At their core, humans are emotional creatures. However, both the biological and social sciences have only recently begun to take emotions seriously, having been constrained by the old Cartesian separation of brain and body, rationality and sensation. Despite the erosion of the sharp distinctions between thinking and feeling and the explosion of interest, disciplinary divides have constrained fruitful dialogue between the, say, neurobiology and sociology. On the one hand, neurobiology tends to focus on affect, or the biological sensations generated by myriad stimuli in the environment, at the expense of considering how the environments we inhabit given meaning to these sensations. On the other hand, sociology emphasizes emotions or the cultural labels we learn through socialization and which direct how we are supposed to express or suppress the sensations we have labeled. Consequently, the former takes for granted the social environment—including macro-level systems that sort people into categories (e.g., race; sex; occupation) with different levels of resources—while the latter rarely imagines emotions as causes of thinking and doing. In that spirit, then, this essay seeks to contribute to the process of bringing them into conversation with each other. As such, I will keep my comments brief, beginning first with a short overview of the sociology of emotions and then a deeper dive into some aspects of affective neuroscience worth consideration by sociologists and, in turn, how sociology might supplement affective neuroscience.

Sociology of Emotions

Emotions have been at the core of sociology since founders like Durkheim, Weber, and Cooley conceptualized them as central to social solidarity, non-instrumental action, and self-regulation, respectively. And while these insights—particularly Durkheim’s (Collins 2004) and Cooley’s (Turner 2007)—have become cornerstones of contemporary sociological theories of emotions, the classics tended to be vague and inconsistent with their conceptual and operational definitions of emotions. By the 1960s, one strand of the sociology of emotions had begun to grow prominent (Abrutyn and Lizardo Forthcoming): emotions as signals that our behavior was violating some implicit or explicit aspects of the social situation. This insight that emotions signal incongruence between our expectations and reality and lead us to actively attempt to produce congruence remains the centerpiece of most experimental social psychological research programs on emotion (Burke 1991). By the late 1970s a second perspective, grounded in the first, but more structural emerged. More generally, the argument rests on the fact that emotions, like behavior, are regulated externally in the structural and cultural rules that both facilitate and constrain how (feeling rules) and why (framing rules) we express or suppress emotions (Hochschild 1979). This argument, however, has also contributed to explaining how emotions, like other potent resources such as power or status, are unevenly distributed and how power or status determine the expressive vocabularies available to actors in and across situations (Kemper 1978). High status or power individuals, for instance, are entitled (and expected) to express anger (at others) in the face of failure, whereas their counterparts are constrained into feeling guilt or shame at their self for failing (Ridgeway 2006).

While exciting advances in understanding and explaining the social dimensions of emotion have appeared, there are limitations to the sociology of emotions. Too often, sociologists reproduce the old and incorrect belief that emotions are distinct from cognition (Damasio 1994). More problematic, a not insignificant set of sociologists see emotions as relative and constructed, rather than biologically-based causes of behavior. Consequently, emotions are usually treated as moderating or dependent variables, rather than independent variables. Complicating matters is the sometimes vague conceptual devices sociologists use, like “emotional energy” or simply “positive/negative” affect, that make measurement inconsistent and imprecise. Affective neuroscience can strengthen these weaknesses.

Affective Neuroscience

Though there are many points of entry, Jaak Panksaap’s (1998) groundbreaking work in affective neuroscience is particularly relevant to sociology and yet remains unfortunately outside of the sociological purview. Panksepp identified seven primary affective systems that appear to be found in all mammals (Davis and Montag 2019). They are primary in the sense that the digestive or endocrine systems are (Davies 2011), and thus in addition to coordinating with cognitive functions, they sometimes control and even command other aspects of our neurobiology. They are primary also in so far as they have distinct structural and chemical properties in the brain (van der Westhuizen and Solms 2015), underscoring the fact that they likely evolved to address recurring existential problems. Panksepp used all capital letters to distinguish them from the specific emotions often associated with them: (1) SEEKING, or the motivation to pursue resources; (2) RAGE, or the motivation to defend those resources; (3) FEAR, or the motivation to avoid pain and destruction; (4) LUST, or the motivation to bond intimately with some others; (5) PANIC/GRIEF, or the motivation to avoid rejection, isolation, and exclusion; (6) CARE, or the motivation to nurture the young; and (7) PLAY, or the motivation to bond with others through vigorous interaction. Though all mammals have these seven systems, given what we know about neurobiology, they are likely supercharged in apes and even more so in humans given the way our neocortex differs from other animals (Davidson 2003; Maryanski and Turner 1992).

By shifting to thinking about affective systems, sociology has much to gain. For one thing, these systems are designed to learn and, therefore, are continuously shaped by environmental input. As such, sociology’s assumption that emotions play roles across all facets of life is not merely confirmed, but rather should elevate the importance of affect as a central force. It’s not that we are automatons, but key elements of the social self like memory (Conway 2005) and empathic role-taking (Tomasello 2019) are predicated on our affectual neuroarchitecture. Second, that four of the affective systems (LUST, CARE, PLAY, and PANIC) are concerned with social bonding lends strong support to Durkheim’s (1912 [1995]) thesis that social structure and culture are constructed through affectual attachments. Moreover, it adds new ways of conceptualizing and, perhaps measuring (Davis and Panksepp 2011), the different affectual ways in which social ties are built. For instance, Turner (2007) has demonstrated that if affectual ties are the foundation of human relationships, and there is only one positive primary emotion (happiness), then the mixture of emotions (e.g., fear + happiness = awe) may have been something natural selection worked on leading to a wider array of bases of social bonds. Panksepp’s work not only lends support to this (relationships can be built on PLAY as much as they can on PANIC/GRIEF), but also adds a wrinkle to the emotion-mixture argument. The recurring activation of one or more systems in a given social relationship likely gives it a unique emotional signature: e.g., we might expect JOY to be different from CARE. As such, there are far more dimensions to social relationships than sociologists often conceive. Finally, another aspect of Durkheimian sociology—namely the fear and pain associated with social rejection and isolation (Abrutyn 2019)—can be more empirically grounded. The same areas of the brain associated with physical pain are linked to social pain (Tchalova and Eisenberger 2015), and thus we are driven to SEEK new relationships and mend old ones. In sum, neurobiology has much to offer sociology—some of which has been leveraged already. Now it is worth revisiting what more sociology might offer neuroscience.


Perhaps the most obvious contribution derives from the fact that our affective systems learn. What do they learn? Sociology provides both theoretical and methodological tools to discern why and how some resources become social objects of SEEKing or RAGE, while others do not. Thus, while groups develop their own cultural styles (Fine 2012), affective systems shape the generic types of things groups do; conversely, the group’s style shapes the way we learn to express or suppress our affect. However, the most important contribution to neuroscience is sociology’s extensive understanding of social organization and stratification. Neurobiology takes for granted the fact that populations are unevenly distributed in time and space, as well as in who can SEEK whom, which classes of people have more resources, and so forth. Our brains are all designed to do the same thing, but we are products of our environments. So, sociology offers hypotheses about why some people, when faced with a lost cherished social relationship, might SEEK a new one while others might withdraw. Likewise, social contexts expose some groups of people to greater risk, which is likely to activate certain systems more than others. And though our brains are plastic, it is a plausible research question to suggest the recurring activation of RAGE or SOCIAL JOY might lead to their inequitable size connectivity much like a violinist’s areas of the motor cortex controlling their right hand (Schwenkreis et al. 2007). The differences in activation are likely to be explained by sociological facts. Some classes of actors experience life-long subordination across social situations, leading to the potential chronic activation of FEAR or RAGE or some cultures or communities may emphasize traditional gender roles, leading to differences in male and female affective system salience. While these are hypotheses, they have clear implications for neuroscientific research.

Moving Forward

What this potential marriage suggests is there are great possibilities for research, particularly around social relationships. Sociological theory offers myriad hypotheses for advancing the types of neurobiological research that balances the brain and the environment, raising exciting new questions. What happens, for instance, when two people with very different biographies and, thereby, different salient affectual systems build a relationship? Do opposites in affect attract? How do they change each other’s brain? In the time of COVID, even more pressing is the question of what happens to our affectual systems and subsequent behavioral and attitudinal responses when subjected to repeated trauma? Can the brain bounce back? My sense here is that sociology has typically ignored the way emotions can control and sometimes – such as in situations that elicit intense panic or grief – command our other functions. Therefore, there is much to gain by thinking about and studying individuals and classes of individuals who have experienced acute or chronic social pain. For neuroscience, sociology offers powerful models elucidating how the distribution of resources from one society to the next shapes myriad things such as our children’s life chances, the types of life chances and opportunities we will likely experience, and the myriad challenges we might face. While our evolved affective systems play generic roles in any given society, these models should provide clues as to how and why they may look different across and within societies, and, therefore, the types of research questions begging to be asked and answered.

Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:

  1. Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
  2. Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
  3. Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
  4. Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
  5. Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn


Abrutyn, Seth. 2019. “Toward a General Theory of Anomie: The Social Psychology of Disintegration.” European Journal of Sociology 60 (1): 109-136.

Abrutyn, Seth, and Omar Lizardo. Forthcoming. “Grief, Care, and Play: Theorizing the Affective Roots of the Social Self.” Advances in Group Processes 37.

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Schwenkreis, P., S. El Tom, P. Ragert, B. Pleger, M. Tegenthoff, and H. R. Dinse. 2007. “Assessment of sensorimotor cortical representation asymmetries and motor skills in violin players.” The European Journal of Neuroscience 26 (11): 3291-3302.

Tchalova, Kristina, and Naomi I. Eisenberger. 2015. “How the Brain Feels the Hurt of Heartbreak: Examining the Neurobiological Overlap Between Social and Physical Pain.” Brain Mapping: An Encyclopedic Reference 3: 15-20.

Tomasello, Michael. 2019. “The Role of Roles in Uniquely Human Cognitions and Sociality.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour DOI: 10.1111/jtsb.12223.

Turner, Jonathan H. 2007. Human Emotions: A Sociological Theory. New York: Routledge.

van der Westhuizen, Donné, and Mark Solms. 2015. “Basic emotional foundations of social dominance in relation to Panksepp’s affective taxonomy.” Neuropsychoanalysis 17 (1): 19-37.

Published On: August 4, 2020

Seth Abrutyn

Seth Abrutyn

Seth Abrutyn is an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. His research interests include sociological theory, mental health and suicide, social psychology and emotions, and evolution. His work can be read in American Sociological Review, Sociological Theory, and the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, among other journals.

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