projects are starting to address themselves to the emotional work that new media are generating. In her new book, Sherry Turkle notes the phenomenon of being “alone together:” the idea that middle class parents and young people can now find themselves in the same room, but connected to different people and situations because of media.  They also find that their situations are always constantly interruptible. This, Turkle argues, can be a source of disconnect among family members.  It also produces a situation that requires what I’m calling emotional work, and thus generates some worthwhile questions to explore. Are parents more easily interrupted, their attention taken off their kids more than ever before, as Turkle argues?  Or, as historian Stephen Mintz and critic Henry Giroux have argued, are kids more carefully attended to, one might even say under surveillance, more now than ever before?  Or perhaps both are happening at the same time? Another question we might ask from a more applied perspective is: How do parents work to overcome the promises of nirvana that are offered continually as the phone or laptop signals that we’ve just gotten an new email or text message? Do they engage in surface acting? What kind of ‘deep acting’ commitments are strong enough to override this temptation?  As people whose relationships are always potentially mediated and multi-context, parents and young people must figure out new ways to manage the constant possibility of interruption, and several interesting research projects would explore how they do this emotional work.


Goffman argued that bounded interactions between people were where we could best observe the social machinations of society.  I argue here that Hochschild brings this to the realm of everyday life and specifically to the power relations and negotiations with those who are closest to us, those with whom we perform emotional work in order to maintain relationships.

In today’s dynamic context, with the constant potential for interruptibility and for multiple co-present mediated situations, I suggest that as media scholars we need to be considering how people are negotiating their closest relationships in and through media by considering both the surface acting people do in and through media in the name of preserving their relationships, and the ways that the deep acting they do informs the choices they make about media. I have suggested that Hochschild’s attention to micro-situations and our attention to the role of views about media within them can help to correct for the tendency for us to both limit our study of emotions to how individuals respond to media content, and to limit our study of families to the rational intentions of parents of young children.  I believe that it is important to make room for a genuine focus on emotions as they direct our approaches to the oversight of young peoples’ media practices.  But this is just a first step in taking seriously the role of emotions in how we incorporate media into our collective and individual lives. We can come to better understand the conflicting emotional responses different stakeholders have when it comes to the role of media within our families, our societies, and our world.  Studies of the emotional work of communication technologies, therefore, promise to offer us insights not only into how parent/child relationships are mediated, but into how all kinds of relationships are mediated.  Only in this way can we speak to the concerns about media that lie not only in peoples’ minds, but in their hearts, as well.


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