The expressive body: a common ground for the sociology of emotions and health and illness



This paper attempts to explore the relevance of the field of sociology of emotions for the sociology of health and illness. An existential-phenomenological perspective which emphasises subjectivity and the active expressive body is used to bridge the mind-body-society splits that characterise both fields.

The paper briefly reviews some of the current literature in the sociology of emotions that tries to address the role of the body in emotional life and then draws on the works of Buytendijk and others on: 1) the form taken by emotional information and communication, 2) the grounding of the schema that structures feelings in bodily experience. This is followed by an outline of ‘unpleasant’ and ‘pleasant’ emotional‘modes of being’. Such modes of being are physically expressed in neuro-hormonal, muscular skeletal forms and in the manner in which organism and environment exchange matter (eg breathing).

The paper concludes by linking emotional modes of being to social structural features that impinge upon existence. Specifically, these social structural features include a person's social position (status) and the social control activities that accompany social relationships. This final section analyses dramaturgical stress and the social construction of emotional‘false’consciousness.

It is concluded that both the sociology of emotions and health and illness need to incorporate the concept of the living, embodied human subject and recent studies in bio-psycho-social research into their discourses. A focus on the emotionally expressive, embodied subject, who is active in the context of power and social control, can provide a useful approach for studying distressful feelings, society, and health.