Understanding emotional labour

Submitted by AWL on 28 February, 2021 - 10:06 Author: Eduardo Tovar
Emotional labour

The term “emotional labour” is now widely used in left-wing circles. Indeed, it is often stretched to mean seemingly any emotionally demanding human activity. For example, in the context of student activism, one might hear it used to denote the act of suppressing personal frustration whilst explaining an experienced aspect of oppression to others.

Such use of “emotional labour” extends the concept far beyond what Arlie Russell Hochschild meant when she coined the term in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling , now a classic text in the sociology of emotions.

To be clear, this is not simply a difference between lay and professional uses of the term. Many social scientists have pushed emotional labour’s conceptual boundaries over the decades. Nevertheless, I believe that expanding the notion of emotional labour significantly beyond its original contours risks losing much of what made it analytically useful to begin with.

Specifically, Hochschild used “emotional labour” to denote “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” that is “sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value”. Such labour “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others...and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality”.

In other words, emotional labour frequently involves a certain estrangement from an aspect of one’s self. This recalls Erich Fromm’s remark, in Marx’s Concept of Man , that the salesman might be “even more alienated today than the skilled manual worker” because he is “forced to sell his ‘personality,’ his smile, his opinions in the bargain”.

Hoschchild formulated the concept of emotional labour in the course of her empirical research on workers whose occupations require them to learn and use emotional management techniques. She especially draws on her detailed case study of flight attendants, whose gender ratio at the time was even more disproportionately female than it is today. Many of the book’s most insightful moments are in its examination of (i) the often hidden personal costs of regularly managing one’s emotions for commercial purposes and (ii) the inventive strategies workers employ to cope with these costs:

"Among themselves, flight attendants build up an alternative way of experiencing a smile or the word ‘girl’ – a way that involves anger and joking and mutual support on the job. And in their private lives – driving back home on the freeway, talking quietly with a loved one, sorting it out in the occasional intimacy of a worker-to-worker talk – they separate the company’s meaning of anger from their own meaning, the company rules of feeling from their own. They try to reclaim the managed heart.”

Despite Hochschild’s use of Marxian terminology, her direct inspiration came from the work of the American sociologist C. Wright Mills, especially his 1951 book White Collar: The American Middle Classes. Still, one can understand why the concept of emotional labour is important to Marxist and feminist writers.

Women are overrepresented in service jobs that demand friendliness and deference to customers. In occupations where the self-management of feeling is not part of one’s regular work, women’s additional emotional labour tends to go unremunerated, which partly contributes to the gender pay gap.

In both cases, this is because of the sexist assumption that, as women are just “better at emotions”, it is “natural” for women to perform emotional labour, especially where it involves care or empathy. Far from reflecting an inherent predisposition or skill, the way that women are disproportionately expected to be emotional managers is itself part of the social construction of gender.

In Hochschild’s terminology, the act of regulating one’s emotions in a private setting without a wage and without producing exchange value is “emotion work” rather than “emotional labour”. This can occur in ritualistic situations where the participant is expected to feel a certain way, such as when a bride internally prompts herself to feel happy at her wedding. Emotion work is also commonly performed when trying to maintain relationships, including in the household.

This brings us back to the issue of extending the boundaries of “emotional labour” into what Hochschild instead termed “emotion work”.

Emotional labour justifiably has some conceptual elasticity. Firstly, there are occupations such as fashion modelling where one is often compelled to continue honing job-related emotional management techniques far beyond one’s working hours because one’s employability depends on it.

Secondly, one could argue that, even where there is no direct link between the management of one’s emotions and the production of exchange value, private emotion work is still central to capitalism: it is part of the process that enables the workforce to turn up at work each day to generate profit and should therefore be considered labour. One could conceptualise this in terms of emotion work producing exchange value indirectly or in terms of emotion work reproducing the capital relation.

Thirdly, dependence on one’s partner or family for shelter, finances, etc, creates a strong compulsion to manage one’s emotions in both the household and the workplace. Women are especially likely to experience this. One sees it in cases of male-to-female domestic violence where women make themselves focus on their abusive partner’s “positive side” in order to preserve their relationship and, by extension, their material security.

Nevertheless, the conceptual elasticity of emotional labour should have limits. The more one stretches “emotional labour” to cover any activity involving emotional exertion, the more it obscures the very kind of exploitation, alienation, and dependency under capitalism that the term was supposed to highlight in the first place.

As for the suggestion that all emotion management should be considered labour because it is central to capitalism, this conflates the act of producing the preconditions for value-creation with the act of value-creation itself. Such conflation obscures how, by bringing workers together at the point of production and giving them common material interests, wage-labour in the workplace (including waged emotional labour) produces a collective subject in a way that private emotion work performed in isolation cannot.

Additionally, the conceptual overstretching of emotional labour can easily serve as a cynical excuse for derogations of responsibility in the context of political organising. That is, it makes it easier for activists to refuse to perform an agreed task that they find taxing or unpleasant by hyperbolically claiming it to be “emotional labour”.

In the decades since The Managed Heart ’s publication, we have seen the growth of new jobs in the care sector and the emergence of a “marketised private life” in the space between home and work, where family tasks are increasingly “outsourced” commercially. All this raises pressing questions for us as socialist feminists and labour organisers.

More than ever, emotional labour is a crucial instrument in our conceptual toolkit, but we should always exercise informed judgement as to whether it is the appropriate tool for the job.

• Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California Press 2012)
• For a recent interview with Hochschild on the conceptual stretching of emotional labour, and what she now thinks is and is not emotional labour, see Julie Beck, “The Concept Creep of ‘Emotional Labor’” (The Atlantic, 26 November 2018)

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.